A cycle of revenge attacks involving beheadings, mass killings and incidents of cannibalism has been blamed on division between Christians and Muslims in Central African Republic (CAR). It has taken many months, almost a million people displaced and thousands dead, but CAR is at last on the world’s radar.

A country featured near the bottom of most development indicators, CAR’s severe development needs have often been overshadowed by conflicts raging in its more famous neighbours. Landlocked by Sudan and South Sudan, Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad and Cameroon, CAR occupies an unenviable geopolitical position.

Since October last year, horrific reports of so-called ‘sectarian’ violence have become more widespread in the international press. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius spoke of CAR being ‘on the verge of genocide’ in November last year. The parties to the conflict have routinely been described as majority-Muslim Séléka rebels and Christian militants ? known collectively as the anti-balaka, or ‘anti-machete’. A conflict that can be traced back to marginalisation and underdevelopment is at risk of taking on an entirely religious dimension. But is this really a religious conflict?


CAR is roughly the same size as France, but sparsely populated with a population of just 4.6 million. Since its independence from France in 1960, it has suffered frequent coups and internal conflicts. The lack of development and communication systems makes it virtually impossible to know the scale of current violence, or the precise number of casualties since the conflict began. Most reports of the current humanitarian situation have come from the capital, Bangui, as ? among other reasons ? there are very few tarmacked roads outside of the capital. But it is possible to piece together what has led to the current horror. 

In November 2012 disparate rebel groups, many of whom are believed to be Chadian and Sudanese troops, joined together to form the Séléka coalition, which took over the CAR army and sought to overthrow the president.

President François Bozizé tried to broker a peace agreement, but these efforts were short-lived and the agreement broke down in January last year. Bozié was ousted by a coup of approximately 5,000 Séléka fighters on 24th March. Séléka leader Michel Djotodia succeeded him to become the first Muslim president of CAR. He was himself forced to resign on 10th January 2014, having failed to quell the violence, and has been replaced by Catherine Samba-Panza, a Christian.

When gruesome images of violence reach our news feeds we search for explanations

Events in CAR went largely unreported in the British press between the overthrow of the government in March and the escalating violence in June last year. Armed clashes between the ex-rebel Séléka and the anti-balaka became particularly prevalent in August 2013, attracting more attention from international leaders.


In May 2013, Human Rights Watch reported a series of atrocities committed by the Séléka in the wake of the coup. The violence included reports of pillaging, summary executions and rape. A further report in September charted an escalating conflict in which more than 1,000 homes had been destroyed. It also appeared that the Séléka were recruiting and arming children. This pattern appears to be on the rise, with further stories of houses burned down and violent public executions.

In the absence of thorough investigation, it is perhaps unsurprising that the anti-balaka emerged to exact their own retribution. The acts of violence committed by this retaliatory group have been equally gruesome in nature to those of the Séléka rebels. There are horrific reports of cannibalism by both groups.

Human rights violations have also been committed by the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) based in the south-east of the country, though they are understood to be acting independently and are unlikely to join with any other militia group. The UN Security Council further warned in January this year of the increasing brutality of violence against children, including maimingand beheading, amid rampant sexual attacks.


The Séléka (‘alliance’) coalition is described as a majority-Muslim group, though not necessarily Islamist in their outlook. The loosely structured coalition came together in order to remove President Bozizé, but have since fractured into a number of territorial groups.

They were officially disbanded by President Djotodia in September 2013 and were allegedly integrated into the national army. However, ex-Séléka rebels continue to carry out attacks on the civilian population. 

It remains unclear whether there was a decisive political agenda specifically targeting the Christian community. Although their authority has not been verified, it has been claimed that two letters authored by now-ousted President Djotodia were sent to the Saudi Arabian government and the Organisation for Islamic Conference, suggesting that he sought to establish an Islamist agenda in CAR. 

The Bangui Declaration issued and signed by CAR’s most prominent Christian leaders in October 2013, describes recent events ‘of a jihadist nature’, and Séléka as a coalition ‘90% consisting of Muslim extremists from Chad and Sudan’. And there is evidence that Christians were targeted by the Séléka, even before the vigilante attacks. 

