Central African Republic disintegrates into a spiral of religious violence

The devastating conflict in the Central African Republic has been characterized by horrific human rights abuses: over the last three years, tens-of-thousands of civilians have been needlessly massacred – ruthlessly killed by torture, lynching, shooting and burning. What is equally as shocking, is that this violence has taken place beyond the gaze of the Western world: attracting only a minimal level of media coverage, and remaining low on the foreign policy agenda of western governments.

Not only has the international community failed to act, but it has also seemingly failed to even notice. More than half a century on from its independence in 1960, the Central African Republic has been forgotten and left to ruin: few people in the West are aware the conflict is taking place, and fewer still could locate the country on a map.

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Rwandan Soldiers have been part of the AU peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic (Image Source: Defense Imagery)

Whilst the country has been plagued by instability throughout its existence, the current conflict began in March 2013, when an armed insurgency led by the Seleka (a coalition of armed Islamic groups) seized the capital Bangui, and staged a coup which forced President Franscois Bozize into exile. Its leader Michel Djotodia declared himself as the country’s leader – becoming the first Muslim president to rule the Christian-majority nation of 4.6 million people.

Since then, the country has disintegrated, descending into a spiral of violence along religious lines. In response to the coup, Christians have taken up arms in vigilante militias known as Anti-Balaka, launching wave after wave of revenge attacks against Muslim civilians. Over the past three years of conflict, society has become deeply divided and plagued by distrust and paranoia between Christians and Muslims, which has set into motion a spiral of unimaginable hatred, aggression and senseless violence. The Central African Republic is now embroiled in a complex civil war, and quickly sliding down the path towards genocide.

The majority of victims have been civilians, with horrific atrocities being committed across the country on a daily basis. Reports by human rights organizations and the UN, have accused both sides of ‘crimes against humanity’, whilst Amnesty International has described human rights violations on an ‘unprecedented scale’.

As this massacre takes place in the heart of Africa, the world continues to look the other way. Thousands of lives are being ended at the hands of militias – with numerous reports of throats being slit, people being bludgeoned to death and tortured, whilst beheadings and public executions have become a daily occurrence. More than 450, 000 people are now internally displaced within the country, whilst human rights groups have said that up to 3 million of the population are in ‘dire need’ of assistance.

In the wave of religious-fuelled retaliatory violence that has swept the country, many Muslim communities in the north-west have been wiped off the map. For example, in an Anti-Balaka attack on the town of Boyali in January 2014, 34 civilians were killed and 961 homes burned down on one day alone.

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More than 450,000 people have been displaced by the conflict, which began in March 2013 (Image Source: Defense Imagery)

After their initial gains at the start of the conflict, the Seleka have been on the retreat: their leader was forced from the office of the presidency in January 2014, being replaced by a transitional government led by interim President Catherine Samba-Panza. In April of that year, the UN took over responsibility for the African Union peacekeeping mission in the country, deploying 12,000 troops with a mandate to protect civilians. Numerous attempts to bring a solution to the conflict have since failed, with both sides routinely violating ceasefire agreements.

Against a backdrop of state disintegration, deep inter-religious tensions and a lack of international support, the violence in the Central African Republic looks set to be for the long-term. The rushed organization of elections risks exacerbating the current situation, as the International Crisis Group (ICG) says that several ‘critical challenges’ must be addressed before any meaningful political process can begin. An ICG report on the conflict suggests that a comprehensive strategy must be put in place to disarm the population; whilst the transitional government must do all it can to promote unity, by stating clearly that both Muslims and Christians will have a role in the nation’s future. The security situation must also be dealt with: the killing can only be ended when the government and external actors have built up the necessary capacity to restrain armed groups and prevent violence against civilians. Only when these issues have been addressed, will a political process be able to take place.

Meanwhile, the ordinary people of the Central African Republic continue to suffer daily, almost invisible to the outside world. As is so often the case with conflicts in Africa, it has been largely ignored by the international community, rendered too far-removed and too insignificant to the geopolitical interests of western states to warrant much attention. If there is any chance for progress to be made, the Central African Republic can’t continue to be a ‘blind spot’ on the world political map.

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Somalia’s recent progress remains under threat from Al-Shabaab

After being plagued by decades of conflict and the more-recent insurgency of militant group Al-Shabaab, Somalia has long been labelled as a failed state. However in recent years the situation has stabilized: Al-Shabaab militants have been pushed back, and much of the country is now under the control of a functioning legitimate central government – the first in Somalia for 25 years.

Since the landmark election of President Hassan Sheik Mohamud in September 2012, steady progress has led to an atmosphere of cautious optimism; with UN Envoy Augustine Mahiga describing an ‘’unprecedented opportunity for peace’’. However, Somalia’s new-found stability is fragile: the presence of Al-Shabaab is a continuing worry, whilst long-term challenges remain after 25 years of upheaval.

