Since gaining independence from France in 1960, the Central African Republic (CAR) has struggled to provide safety and security for its people. Over the last five decades, the country’s political history has been punctuated by military rule and coups d’état and characterized by weak state authority, internal ethnic tensions, and frequent armed insurgencies, including operations by the Lord’s Resistance Army in its eastern provinces.
political and ethnic violence since 2013
The most recent political crisis began when a group of predominantly Muslim rebel movements banded together in a loose alliance known as Séléka to oppose the regime of then-President François Bozizé, who came to power in a coup in 2003. These militia committed atrocities against civilians as they marched on the capital, Bangui, in March 2013, and they continued after seizing power. Largely Christian self-defense forces, known as the Anti-Balaka, opposed the Séléka and began targeting Muslim civilians, carrying out reprisal attacks on civilians after the Séléka was removed from power.
Whereas religious tensions had not previously been a major source of division in CAR, the cycles of revenge attacks have created deeper divisions within the population, increasing the likelihood of continued violence on the basis of identity.
The fighting has resulted in a massive humanitarian crisis in this country of 4.6 million people. The destruction of CAR’s infrastructure, including schools, medical facilities, and entire villages, during the Séléka advance and in the subsequent violence has severely limited civilians’ access to the basic necessities of food, water, and shelter. More than two million civilians were in need of emergency assistance as of mid-2017.
From late 2013 to mid-2014, at the height of the conflict, there was a de facto division of CAR into Christian and Muslim segments. Small enclaves took refuge in homogeneous neighborhoods, mosques, and churches, before thousands of displaced Muslims were were evacuated from the capital under international protection. A 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry report concluded that abuses by the Anti-Balaka amounted to ethnic cleansing of the country’s Muslim community.
Millions of Civilians at Risk
State institutions collapsed as officials fled and the country’s infrastructure was destroyed. Security forces also collapsed during the conflict, and international forces are only able to fill part of the need. Looting and insecurity left hospitals and schools essentially nonfunctional, setting the stage for health crises and education impacts well into the future. The violence also disrupted the ability to plant, cultivate, and harvest crops; according to the UN, some 1.1 million people face food shortages as of mid-2017.
Although it is difficult to verify the number of civilian casualties during the conflict, the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry report offered a conservative estimate that 3,000-6,000 people had been killed between January 2013 and December 2014. Direct attacks against civilians have been perpetrated by all armed actors and children have been forced to fight or act as servants. The UN estimates that as of June 2017, more than 500,000 civilians had been internally displaced and another 481,000 were living in neighboring countries, with most in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, and Chad.
There has been near-complete impunity within CAR for crimes committed in Bangui and outside of the capital due to the lack of a police and security presence, limited functioning of the judicial system, and threats against judges and prosecutors. In September 2014 the International Criminal Court opened an investigation into crimes committed in CAR since 2012.
The international community has taken action to help resolve the conflict and provide humanitarian assistance. National elections were held in 2016, replacing the interim government that led the country since 2014, but the country still faces a long road to recovery.
Read The Obama Administration and the Struggles to Prevent Atrocities in the Central African Republic (PDF), a lessons-learned study on the US government's response to the mass atrocity crisis in CAR, by Leonard and Sophie Davis Genocide Prevention Fellow Charlie Brown.