The advent of SELEKA, a predominantly Muslim militia, stirred the Christians of the Central African Republic to action, reawakening historical nightmares that date back to the pre-colonial days of slavery.
The notorious legacy of the slave trade has sadly been used as a mirror to the modern political turmoil in the Central African Republic. SELEKA’s rise to power in the collective psyche of the nation inevitably forged links with the not so distance past. Historical parallelisms were soon drawn.
The political map of the contemporary Central African Republic is coloured by the country’s painful past as Christians in the country appropriate the memory of the Muslim slave trade. And, there is a deepening tendency to equate SELEKA with the Muslim slave traders.
The arrival of Muslim merchants in the early 19th century was relatively peaceful and depended upon the support of local peoples such as the Bobangi ethnic group. Later Muslim slave traders with more modern firearms and in conjunction with the Bobangi aristocracy and warlords started a systematic and elaborate slaving system.
Non-Muslim people were enslaved on the pretext that they were pagan and infidels. Muslim slave traders from Sudan, Chad, and northern Cameroon joined in the fray and collaborated with Western slave traders on the Atlantic coast and sold their hapless captives to the Americas by way of the Ubangi River through what today is Congo and Angola.
In a most uncharitable mood, many of the Christians of the country are bent on revenge to right the wrongs of the past. Genocide, Rwanda-scale threatens and hundreds of thousands have fled the Central African Republic. The traditionally militarily weaker, today Christianised ethnic groups have never quite forgotten this historical episode.
Yet, Muslims control much of the contemporary economy of the country, especially commerce and trade. Most street corner shops in Bangui, the capital, have been sacked and looted since the owners are mainly Muslims. In the aftermath of colonisation, Muslims were no longer seen as the sole depositories of wealth, culture and power. The newly converted Christians were encouraged by the French colonialists to look beyond their pre-colonial horizons as an oppressed people living in little more than a barbarian backwater.
The French colonial authorities were in reality indifferent to pre-colonial rivalries, but the French administration and Christian missionaries were virulently anti-Muslim. They promptly halted the Muslim slave trade and to this day the French, even after the Central African Republic gained independence from France in 1960, still command much power and influence in their former colony. There are some French troops stationed in the troubled nation.
It is against this grim backdrop that tens of thousands of terrified Muslims this week fled the overwhelmingly Christian Central African Republic to neighbouring countries such as Chad, where Muslims are in the majority, and northern Cameroon, mainly Muslim, on foot or by plane and truck. The Christian militia anti-BALEKA are seeking revenge after SELEKA usurped power for a year, being ignominiously ousted last month.
The tables had turned in the favour of Muslims in the Central African Republic when the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi took a keen interest in the domestic affairs of the country and deployed Libyan troops to assist his then protégé, Ange-Felix Patassé, who was forced to turn to Gaddafi for support against his adversaries. Libya implemented a plan of building mosques and religious institutions and schools around the country and in the capital Bangui.
Issues linked to the historical origins and causes of the current war in Central Africa are of fundamental importance. The conflict can only be understood in historical context. How did SELEKA and anti-BALEKA come to advocate violence in the name of religion? And, why has fighting for faith become endemic in various parts of Africa? Neither Islam nor Christianity is an indigenous religion in Central Africa and yet followers of the two religions are eager to answer the call to combat, knowing that thousands would perish in the process.
On 7 February, International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda launched a preliminary investigation into potential war crimes in the Central African Republic. The instigators and perpetrators of violence must be brought to book, but at what cost? With rich mineral deposits such as uranium, gold, diamonds and recently discovered oil, the country has the potential to be prosperous and yet it is among the least developed in Africa and the world.
SELEKA shattered the social fabric of the Central African Republic. In towns and villages as well as in the capital, Bangui, Christian vigilantes wielding machetes have killed scores of Muslims, who make up roughly 10 per cent of the population. BALEKA and other Christian militias and vigilante groups desecrated and burned down mosques, destroying Muslim property, and the merciless Christian warlords have vowed to exterminate Muslims in the country.
The anti-BALEKA, or “anti-machete” or “anti-sword” in the local Sango language, the lingua franca of the war-torn country, emerged from the jungle to wreak havoc on defenceless Muslim civilians.
What drove anti-BALEKA to make such drastic moves against Muslims? Michel Djotodia, the SELEKA leader who had seized power in a coup last March, came under intense pressure from the leaders of neighbouring countries and the African Union to resign. Djotodia’s abrupt departure was designed to usher in political stability to this impoverished yet resource-rich country. Nevertheless, humanitarian workers and human rights activists warn that there is more violence now than at any time since the coup.
“Civilians remain in constant fear for their lives and have been largely left to fend for themselves,” said Martine Flokstra, emergency coordinator for the humanitarian aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières.
The Central African armed forces are ineffectual and have been accused by human rights groups of sexual violence and terror. There are an estimated 2,500 currently stationed in the Central African Republic and the African Union has an additional 1,000 peacekeepers with the multi-national United Nations Mission in the country, amounting to some 1,350 peacekeeping troops.
The question now is whether the country’s first woman President Catherine Samba-Panza, nicked-named “Mother Courage”, sworn in last week, will be able to heal the nation’s wounds. On Saturday, she gallantly spoke to her nation’s troops urging restraint. Altruistic impulses were at work as the former Bangui mayor attempted to instil peace in a crowd of vengeful Christians. They listened attentively, or so it seemed, to her. She does not, after all, want to be seen as a Christian leader, but as the “Mother of the Nation”. Yet, ominously as soon as she departed the soldiers identified an unfortunate Muslim man in the crowd and promptly lynched him. Her admonition and counsel obviously fell on deaf ears.