The archbishop and the imam make an impressive double act, picking up each other's cues, and batting topics back and forth between them. The Central African Republic's (CAR) two most prominent religious leaders arrived in London this week to raise awareness of the catastrophic events in their country and to rally support for a more active international engagement in the crisis.
The two men, Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga and Imam Omar Kabine Layama, are old friends. Since the crisis began in December 2012, they have been working together to create an inter-faith “platform”, with the help of a protestant pastor who was unable to join them on their current trip.
Given that the CAR hostilities have been characterized as a conflict between Muslims and Christians, it might seem odd that the men are working together, but they brush away such notions. In fact, Nzapalainga, a Roman Catholic, does not even accept that the militia now driving their Muslim neighbours out of Bangui are Christian in any meaningful sense.
“Their reasons for fighting [are] not religious,” he said at a meeting organized by Chatham House, referring to the anti-balaka militia forces, whose name roughly translates to “machete-proof”.
“They are not fighting for the cross or the church or the bible. And if you look at them, you'll see that what they are wearing are amulets - pagan charms - which they thought would make them invulnerable to bullets. Unfortunately the events of December 5th showed us otherwise. Four or five hundred were killed by the Seleka*. These young people were just cannon-fodder,” the archbishop said.
The anti-balaka are fighting against members of the officially disbanded, though still active, Seleka, a mainly Muslim rebel group that overthrew president Francois Bozizé in March 2013. Scores were killed when clashes between the groups erupted in the capital, Bangui, on 5 December 2013.
Understanding the causes of the crisis
Nzapalainga said that he understood how the anti-balaka movement emerged in reaction to what was happening in the country, but that to understand was not to condone.
“Whole villages had been burned, the people killed and scattered. And the time came when people said enough was enough... Because the others had killed, they wanted to kill, too. If there had been an effective state and it had stopped the killings, it could have prevented the violence, but the state was powerless to respond. So they took the law into their own hands. But we know the results of mob justice, and we don't want to go down that path,” he said.
Explaining why the anti-balaka came to target their Muslim neighbours, the archbishop said that when the Seleka started their rebellion in the northeast in late 2012, they recruited mercenaries from Sudan and Chad. These men did not speak French or Sango, CAR’s national languages, only Arabic, so they relied on local Arabic-speaking communities for support and they shared their booty with them. These local Muslims came to be seen as complicit in what the Seleka fighters were doing.
Imam Layama agreed, and emphasized that at the root of the conflict was greed for CAR’s natural resources. “Our riches have attracted greed. Politicians use this wealth to get into power, so there are lots of mercenaries in the country, occupying the mining areas. And because there is no state, smuggling is going on with complete impunity. If security is not restored, the country will be stripped bare.”
Politics, he added, was also part of the toxic mix. “The anti-balaka may have started as self-defence groups, but they now have in their ranks thousands of members of the presidential guard from the former regime [of Francois Bozize], who are trying to get back to power. Before the election for this new president [Catherine Samba-Panza, voted into power last week by a transitional council], we saw them put up big signs saying 'No to the Transitional Council'. They wanted to go back to the old constitution. And the Seleka, too, can't accept defeat, and they are now falling back and regrouping up in the north. So there's a lot of politics behind the crisis.”
Much of these politics date back to the early 20th century, when French colonial authorities concentrated their administrative energies on Bangui and relegated the northeast to an “autonomous district”, according to Louisa Lombard, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley.
“As a result, everything that is ‘state’ and ‘nation’ in the CAR grows out of the French-Christian enterprise centred on the capital,” Lombard wrote on the African Arguments website.
“Members of the rebel groups that emerged in northeastern CAR between 2006 and 2009 and eventually became part of Seleka took up arms not so much to replace the government as to force it to distribute more largess to them. Among their grievances: the largest town in northeastern-most Vakaga Prefecture, Sikkikede, had not seen a government official in nearly a decade. People in the Northeast are in a bind: not Central African enough for the CAR, but not foreign enough to count as citizens of other countries, either,” wrote Lombard.
Pressing for peace
Now, the archbishop and the imam are trying to bring the divided communities back together. They are appealing for funds to create inter-faith schools, where young people will grow up together, inter-faith hospitals that will treat everyone regardless of their origins, and a radio station that will preach peace, with a transmitter than can broadcast to whole country, not just the areas around Bangui.
They are also pushing for agricultural support to prevent a major food crisis.
“There's also the problem that the farmers haven't been able to plant for the past two years,” said Layama. “So there's no seed left in the country. Everything got burned. You can't just keep giving people food aid, and in any case it's never going to be enough. We want NGOs and other partners to give the people seed so that they can provide for themselves.”
But all these plans depend on the restoration of peace and a functioning administration. The African peacekeepers in CAR are currently overstretched and under-resourced.
For Nzapalainga, the only satisfactory solution is a UN force. “We don't want this just to be seen as an African problem,” he said. “In view of the scale of destruction, we want every country to help. We are part of the family of nations, so when something this serious is going on in our country, other people, too, need to stand up and say no to this kind of barbarity.”
He added: “And the other thing is that we are not just asking the UN for troops; we also want administrative and political help. All that needs to be part of any UN mandate.”
Layama agreed: “The Central African Republic is huge, and our borders with Chad, Sudan and the [Democratic Republic of] Congo are completely porous. The CAR is a powder keg, and only the UN can cope with the scale of the conflict. They would have to deal with the drug smuggling, and the arms smuggling that's going on. That's the only way we are going to get a lasting solution.”
*Since the Seleka forces’ official dissolution in September 2013, these fighters have more commonly been referred to as the “ex-Seleka”, although the group’s constituent forces remain key players.