But not all agree with this description. Moreover, there was already a strong sense of marginalisation in the north ? the most underdeveloped part of the country, one of many existing grievances that were catalytic to the conflict. It has been suggested that Bozizé’s government was involved in significant nepotism ? placing family and friends in key political, business and security positions, which meant they used any financial investment to enrich themselves, not to develop CAR as a whole. ‘Bozizé…was involved in a Christian group that the majority of Christians in CAR would consider a sect, but he was seen as a Christian leader. The Muslims in the north saw the Christian leader as having had [his] turn, made a mess of it, and wanted to rule and give [themselves] a fair shot,’ says Zoe Baldock, head of advocacy at Open Doors.

‘I think it would be naïve to discount the influence [of Jihadists],’ says Baldock. ‘The presence of external fighters in Séléka will have had an influence. The countries that they’ve come from, and the ideology in those countries ? it would be difficult to imagine that not influencing the Séléka movement, or at least elements of it…But it’s not like in Mali, where [the conflict] was obviously a Jihadist agenda from the start.’ 


The anti-balaka are even harder to define. Spread out across the country there are small groups of vigilantes that have formed in response to atrocities committed by the Séléka. They appear to self-define as Christians only in so far as they wish to distinguish themselves from the majority-Muslim Séléka. They are often seen wearing traditional talismans, suggesting the influence of indigenous religions.

There does not seem to be a clear governing structure; they are united only by their desire for revenge and retribution. ‘Among their numbers are to be found village people who have been the victims of atrocities, Séléka deserters, regular soldiers ? and even Muslims,’ according to one Central African Christian pastor.

The anti-balaka are not entirely new; these militia formed the 1980s in response to a relatively long-standing conflict between farming communities and nomadic pastoralists. Villages also looked to such groups to defend their communities from bandits. The name ‘anti-machete’ refers to the most available weapon in this agriculturally dependent society.


When gruesome images of violence reach our news feeds we search for explanations. We simplify decades-long neglect and tribal frictions in an attempt to understand what makes people turn against one another in sudden outbursts of hate.

The population of CAR is roughly 80% Christian, 15% Muslim and 5% animist, with the Muslim community predominantly based in the north of the country. Significantly, there is no history of sectarian violence between these groups. It has taken many by surprise that the international community has so quickly come to distinguish the groups along religious lines.

Conversely, while Muslims have not always been spared, the Séléka have generally targeted the Christian community. It is easy to see how reprisal attacks would then be described as Christians punishing Muslims.

But religious leaders have distanced themselves from the violence, and have instead set an example of peace. Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bangui, sheltered Muslim spiritual leader, imam Omar Kabine Layama, in his home ? both as a symbol of unity, but also out of the necessity of protection. Together with Rev Nicolas Guerekoyame-Gbangou, a Central African MP and leader of the Evangelical Alliance in CAR, they have formed the Inter-Religious Forum which toured Europe in January seeking support for peace and security.

Stories of religious leaders protecting those from other faiths continue to emerge. One pastor reported: ‘The Séléka elements who have left Bangui and are withdrawing to the north are threatening to carry out reprisals against Christians there. Had the imam of the central mosque in Ndélé not intervened as he did, the Christians in the town would already have been massacred.’

And there are alternative explanations for this conflict. Cathrine Mahony, regional emergency coordinator for West Africa and the Great Lakes for the Catholic development agency CAFOD, describes the violence as a resource war, not rooted in religious motivation. ‘It’s easy to package it [as a sectarian conflict], because people can recognise that…they can relate to it, because they’ve seen it elsewhere,’ she says.

If we present it as a religious conflict, with images of Christians and Muslims attacking one another, that becomes the truth

Guerekoyame-Gbangou firmly dismissed the idea that this was a sectarian conflict when speaking in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies in January this year. ‘There is no Christian militia and there is no Muslim militia as well…This conflict is not religious at all,’ he said. 

