The Central African Republic: an eye-witness reports
Seleka, the sango word for ‘Union’ is the name adopted by the union of various rebel movements who seized power in the Central African Republic (CAR) by storming the Presidential Palace on 24 March 2013.
On 5 December, a UN Resolution allowed France to send armed troops into the Central African Republic (CAR) to neutralise the conflict and protect the civilians. We interviewed Fr Jean-Luc Ragonneau SJ, until recently professor at the St Marc Interdiocesan Seminary at Bimbo in the suburbs of Bangui.
Fr Ragonneau, you have just spent two years in the Central African Republic. Could you describe how the situation has changed over the past few years for the populations living there?
What’s happening there at the moment can be explained by looking at the recent past. This country has seen a string of coups, one after the other. Each time a self-styled “saviour” came to power, very often with assistance from external forces – especially from France – but after a while the exercise of power became rotten at the core. The population had no confidence in those who were ruling them, whose only preoccupation was “to eat” (meaning, to line their pockets). For ordinary folk, all that just led every time to ever increasing misery, persistent insecurity and woefully inadequate resources for health and education. That’s why, from the outset, people took a benign view of the Seleka rebellion, only to realise later that all their abusive acts (looting, thefts, rapes, destruction of the civil state, assassinations, etc) were not aiming at establishing a new order but were rather “to eat” at the expense of the population, while waiting for … what ? Nobody knows! The politicians in charge – self-appointed to some posts, often the most important! – were unable to restore lost hope. Today the population has had enough: they are waiting for someone better to come from outside, but who will be able to unite them ? Who is able to rule them?
Has religion played any part at all in the conflict currently raging in the CAR?
Everything was set off by political claims and counter-claims : it was necessary to get rid of President Bozizé, who had transformed the democracy into a dictatorship which at any moment could instil fear into everyone (illegal arrests, corruption, etc). Another driver for these local conflicts is the economy: too many people surviving on almost nothing, without any hope of a better future.
People are accusing the Seleka rebels who seized power on 24 March 2013 of wanting to set up an Islamic republic. Can you confirm this?
That’s the viewpoint expressed in a great many media, only interested in reporting facts and what is happening at the moment. The CAR is made up of about 80% Christian (all denominations taken together, and sometimes it is difficult to recognise the Christian dimension) and 12% Muslims, while the rest either follow other faiths or have none. Everybody used to live together with mutual respect.
Let’s take just one example that illustrates why this conflict cannot be laid at the door of religion. The “anti-balaka” (“anti-machete”) movements are self-defence groups that have organised themselves in efforts to react to the ex-Selekans, very often uniquely with machetes. In their 7 December message, the Bishops' Conference of the Central African Republic deplored “the mixups that have arisen on the subject of the anti-balaka groups and lumping them together with Christian movements. In fact, the name “anti-balaka” refers to the part of the population that is fed up with the great number of abuses committed by the Seleka rebels. We would still like to emphasise that not all anti-balaka people are Christians, and not all Christians are anti-balaka. The same is true for ex-Seleka and Muslims.” What could have given that impression? The Seleka is a coalition where CAR natives are in a minority: it includes many people from Chad and Sudan. It’s true they are Muslim, but right now that has nothing to do with the jihadists who are trying to introduce an Islamic State. Their behaviour is in contradiction with numerous passages in the Koran, a fact which CAR imams have no hesitation in pointing out to them.
Other mixups have led to the transformation of this conflict into a religious war, but this transformation is linked to certain facts: the looting of Catholic communities (but where did they get the vehicles from?) and to deliberate negative propaganda (by some people, lurking in the shadows) to a lack of decision-making without which no State worthy of its name is able to exist. In short, these confusions are a great way of converting a complex situation into an explosive one.
France intervened in the CAR at the beginning of December, with the backing of a UN mandate. What in your opinion are its chances of success?
It was necessary to go in with a show of force, and it is true that the French army can instil fear in the hearts of men who are less well-equipped and totally disorganised. But it’s one thing to restore order to the main arteries of the major cities, and quite another to restore order everywhere. What is likely to happen is that the ‘ex-rebels’ will play a cat and mouse game by disappearing into residential districts or into the hinterland - that’s where the military might will not be enough ! It will definitely need a lot of time and every kind of resource to put back into the saddle a government that is worthy, capable and competent, to train up the right people, to banish all the old habits. A lot of people are waiting for a positive government for the country, but in its short history it has experienced so many setbacks!
The ‘founding father’ of the country was Barthélémy Boganda. Elected President in 1958, his dream was to create a large, independent and federal Central African nation, and he even had a vision of the emergence of a United States of Latin Africa. This vision mirrors that of Robert Schuman. Do you think this vision could be relaunched?
The vision of Bathélémy Boganda was realistic, because he was aware that his small country was land-locked, a factor which would weigh heavily on the economy. These days, the CAR and several neighbouring states are working together (or are at least trying to) through several organisations such as CEMAC (the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa). The difficulty lies in the fact that trust is not the mortar holding everything together: you only have to listen to the accusations of double-dealing – or even triple-dealing – games played by Chad and Cameroon. The people of CAR know that their country is small and poor, yet with resources that could be exploited – but they are convinced that everybody is out to seize the lot. That was one of the arguments advanced in a speech by Bozizé which ended up in the stoning of the French Embassy; and the same goes today when some people suspect the reasons which prompt France or any other neighbouring State to intervene. If Boganda’s project is going to be realised, in some form or other, this will need the development of a country that would be able to speak on an equal footing and no longer as a perpetual suppliant. What will be the road towards reconciliation and renewal for the people of CAR? It will certainly be long - once everybody has calmed down.
Interview conducted on 9 December 2013
Translated from the original text in French