Genocide? Religious war? The inflationary use of buzzwords in CAR’s violent imbroglio

For quite some time, I have been refraining from writing about the current conflicts in the Central African Republic. There is good reason for that, given I have never done actual fieldwork in this country. However, the recent escalation of violence has brought along a dangerous escalation of narratives, similar to that we know from other conflict areas in Africa and beyond.

I argue that, as little as the discourses on failed states (Somalia), ‘heart(s) of darkness’ (DRC), drug wars (Colombia, Mexico), islamist societies (Afghanistan, Pakistan), sexual-violence-as-strategy-to-plunder-resources (DRC), and many more have helped us understand situations, as little will preemptive notions of genocide and religious war help grasp the state of affairs in and around Bangui.

Sure, there is nothing to joke about genocide. The world has learnt, in our so-called modern times, that actual genocides are the most horrible things that can happen to societies as a whole. Reminiscent of what the Germans did to their Jew compatriotes and to the Namibians and cognisant of the now almost twenty years old Rwandan genocide, the slogan “never again” needs to be upheld as a warning finger – in particular toward the so-called international community that so bitterly failed to respond to Roméo Dallaire’s calls for action in 1994.

However, employing the term genocide where it is inaccurate will not solve the problems aptly emphasised in a sometimes ill-driven Responsibility-to-Protect doctrine. Any falsely purported genocide is not only an insult to victims and survivors of actual genocide, it also gouges our eyes out while we struggle to find adequate responses.

Similarly, the notion of religious war bears plenty of interpretative dangers. In a post 9/11 era we may be inclined to frame conflicts according to seemingly religious narratives, and yes, much of the discourse within the Central African Republic currently leads us to do so. But again, any falsely purported religious war is not only an insult to the countless peaceful believers of both sides, it also gauges our eyes out while we struggle to find an adequate response.

So, what to do as violence spirals across the Central African Republic?

First, we should try to understand. Admittedly, the country as such is difficult. Developing weakly from its colonial oppression onwards, Bangui never lived up to the challenge of exerting something such as domestic and/or Westphalian sovereignty after independence. Instead, it fell prey to continuous collusion between a whole set of French governments and domestic strongmen. Dacko, Kolingba, Bokassa, Patassé, Bozizé, Djotodia… the list is long (as on the other side with Pompidou, Giscard d’Estaing, Mitterand, Chirac, Sarkozy, Hollande). Interestingly, it is not about the negative interpretation of this collusions, which bit by bit emptied what ‘the state’ is supposed to be all about. It is much more about the productive elements of this collusion, the establishment of ties relying on a path dependency that has its roots in colonial exploitation and co-opting of elites. This as a starting point, we can begin uncovering a history of marginalisation, exclusion, and uneven development that has yet served a few. Some scholars have called such things ‘the instrumentalisation or disorder’, for instance. The instrumentalisation in this sense, establishes some sort of well-oiled order within something that appears disorderly to us.

Throughout the decades – and I am consciously narrowing down history here – this style of governance has been cultivated by both internal and external elites. Large majorities of the populace went abandoned. Interestingly, Muslim populations of the north feature prominently in that category. Séléka, albeit undergoing some ‘mixage’ in that sense, originated as a loose consortium of militias representing these populations. Does that mean they fight a religious war? Not necessarily. It merely means that the northern populations have probably been marginalised for plenty of reasons, notably the remoteness of their home turf (= no need to specifically take care of them) and the – at least initially – coincidence of few of their people being part of the ruling circle. No big surprise they rise up at some point (whether for greed or for grievance does not matter here, and also the whole theory based on this dichotomy has become much of a dangerous narrative as well…) and rebel against the power in place. The point is, though, they do so because of marginalisation and not because of religion. And those who marginalised them in the first place did not do so for religious reasons. Probably not even for ethnic or cultural but for cold-blooded strategic and politico-economic ends.

However, the discourse tells us differently: It states that Séléka, ‘a Muslim militia’, seizes power in a coup against the former Christian president, whose supporters took to the streets as Anti-Balaka, a ‘Christian militia’. The ensuing clashes had then pit them against each other in the frame of a easy-to-tell Muslim-Christian cleavage. And since it is so obvious, it turns out that these represent ethnic fault lines too and therefore we stand at the verge of genocide.