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The African Union has deployed more than 22,000 troops to Somalia to fight Al-Shabaab militants (Image Source: AMISOM)

Somalia first collapsed into anarchy in 1991, following the overthrow of the military regime of President Siad Barre. In the following decade, rival warlords tore the country apart in the absence of a legitimate central authority, leading to the deaths of more than 500,000 people as a result of war and famine.

In the 2000’s the violence took on a new dimension, with a coalition of Islamist Sharia Courts seizing the capital Mogadishu in 2006. This once-powerful group known as the ‘Union of Islamic Courts’, was quickly defeated by Ethiopian and African Union (AU) forces – however, this was not the end of Islamist insurgency in Somalia.

The group’s radical youth wing, Al-Shabaab, rose from the ashes to mount a sustained and bloody challenge to the Somali state. Al-Shabaab advocates the Saudi-inspired Wahhabi version of Islam, and has imposed a strict version of Sharia Law in areas under its control: this has included the stoning to death of women accused of adultery, and amputating the hands of thieves.

Al-Shabaab has pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, and is estimated to have between 6000-7000 fighters. It initially made rapid territorial advances to control almost all of central and southern Somalia by 2010, including the capital Mogadishu.

However, this success was short-lived after the intervention of outside nations. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has been working in the country since 2007, and was initially made up of a coalition of troops from Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Sierra Leone. After making steady progress in pushing-back the militants, Kenyan troops joined in the effort to help force Al-Shabaab out of Mogadishu in August 2011, which was followed by their retreat from the crucial port-city of Kismayo in September 2012.

The US has also played a key role, providing $204 million in humanitarian assistance and launching drone strikes from its base in neighbouring Djibouti – one of which killed Al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane in September 2014.

Al-Shabaab is now severely weakened – it has been pushed out of many of the towns it once-controlled, and has retreated to its heartlands in the rural south. In August 2014 AMISOM made further progress after launching Operation Indian Ocean, which seized almost all of Al-Shabaab’s coastal territory and killed many of its key leaders. Somalia is now an example of how close regional co-operation can result in successful military outcomes: in stark contrast to the current regional divisions in the Middle East over the conflict in Syria.

The mood in Somalia is more optimistic than it has been in decades: it finally has a stable government and a legitimate president. Since the 2012 election of President Mohamud, the country’s economy has been re-energised and its banking sector re-established, the military has been built-up and the UN has ended its 21-year arms embargo. There has also been increased foreign investment, with Turkey helping to fund a new airport and hospital in Mogadishu.

Internal unity has also been strengthened, with the central government now controlling all of Somalia’s regions except for Somaliland: the far north-west region which has been autonomous since 1991. There is no doubt that the country is on an overall upward-trajectory: aside from the successes on land, piracy has declined and Mogadishu is now experiencing a small property boom.

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Somali President Hassan Sheik Mohamud has led the country since September 2012 (Image Source: AMISOM)

However, the militant threat still lingers beneath the surface. Al-Shabaab remains prominent in some rural areas, denying basic rights to citizens under its control, committing widespread sexual violence against women and carrying out public executions, whilst also restricting humanitarian access. It has also carried out deadly attacks in government-held areas, such as the February 2015 suicide car bomb targeting a UN convoy near Mogadishu Airport, which killed 6 civilians.

Worryingly, Al-Shabaab has extended its reach by launching over 150 terrorist attacks in neighbouring Kenya. The most deadly of these was the April 2015 massacre at Garissa University, in which 147 students were killed by gunmen. This followed the widely-publicized 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall, in which at least 68 civilians were killed.

So despite the recent strides forward, Somalia still faces huge security challenges. Civilians continue to be killed and wounded: over 120,000 people have been displaced since the start of 2014, whilst the Armed Conflict and Event Data Project reported that 4,365 civilians were killed during 2015 alone. In Mogadishu, military checkpoints and roadblocks remain, whilst Al-Shabaab continues to carry out frequent gun and bomb attacks.

The humanitarian situation is also desperate: the UN says that over 1 million people face acute food insecurity, whilst living conditions in refugee camps are dire. Children in Somalia regularly die from preventable diseases such as malaria, whilst there is a lack of access to education and healthcare. And this is aside from the severe mental scars which must be present after more than two-decades of devastating conflict and suffering.

Looking to the future, the Somali government and its neighbours have the huge task ahead of re-building a state savaged by war, and facilitating sustainable economic development which could finally put an end to the cycle of violence. The country’s new political system has so-far been successful, yet is still unproven: the next key test of Somalia’s stability will be elections scheduled for later in 2016. The outlook remains positive, but a sense of perspective must be maintained, as future progress in Somalia is likely to be slow, difficult and fraught with setbacks.

South Sudan remains fragile after two years of Civil War

After gaining independence from Sudan in 2011, the mood in South Sudan was one of celebration and hope for the future. However less than five years later it has gone from being the world’s newest country to a ‘failing state’, after experiencing two years of brutal conflict which have divided the nation along ethnic lines.

