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.
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.
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.