Well, now we could argue that at least it made the UN Security Council debate on it and send the French (who have been there anyways, before) in to restore order. However, whose order? The French order? The UN order? The order of a smouldering conflict in which genocide needs to be prevented? The public authority of the Central African State? The City administration of Bangui? The ousted government of a longtime embezzling Bozizé? The remainders of a disintegrated rebel movement running the country? Hard to tell, as a myriad of interests are at stake, even in this country where most of the Western world usually is even more ignorant about then in the case of eastern Congo or Somalia.

(Yet order, authority, or power in contexts of contested statehood, or ‘state-ness’ as some say, would take at least 2-3 further blogposts, but they shall at least be mentioned. Starting from how difficult it is just to understand complex forms of governance – and these are mostly at the basis of such contest – one can imagine how it may even be harder to actually manage or govern spaces such as CAR.)

As the French operation moves on towards Bangui, the humanitarian situation worsens amid repeated clashes. With the French (with AU’s FOMAC-to-become-MISCA mission) taking on a rather hard stance against both Anti-Balaka and Séléka, the conflict develops into a triangle and it will be hard to foresee whether the peacekeepers will be able to gain and maintain control. Without doubt, and as numerous humanitarian and human rights organisations have acknowledged (including some usually being critical to any type of military intervention), something needed to be done to tame the violence in Bangui, Bossangoa, or Bouar. On the other side, bringing up the genocide narrative (which has brilliantly been deconstructed by Louisa Lombard here) and the barbarically sounding religious war fostered a hasty decision that left out the possibility of weighing in with substantial political clout (it is almost fascinating how little has been tried on the diplomatic level compared to Syria, DRC, or other cases…).

While not discarding the actual existence of ethnic and religious tensions that are certainly existing in the Central African Republic, the citizens of this country merit a more nuanced understanding of outsiders talking about them and meddling into the country’s fate since decades. More broadly it is yet another declaration of bankruptcy of the world society if we deliberately need to start talking of genocide and religious war in order to engage. In its most perverse sense this means a ruler could exterminate indiscriminately a whole population as long it is not for ethnic, religious or similar reasons because the ever-blocked UN Security Council usually cannot act if the narratives do not flow accordingly and fit into the small loopholes the state community could agree upon as overriding their sovereignty over decisions (genocide is the only instance where in theory states must intervene regardless of the willingness). This is a serious threat to future peacekeeping and crisis resolution. People in CAR, and elsewhere, need a different system of international and regional security governance.

10 Responses to “Genocide? Religious war? The inflationary use of buzzwords in CAR’s violent imbroglio”
  1. AJ says:

    I just came across this article, and it comes as a pleasant surprise that someone holds a similar view that their are multiple causalities for the violence currently taking place in CAR. I’m actually writing my dissertation on why the western media has portrayed the violence in the country as religious.

  2. Very good blog post. I absolutely love this website.
    Keep it up!

  3. I wanted to thank you for this very good read!!
    I absolutely loved every bit of it. I’ve got you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post…

  4. Loukas Petridis says:

    I think my point (on CAR’s conflict) is understood. Nobody denies the (initial) “grievance” part of the different rebellion groups – including the ones that united to form Seleka. But what made Seleka pass to a different level, topple the government and make the whole world discover CAR was the direct foreign intervention, articulated in strong religious terms. Apart from the evident Chadian and Sudanese connection, we now have credible information on Eritrean arms provision and serious allegations on Qatari financial backing (though I can’t personally prove neither of them). The disastrous consequences of this are now seen in the openly religious nature of clashes in CAR and bring us back to the central point of my initial post.

    In general terms, I would argue that the deliberate effort to make the role of religion in armed conflicts seem unimportant is much more dangerous than my narrative. You nevertheless misquote me: not only I never denied the variety of reasons that can cause violence, but I even noted that the roots of conflicts are never purely religious per se. As demonstrated today in CAR, religious faith is a powerful driving force with the capacity to drastically – and devastatingly – alternate human relations and social interaction. And this is what I expect leading analysts to tackle when writing about today’s conflicts – instead of consistently sideline it to please the majority of believers.

