BANGUI, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC—The threat of the Central African Republic becoming the latest battleground for religious radicals is increasing as the country remains divided and the security situation precarious.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Toronto Star, the country’s top United Nations representative warned that the conflict will spill beyond its borders if the country’s Muslim and Christian populations do not reconcile and civilians remain fearful of returning home.
Al Qaeda-linked groups in nearby Mali and Nigeria are citing the plight of CAR’s Muslim population with increasing frequency and are encouraging attacks against France, which sent troops here in December after fighting left 1,000 dead in just two days.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) accuses the French of launching a “crusade against Islam,” and a leader with the Nigerian-based Boko Haram has reportedly vowed to avenge the deaths of the country’s Muslims.
The Central African Republic is even cited by fighters purportedly in Syria — including one bizarre, but slickly produced 18-minute video by German ex-rapper “Deso Dogg,” who calls for jihad.
Such hostile statements are being followed “very, very carefully,” said Lt. Gen. (retired) Babacar Gaye, the UN’s highest-ranking official in Bangui and special adviser to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
“I hope that we will be in a position to expedite whatever should be done in terms of reconciliation in terms of the communities. I think this is the best way to delay . . . any actions of these terrorist groups,” he said. “Not only will they not have reasons to come, there will be no grievances that may serve the justification.”
But CAR remains dangerously split — with Muslim residents occupying only two neighbourhoods in the capital Bangui, and the rest seeking refuge in the north or neighbouring countries.
The country was once mercilessly ruled by a mainly Muslim militia known as the Seleka, which included fighters from Chad and Sudan. Vigilante squads known as anti-balaka, which drew members from the majority Christian population, clashed with the Seleka, prompting the French and African Union forces to intervene. Seleka-backed President Michel Djotodia was pushed from power in January and Catherine Samba-Panza, Bangui’s former mayor, was appointed interim president.
The roots of this conflict, which has killed thousands and threatens to permanently divide this small landlocked country, are complicated and not about religion. The Seleka did not call for a state governed by Islamic law, nor did they espouse the ideology favoured by groups such as AQIM. Just a year ago there was religious harmony in CAR — mosques and churches are only blocks apart in the capital, communities mixed and intermarriage between faiths is common.
But in retribution for months of Seleka killings, sexual violence and looting, the anti-balaka blindly targeted all Muslims. Women and children are among the dead.
At a recent demonstration in PK12, a makeshift camp of Muslim women and children, criticism was directed at the French for not ensuring the security of Muslim residents. Ibrahim Alawad, the 52-year-old self-appointed leader of the camp and a former member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army who organized the small march, will list a litany of alleged crimes of the French troops stationed nearby to visiting reporters easy payday loans.
The question is whether the cycle of killings will continue as the Seleka regroups in the north and seeks outside help. Of particular concern to intelligence and security services is the largely remote northern Vakaga province, which shares a border with Sudan’s Darfur region. The whereabouts of Seleka leader Noureddine Adam and reports that he has travelled to Nigeria fuel speculation of future Boko Haram involvement.
For now, the extremist calls for jihad are just rhetoric. And Islamic militant groups operating in Africa would face significant logistical hurdles, including CAR’s unfamiliar terrain. “Their familiarity with often harsh and inhospitable desert conditions have given them the edge over regional and/or international forces tasked with uprooting them from such areas,” wrote security analyst Ryan Cummings recently in Think African Press. “However, these desert plains of North and West Africa differ considerably with the jungle and savannah bushes which comprise much of the CAR.”
But Gaye said the extremist threats are not being taken lightly and without additional peacekeepers and increased international funding, the interim government under Samba-Panza is destined to fail. “Today the reality is very simple,” he said. “Without international community support, it won’t be possible for this new government — upon which we put a lot of expectations — it will not be possible for them to deliver.”
Ban’s call for a UN peacekeeping mission of 12,000 troops and police to join the 2,000-strong French force and 6,000 African Union peacekeepers here is being debated by the Security Council. Gaye welcomed news that Canadian senator and retired Gen. Romeo Dallaire is urging Canada to join the mission if approved.
Also a veteran peacekeeper, Gaye said he served alongside Canadian forces during his first mission in Sinai, in 1974. “We had excellent relations, probably because of the French-speaking proximity but also because they are very professional and experienced in peacekeeping,” he said. “We are expecting the return of Canada to peacekeeping.”
Beyond the gates of the UN compound where we sat during the recent interview, there was a deceptive calm in Bangui. Life is slowly returning to the downtown streets, where just a couple months ago fires burned and discarded bodies lay unclaimed.
Stores owned by Christian merchants have reopened and students have returned to school, although the numbers are small as most parents are still too frightened to leave their children alone. Later that evening, before the nightly curfew, the setting sun casts a warm glow over roadside patios where men and women unwind over large bottles of the local Mocaf beer.
But that calm is easily shattered by evening gunfire and attacks in the two remaining Muslim neighbourhoods of PK5 and PK12, and the French and AU tanks that patrol the streets are a reminder of what is needed to ensure security in a city that lacks a functioning police force, army or court system.