Describing it as a religious conflict is attended by its own dangers, including perpetuating cycles of violence and overlooking the underlying problems. ‘The more we present it as a religious conflict, the more the images of Christians and Muslims attacking one another are perpetuated, people see that and respond to it ? it becomes a truth in itself. What we really want to focus on is the fact that the country’s being pillaged and all of the structures that would hold it together are being systematically destroyed…If we respond to it purely as a religious conflict, we’re only addressing the symptom; we need to get to the root causes and start building a country that is durable and sustainable.’ Guerekoyame-Gbangou also attributed the conflict to the decimation of previous governments.


It is estimated that up to 1 million people are now internally displaced, having fled their homes. Bishop Nestor Aziagbia of Bossangoa told Premier Christian Radio: ‘People are being killed on both sides ? Muslim and non-Muslim. People are living in fear.’ There are 57 refugee camps in Bangui alone, with the largest camp based in Bangui airport sheltering an estimated 100,000 people. 

Mahony, who visited CAR in November, says: ‘I was quite shocked. I’ve worked in places of chronic conflict and as soon as I arrived in Bangui I could feel the difference. The streets were deserted at night, not because there was an enforced curfew, but just because people didn’t feel safe enough to go out. There were multiple hijackings we were hearing about, and people being shot if they made any resistance.

‘One of the things that struck me most was the sense of uncertainty,’ Mahony continues. ‘When you go to places in conflict or crisis, you sometimes find that everyone’s an expert ? but no one could foresee what would happen in CAR, and no one is confident about making predictions. This is unprecedented and alarming.’

Conflicts such as these have a devastating effect on the long term welfare of citizens. It is thought that 70% of children are now not attending school, mostly out of fear of violence, according to a UNICEF report published in September. The same report also says that more than half of the country’s schools have been destroyed in the conflict. The spread of disease is a further risk in refugee camps, and Médecins Sans Frontières have begun a measles vaccination programme for children in the hope of preventing an epidemic.


The term ‘failed state’ has been used extensively to describe the current situation in CAR, but both Central African politicians and experienced field workers believe this is not a new concern. The current crisis arose out of decades of underdevelopment, corruption and violent uprisings. 

In its 2013 Human Development Report, the United Nations Development Programme ranked CAR 180 out of 187 countries profiled in the study, which measures life expectancy, educational attainment and command over the resources required for a decent living. Add to this the effect of targeted attacks on key workers such as civil servants and doctors, and any infrastructure that was in place has now been undermined.

‘There is no administration, no judiciary, no school,’ says Aziagbia. ‘When you bring people to the police, there’s nothing they can do. There is nobody ? no system to take care of them. The country is completely down; nothing is working ? that is the real problem.’

The lack of infrastructure makes it unlikely that economic interests will provide a solution to the conflict. Likewise, although thereare substantial mineral resources, including gold and diamond mines, the instability makes it an unattractive prospect for investment. There are very few countries that have achieved substantial development gains through these kinds of resources, which is why development organisations such as CAFOD are advocating an emphasis on securing villages to enable people to re-establish their agricultural livelihoods. While people are living in fear or away from home, normal life is impossible. 


One thousand six hundred French troops were deployed in December 2013, supporting the 4,600-strong African Union presence. French UN envoy, Ambassador Gérard Araud, suggests that as many as 10,000 troops will be required to control the violence.

On 12th January 2014 it was reported that French troops had negotiated a partial truce in one area of the capital. On a broader scale it is questionable how effective such efforts can be ? partly owing to the lack of foreign troops to enforce it, and further complicated by the conflict’s disparate nature. 

The Inter-Religious Forum, together with numerous development agencies, is calling for greater international support, to ensure that violence does not escalate beyond all control. While there is a strong argument to avoid discussion of the sectarian nature of the violence, it is easy to see why the French minister Laurent Fabius used the term ‘genocide’. Such a loaded term draws the international community to attention, haunted by the memory of past conflicts. There is a danger, though, that if we wait until the conflict reaches full-blown ‘genocide’ ? at which point warranting greater international commitment ? it will be too late.