Dedicated followers of the news will have heard of the ongoing violence and atrocities in the Central African Republic (CAR) a country of some 4 million people. While Z Geography hasn’t stared at nearly enough data to bring you, my trusted reader, an in-depth geographic analysis of the conflict – certain threads in the recent news deserve some commentary.
The violent conflict has been increasingly labelled sectarian by French and British news media (Americans aren’t particularly interested it seems). As France24 notes the violence pits the Muslim minority, concentrated in the north along the country’s borders with Chad and Sudan and the urban areas of the south (principally Bangui, the capital), against the Christian majority. In March 2013 (yes this has been going on for almost a year) the primarily Muslim “Seleka” rebels deposed President Francois Bozize. He had been ruling for a decade or more. The new President was a Muslim, the first in the country. Though the President, Michel Djotodia, disbanded the Seleka group, former members began a campaign of violence. Former Seleka rebels are accused of “looting” and “raping” civilians, primarily Christians. The violence has since led to the creation of “anti-Balaka” (anti-Machete) vigilante groups comprised primarily of Christians.
Last month (January 2014) Djotodia resigned his presidency as part of a regional peace process to limit violence (BBC). Except violence hasn’t abated – even with the introduction of French and other African peacekeepers, notably from Rwanda (France24).
Now somewhere between 20% and 25% of the country’s population (over a million) has been displaced, that is driven from their homes, because of the violence. This includes those families now considered “refugees” (fleeing over an international border) and “internally displaced” (still within CAR). The BBC reports (using Medecins sans Frontieres figures) that 30,000 refugees are in Chad and 10,000 are in Cameroon. One human interest story carried by the BBC relates the desire of one imam (Islamic religious leader) to be the last “Muslim in CAR”. France24 reports that the entire Muslim population of a town south of Bangui had fled toward Chad as part of a convoy of 10,000 refugees.
The imam also points, and the BBC picks up on, another important demographic/cultural geographic point: many of the refugees are Muslims and are important traders supplying food, seeds, and other goods to the local population. He says:
Bangui is losing its business community which is made up largely of Muslims – they’ve been ransacking Muslim shops.
Commodity prices have gone up, a bunch of salad will cost you 200 CFA Francs (40 cents; 25p) – twice as much as a little while ago. A bar of soap is worth 100 CFA Francs (20 cents; 13p), again twice as much as before.
Buying meat? Don’t even think about it, there is none. The Fulani and nomadic Chadians that used to drive their cattle to Bangui have decided to head for Cameroon because there’s too much violence here. (BBC)
The BBC, reporting Oxfam and Action Against Hunger views, notes that the “exodus” of Muslims could lead to “catastrophic market collapse” and that only 10 wholesalers were left in Bangui, many of whom are considering fleeing. The BBC correspondent points out that Muslims were the “backbone of the local economy.” Substantial price increases or the simple disappearance of food would worsen an already serious humanitarian situation. As the BBC notes, the UN estimates 90% of Central Africans eat one meal a day. Compounding this problem is the continuing violence, which is causing cattle herders from neighboring countries to avoid entering CAR.
The persistence of violence is something of a mystery, considering the presence of armed peacekeepers. The former colonial power, France, is accused of standing by while a Christian lynch mob mutilated the body of a murdered Muslim, according to Human Rights Watch (BBC, note the article is graphic):
The French soldiers were there, just sitting metres away, and didn’t stop this horrific mutilation from taking place.
The soldiers were heavily armed, they could have easily parked one of their armoured cars next to these two bodies, which were about 50m [164 ft] apart, and stood by them until the Red Cross came to collect them.
But instead they checked out the scene and then they got back in their cars and drove away.
Tellingly “the French defence ministry has not commented.”
Further, French peacekeepers have also been accused of standing by as looting continues in Bangui. According to France24 looters “know” that the French cannot fire on them: “The peacekeepers went from door to door to try to rout the looters, who simply moved on to other targets, pushing their carts and wheelbarrows between French armoured cars. ‘The French won’t fire at us,’ one young looter said, laughing.”
On the other hand, African peacekeepers have a mandate to open fire. France24 reports that these peacekeepers fired on civilians in Bangui that were “jeering, threatening, and throwing stones at the [Muslim refugee] convoy”. Rwanda peacekeepers also shot a suspected Christian militiaman who was about to burn the body of a Muslim, whom he had killed (France24). An angry crowd shouted at the Rwandans, evidently believing they were Muslims.
The inability of the peacekeepers to impose peace (since there is no peace to keep) appears to point to the necessity of a new mandate (for at least the French) to actually fire on Christian (and Muslim) militias in order to stop violence. In many ways, CAR’s current situation is similar to the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s – there the UN peacekeeping force lacked the mandate to effectively protect Tutsi civilians during a Hutu-led pogrom.
Without a semblance of peace, Muslims will continue to flee the Central African Republic and, as we have seen, their flight could make a serious humanitarian situation into a disaster as food prices spike and supplies vanish. Further, the Muslim community’s flight is sowing the seeds of a future conflict when legitimate citizens of the Central African Republic, who are Muslim, come home from Chad, Cameroon, or wherever to reclaim their properties. As Liberia found following their decades of instability, insurgency, and civil war – the lack of documentation of who owns what will only spark renewed violence.
A quick note on the Muslim community often coinciding with the business community – particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. As Islam spread south of the Sahara (centuries ago), Muslims often moved into and settled in predominantly Christian areas. Since land, and agriculture, has traditionally been viewed as a “desirable” or “honorable” occupation Muslims were prevented from owning land, attempting to avoid relegation to being landless agricultural laborers, many turned to trade and commerce. Some were successful because of their intrinsic cultural links with Muslim caravans from the north bringing in other goods from abroad. There’s obvious parallels of this story with the Jewish experience in Europe and the Chinese experience in southeast Asia.