1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Religion as weapon of war?

Simone Schlindwein / sst
December 21, 2013

The Central African Republic has been marred by violence following a Muslim-led coup in the predominantly Christian country. But the conflict isn't just about religion - it's a struggle for power.

Two Seleka fighters (Photo: Simone Schlindwein)
Image: DW/S. Schlindwein

"Ndele isn't far away" is the wishful name of a small Islamic shop selling prayer beads and copies of the Koran in Miskine, a bustling district in the Central African Republic's capital Bangui. Ndele, in the country's north, some 650 kilometers (400 miles) from Bangui, was the first city captured by the Seleka, an alliance of various Muslim rebel groups. In March, they marched into the capital, overthrowing the government.

Miskine has traditionally been the Muslim district in the predominantly Catholic capital. Before the coup, Muslims used to live in peace alongside Christians, with their giant mosque standing alongside three churches. Today, it is the scene of a civil war, with Christian militias fighting to the death in an attempt to drive out the Muslim rebels.

But Ahmet Adam, brother of a rebel commander and son of the Miskine mosque's imam, denied religion had sparked the war.

People in a refugee camp (photo: Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images)
The UN says more than 700,000 people have been displacedImage: Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images

"It's not a conflict between Muslims and Christians. We are one nation," Adam said, saying it was discrimination that led to the coup. "Muslims were viewed as foreigners here in the capital. But we have rights as well."

Some 10 to 15 percent of the Central African Republic's population are Muslims. Most of them live in the far north, on the other side of swampland that is impassable for six months of the year. The region is regarded as an underdeveloped enclave in an already poor nation: No schools, no hospitals, no roads.

Line of separation

Since it takes ten days to reach the capital Bangui, most Muslims look instead to countries to the north that are physically and culturally closer to them - Sudan and Chad. They seek medical treatment in a hospital in Nyala, Sudan. They send their children to Koran schools in Khartoum.

This cultural border separating Muslim North Africa from Christian Sub-Saharan Africa runs right through the Central African Republic.

Map of the Central African Republic
Image: DW

The coup pushed this border further south. Christian President Francois Bozize fled to neighboring Cameroon and Seleka leader Michel Djotodia declared himself President. He is the country's first Muslim head of state.

New problems

Ahmed Adam's brother Nouredin, one of the most powerful Seleka commanders, became interior minister. "The Central African Republic is one of the least developed countries in the world, even though it's a rich country," Nouredin Adam said.

The Seleka alliance had started this rebellion, Nouredin said, because Bozize had done nothing for the people. "He treated people badly. He ordered them arrested and killed. He didn't have vision."

General Nouredim Adam (Photo: Simone Schlindwein)
Nouredin Adam says ousted President Bozize didn't do enough for his peopleImage: DW/S. Schlindwein

At first, the new government said it wanted to do a better job. It set out to boost its power base in the underdeveloped north and to improve the lot of its people.

But Seleka's takeover of the capital caused new problems. Fighters plundered almost every house and destroyed the city's infrastructure. Djotodia's transitional government was paralyzed by ineptness - ministries lacked even tables and chairs - and infighting. Among the losers in the power struggle was Nouredin Adam - ousted after he criticized Djotodia's inability to control Seleka fighters.

Rebellion and counterrebellion

Bozize organized a counterstrike. From his exile, he mobilized Christian militias to fight against the Muslim rebels. This didn't prove to be difficult, with Christians feeling terrorized by their new Muslim rulers.

Once again, a country the size of Texas rich in natural resources faces a dismaying choice. Should the brutal Muslim rebels be ousted, the likely winner will be the country's unpopular kleptocratic Christian former president. Regardless of religion, it is the population that is suffering in this civil war.