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.
The Current Crisis
The current 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. 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 source of division in CAR, the cycles of revenge attacks have created deep divisions within the population, providing the fault lines for ongoing violence.
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 are now in need of emergency assistance. The United Nations has designated CAR a level-3 humanitarian crisis—the highest level for an emergency.
While the level of violence has dropped from its peak, there is still insecurity across the country and sporadic targeted killing of civilians. As a result of these conditions, there is a de facto division of CAR into Christian and Muslim segments. Small enclaves within each have taken refuge in neighborhoods, mosques, and churches, and they remain at high risk. There is also the threat of fresh cycles of violence being triggered by the return of those who have been displaced.
Millions of Civilians at Risk
State institutions have largely collapsed as officials have fled and the country’s infrastructure has been pillaged. Security forces also collapsed during the conflict, and international forces are only able to fill part of the need. Hospitals and schools are essentially nonfunctional as a result of looting and insecurity, setting the stage for health crises and education impacts well into the future. And to make matters worse, the violence has disrupted the ability to plant, cultivate, and harvest crops; according to the UN, some 1.6 million people face severe food shortages.
Although it is difficult to verify the number of civilian casualties during the conflict, reports indicate that a round of killings in Bangui in early December 2013 left between 500 and 1,000 people dead in just two days. The UN estimates that more than 400,000 civilians are internally displaced and another 400,000 are 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.
CAR is located in a volatile part of the continent, and there is potential for the crisis to seep beyond its porous borders. The presence of the Lord’s Resistance Army in the country’s east is an ongoing concern, as is the impact of armed actors moving around the region, including in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and South Sudan. A growing number of child soldiers are being drawn into the conflict, with reports of as many as 3,500 among the former Séléka fighters and with others joining self-defense militias. In addition, large influxes of refugees could threaten the relative stability of Cameroon and Chad.
The international community is taking action to help resolve the conflict and provide humanitarian assistance, but more sustained engagement is needed to prevent even further disaster.
Read The Obama Administration and the Struggles to Prevent Atrocities in the Central Africa 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.