The murder of a young motorcycle taxi driver unleashed bloodshed and chaos in the capital of the Central African Republic this weekend, threatening to unravel a fledgling peace process that brought the nation back from the brink of genocide last year.
Residents said the man's body, discovered near a mosque in Bangui on Saturday, had been mutilated, stoking fears that he had been killed because he was Muslim. Muslim militants attacked a Christian neighborhood shortly thereafter, and Christian militias retaliated, leaving at least 42 people dead. Local groups told the United Nations Children’s agency UNICEF that a teenage boy was found decapitated, in a disturbing reprise of the brutal sectarian attacks that rocked the capital in 2013 and 2014.
As militants roamed the streets this week, setting homes ablaze and looting the offices of aid organizations, thousands shuttered themselves in their homes or attempted to flee. At least 27,400 people have been displaced inside the city, including 10,000 people who fled to the grounds of an airport where thousands were already sheltering after the violence in 2013, the U.N. refugee agency said.
"We fear that the violence that we're seeing in Bangui is a return to the dark days of late 2013 and 2014, when thousands were killed and tens of thousands had to flee their homes," U.N. refugee agency spokesman Leo Dobbs told reporters on Tuesday.
Here’s what we know about the current outbreak of violence and what it means for the country’s fragile peace process.
Who is fighting whom: Muslim and Christian militia groups that were formed along sectarian lines during the previous conflict.
The Seleka militia, a coalition of anti-government fighters who are mostly from the country’s Muslim minority, emerged in 2012. In March 2013, they overthrew President François Bozizé and installed rebel leader Michel Djotodia as president. Once in power, the Seleka rebels wrought a campaign of terror on the population and refused Djotodia’s orders to disband.
Rival militias, calling themselves "anti-balaka" (mostly translated as "anti-machete"), formed to protect members of the country’s Christian majority, but they brought terrors of their own, massacring Muslim civilians and hounding the Muslim population from large swaths of the country.
What began as a power struggle took on the rhetoric and fanaticism of religious violence. “Although many Christian and Muslim communities lived as friends and neighbours before the war, the conflict became coded in religious terms and vicious inter-communal violence between Christian and Muslim groups broke out,” wrote field researcher Kasper Agger and senior fellow Christopher Day at the Washington-based conflict resolution group the Enough Project. The sectarian violence left at least 5,000 people dead and displaced nearly 1 million.
After the rival militias signed a ceasefire deal in July 2014 and agreed earlier this year to lay down their arms, a semblance of normal life returned to the capital. But elsewhere in the country, militants hung on to their weapons and outbreaks of sectarian violence continued.
French troops and African Union peacekeepers were deployed to the country in late 2013 (the United Nations took over the peacekeeping mission in 2014), but they struggled to contain violence outside of the capital. The mission has also been blighted by accusations that peacekeepers sexually abused children.
On Tuesday, U.N. peacekeepers clashed with militia fighters in the capital and helicopters from the French mission fired on militants near the airport, witnesses told Reuters.
Why is this happening now? Despite the ceasefire, tensions in the Central African Republic continued to boil.
Muslims, in particular, felt that they were under siege. Tens of thousands of Muslims had fled the country during the previous conflict, and Muslims still living under anti-balaka control had been forced to go into hiding, convert to Christianity, or remain holed up in enclaves protected by international peacekeepers, the human rights group Amnesty International reported in July.
The motorcycle taxi driver was murdered in PK-5, a Bangui neighborhood where many Muslims had fled after they were chased from other zones by anti-balaka militias, Agence France-Presse reported.
Even before the violence broke out, the Central African Republic was tense ahead of presidential elections scheduled for Oct. 18 to replace interim leader Catherine Samba-Panza. Experts had warned that the country was unprepared for the vote and said it was a dangerous gamble to proceed while the militias still held sway.
The latest outbreak of violence “shows that inter-communal tensions are still very high and that the prospect of early elections is adding fuel to the fire,” ICG's acting Africa director, EJ Hogendoorn, said in a statement on Monday. “The international community is falling into the trap of financing transitional elections before the communal hold of militias has been broken.”
Meanwhile, Samba-Panza blamed the unrest on former politicians, including exiled former president Bozizé, seeking to return to power. The head of Bozizé’s Kwa Na Kwa party, Bertin Bea, said in August that the former president would run in the October election, despite an international arrest warrant accusing him of crimes against humanity and incitement to genocide. Bea himself was arrested shortly thereafter, according to Agence France-Presse.
Samba-Panza said this week the Oct. 18 election will likely be postponed again. World leaders are scheduled to meet to discuss the crisis in the Central African Republic on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Thursday. Samba-Panza left the General Assembly meeting early when the crisis erupted.
Why hasn't the government been able to solve the crisis? The interim administration, established in 2014 to oversee the transition to peace, faces a gargantuan task.
Samba-Panza -- previously a widely respected mayor and civil society leader, and only the third female president in Africa -- raised great hopes, but her administration has very little control over the country, and her failure to bring stability has led to sporadic anti-government protests. She tried to bring members of the warring factions into her cabinet, but some analysts warn that keeping the old guard in power stops the country from moving forward. As the Enough Project's Agger and Day explain:
“Over time, the machinery of regime politics in Bangui has changed little, only occupied by different sets of elite operators that view access to the state as a way to attain privilege and accumulate personal wealth. The current Transitional Government has slotted nicely into this pattern, with President Samba-Panza stocking her government with close associates, recycled elites, and members with ties to the Séléka and anti-Balaka.”
At the same time, the militia groups have fragmented into different warring factions, making it even harder to negotiate a way out of the crisis. And across the country, they are still flush with power and resources, including proceeds from the illicit trade of the country’s gold and diamonds.
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