Despite a ceasefire being signed in August 2015, South Sudan remains wounded, tense and bitterly divided, with the prospects of a lasting peace looking unlikely. The country’s civil war, characterized by horrific human rights abuses and attacks on civilians, has taken place largely outside the glare of media spotlight. Over the past two years the conflict has claimed more than 50,000 lives, with at least 1.6 million people internally displaced and 12,500 UN peacekeepers being deployed in an attempt to stabilize the situation.

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The Civil War in South Sudan began in December 2013 (Image Source: Steve Evans)

The civil war began in December 2013, when President Salva Kiir Mayardit – also head of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) which had fought for independence – sacked his entire cabinet and accused Vice President Riek Machar of instigating a failed coup against his regime.

The feud between two rival politicians quickly escalated in to full-scale conflict, and took on a strong ethnic dimension from the start, dividing South Sudan between its two largest ethnic groups. The Dinkas aligned with President Kiir, whilst the Nuers largely supported the rebel movement led by Machar.

The conflict which followed has had devastating effects on South Sudan’s civilian population. Rape and sexual violence have been used as a method of intimidation, child soldiers have been recruited to fight, whilst property has been looted and entire villages have been destroyed. The violence has also severely affected South Sudan’s economy: the farming industry has ground to a halt, causing nationwide food shortages and leading to widespread hunger and starvation. In 2014, the UN described the country’s food crisis as the ‘’worst in the world’’, with up to 4 million people severely affected and up to 50,000 children dying of malnourishment.

Whilst recent atrocities committed in the Middle East have frequently made the front pages of newspapers, the horrific scale of human rights abuses in South Sudan has continued almost un-noticed by the outside world. In April 2014 rebels attacked a UN base in Jonglei state, killing 58 people including many children, before UN peacekeepers could intervene. When the town of Bentiu was seized, civilians were massacred in a hospital, with one UN worker describing the scenes as ‘resembling the 1994 Rwandan genocide’.

Thousands of women and girls have been abducted, tortured and raped; whilst ethnic cleansing has taken place on a mass scale: men have frequently been executed by both sides, with some eyewitness reports even claiming that babies have been burned alive.

The people who have somehow managed to survive are now living in desperate, cramped conditions, seeking refuge on UN bases. Food and water supplies are scarce, whilst the spread of disease is rife. As a result of the conflict, South Sudan now has amongst the highest rates of starvation and infant mortality in the world.

However, there have recently been positive developments. In August 2015 a peace agreement was signed after several rounds of negotiations. However the deal remains fragile, with frequent armed clashes initiated by both sides regularly violating the ceasefire.

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South Sudanese Army Generals during the 2011 Independence celebrations (Image Copyright: Steve Evans)

A question many are now asking in light of the initial celebratory mood after South Sudan’s ‘liberation’; is ‘how has it come to this?’

Firstly, the US-supported independence campaign and western-funded state-building project, presented a simplified picture and glossed over the internal divisions within South Sudan. Before the independence referendum in 2011, the issue was simplified as being the ‘Christian South’ breaking away from the ‘Muslim North’; ignoring the underlying deep-rooted ethnic tensions which would inevitably make the process of uniting the South more difficult than it appeared.

The main focus was on building infrastructure and state institutions, at the expense of ensuring good governance, resource redistribution and reconciliation. For example since independence, 38% of oil revenue has been spent on the military whilst just 7% has been spent on education. President Kiir has struggled to transform the SPLM from being a militant liberation organization into a democratic political party. Political elites have been accused of displaying increasingly autocratic behaviour, whilst creating divisions and stirring ethnic tensions.

Despite the recently improved situation the prospects for long-term stability do not look good, as many obstacles to peace remain. Firstly, both sides have committed in the past to end the fighting, but have routinely broken their promises to launch new offensives. Secondly, the power-sharing agreement does not tackle the issues of accountability and justice, whilst it also leaves the underlying causes of the conflict unresolved. Thirdly, there is dis-unity on both sides of an increasingly complex conflict: there are hardliners in both camps, whilst broad coalitions of civilian militias and military units will be difficult to control.

Going forward, South Sudan’s neighbours are likely to play a key role in mediation. However to add to the complexity, they are also divided and have competing aims. For example, Uganda has consistently supported President Kiir; Sudan has allegedly provided weapons and logistical support to the rebels; whilst Kenya has a key interest in the situation considering its strong economic links with South Sudan.

In the end, the civil war has served only to cause mass human suffering, deepen ethnic animosity and create a heavily militarized society with a dangerous culture for revenge. The cycle of conflict which has plagued South Sudan will be difficult to break without addressing the underlying causes. Considering the region’s troubled history of violence and a society now deeply fractured along ethnic lines, the outlook is bleak. South Sudan has the potential to become ‘another Rwanda’; the world is again at risk of a horrific genocide taking place in Africa almost un-noticed, outside the gaze of the mainstream media, and largely ignored by western politicians before it is too late.