  5. ethuin says:

    ok for your first para, and thanks for quoting me correctly this time. I would still tend to argue that marginalisation for these parts of the population has been particularly strong, but that certainly holds true for many other parts as well. Regarding the set-up of Seleka, I would strongly argue for a mix of local and foreign as well as opportunistic and grievance-based motivations.
    I have a hard time understanding your second para. From my point of view, even Seleka is only partly religion-driven, and among the other contender you mention as non-religious, one has even been part of Seleka. So your logic is they may have become radicalised when merging with CPSK and UFDR? Sounds rather tentative, but curious to hear your explanation for that…
    On your third para, the claim you make regarding other conflicts and the role of religion in general, is a narrative that is dangerous. By arguing for a strong relevance of religion in the case of CAR, you put yourself in a similar category with usual suspects presenting the “oil”, the “ethnic” or other discourses you list. My argument, much more than rejecting the role of religion (or any other factor as singular), is that protracted armed conflict always comes with a variety of reasons. Therefore the predominant use of a central paradigm, while catchy, is dangerous.
    And, as earlier said, I strongly reject any assumption that my article was lacking respect of those killed in CAR – whether for religious or any other useless reason.

  6. Loukas Petridis says:

    You clearly stated that “Muslim populations of the north feature prominently” in the abandoned populace; and that the Seleka rebellion is a direct consequence of this abandon. Both these are factual inaccuracies for the reasons I already pointed out: (i) no particular ethnic or religious group or region was more “prominent” than another in their abandon from the successive CAR governments during the last decades and (ii) the Seleka coalition was formed for purely opportunistic strategic reasons that have very little to do with the original (legitimate) grievances of the citizens of the northeast of the country (if not because the majority of its members are not even originally from CAR).

    Most importantly, you’re certainly aware of various other rebel groups that were born and operated in the country (APRD in Ouham, FDPC in Nana Gribizi, CPJP in Bamingui-Bangora, to mention only the ones during the Bozizé era): none of them was identified or linked with the religious affiliation of its members. Therefore the argument that connects the abandon of the people in CAR and the strong religious connotation of the Seleka coalition does not stand.

    The effort to clear religion for its role in conflicts and widespread violence is indeed a common thread of many analysts of our century’s narrative: Sudan ? it’s the oil! Nigeria ? it’s ethnic! Kashmir? it’s the British! Balkans ? it’s history! Middle-East ? it’s …geography! There is abundant public discourse in that matter. What most of people choose to ignore is that the roots of conflicts are never purely “religious” per se: nobody kills somebody who has a different opinion on who was god’s last prophet. But humanity has never come with a more powerful driving force to make people kill than religious faith; and this obvious fact is consistently sidelined in the name of “respect” to the theistic majority.

    So, even though I never said that you don’t respect victims of religious violence, I strongly believe that the deliberate effort to dissociate religion from the atrocious crimes committed in its name is indeed an insult to all those that perished and suffered in its hands.

  7. ethuin says:

    Thanks Loukas for your comment that adds a few important aspects.

    However, I would advise you to read my article a bit more closely. I never said anyone was “more abandoned” as you suggest. That means while I actually agree with your addings, your critique of me being non-factual is a bit pointless here. Similar for the other claims you made (which are nevertheless valid).

    Concerning religion, I wonder where you draw your argument from. It sounds pretty much like the standard mass media narrative that is contested (at least in its absoluteness) by leading analysts. So, if you want to maintain this claim, please add some flesh to your words – I would be highly interested and thankful to know more.

    Last but not least, insinuating I would not respect victims of religious (or whatever) violence is baseless enough that I can return the plea and ask you to spare us with such. Thanks.

  8. Unlike you, I have lived and worked in CAR during Bozizé times and have followed closely recent developments.

    I have to say that, although I agree with many of the points raised in the article, your analysis contains some important factual inaccuracies. Seleka militias did not originate and are not predominantly composed by Muslim Central African Republic citizens, but by Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries. Most importantly, the “Muslim populations of the north” were not more “abandoned” by the elites that almost all the other people of CAR, from Paoua to Obo and from Nola to Birao. Public services, economic activities and even basic security were scarcely provided to all those living beyond Bangui’s city limits.

    But what I honestly find rather infuriating is your suggestion that we should refrain talking about a religious war, in order not to “insult countless peaceful believers of both sides”. This is of course an extremely frequent political-correct narrative of the post 9/11 era, rushing every time to find a non-religious root of all conflicts (and there are certainly many of them). Religion has however proved time and again its powerful nature to divide and push people fight each other in the most atrocious ways. CAR could not be a better example: in a country where there was never any talk about religious groups and even less about tensions between them, we are today witnessing hateful attacks and mass murders between fellow countrymen only – I repeat ONLY – on the basis of their religious affiliation.

    So please spare us of the respect to the “countless peaceful believers of both sides”; if anything, they continue to provide a vast ideological legitimatizing platform to all the extremist to operate. I would prefer some respect to all the victims of religious conflicts instead.

    Loukas Petridis

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