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Deepening divisions in CAR

Philipp Sandner / sh
April 29, 2014

As violence continues in Central African Republic, observers warn the country risks becoming divided into a Muslim north and a Christian south. Over 1,000 Muslims have left the capital Bangui, fearing for their safety.

Heavily-laden trucks making up the convoy evacuating Muslims from Bangui (photo: ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

"Liberation!" is the the cry heard from hundreds of Christians in Bangui, capital of Central African Republic (CAR) as they storm the district known as PK12. They are rejoicing at the departure of some 1,300 Muslims who leave the city in a convoy of trucks, escorted by soldiers of the African Union's International Support Mission in Central Africa (MISCA). The soldiers just watch as Christians plunder the houses of the fleeing Muslims.

That is an eyewitness account of events last Sunday (27.04.2014) in Bangui. It is yet another lamentable development in a country that, since the ousting of former President Francois Bozize, has steadily become caught up in a spiral of violence between the Muslim and Christian population groups.

After seizing power in a coup, Michel Djotodia declared himself interim president. Djotodia is a Muslim who distanced himself from the Muslim Seleka alliance in his first year of office which he then formally dissolved. But the militia members continued with their acts of violence against the population unhindered, causing Djotodia to resign in January 2014 as a result of international pressure.

Muslims loading their possessions on to trucks (photo: ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Many Muslims no longer feel safe in BanguiImage: ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

He was replaced by Catherine Samba-Panza, a Christian. However, since Djotodia's departure, the Muslim minority no longer seems to feel safe in the capital.

"Most Muslims are leaving the cities in the west as well as Bangui," Thierry Vircoulon of the International Crisic Group (ICG) told DW. "This is because they are surrounded by a hostile population as well as some Christian anti-Balaka militia." These militia groups were formed in response to the Seleka alliance's coup in 2013. Since then the conflict between the two groups has raged throughout the entire country.

A divided population?

The Muslims in Bangui see themselves predominantly as victims. "We Muslims are peace-loving people. We have no problems with the Christians here. We have never killed a Christian," said Aboubakar Amdjoda. He lives in the PK5 district, another mainly Muslim part of Bangui. But now he also wants to leave. All remaining Muslims would like to move to the Muslim north, he said.

Human rights organizations are concerned by this development. Amnesty International, quoted by German news agency epd, speaks of a "short-term solution," while the Society for Threatened Peoples warned in a press release of a "division of the country into a Christian-dominated south and a Muslim-dominated north."

The capital Bangui, with its mainly Christian population, lies in the south, while the northeast is still under the control of Seleka rebels.

Catherine Samba-Panza taking the oath as interim president in January 2014 (photo: REUTERS/Siegfried Modola)
Catherine Samba-Panza was sworn in as interim president in January 2014Image: Reuters

By evacuating Muslims from Bangui, the international community is supporting the wish of the Seleka rebels for an independent state in the north, warns CAR's minister for reconciliation Antoinette Montaigne. However, the UN's International Organization for Migration (IOM) points to the wish expressed by the Muslim population to leave the city. But there were also people in the PK5 district and living close to the central mosque who would have liked to stay, says IOM's Guiseppe Loprete.

For Thierry Vircoulon, the evacuation is an emergency move in a crisis situation which looks set to continue for a long time. "The choice was between a bad and a very bad solution," Vircoulon said. "The decision was taken for the bad solution but at least that considerably reduced the risk of people being murdered."

A powerless government

The government under interim president Samba-Panza is committed to bringing about reconciliation between different population groups.

But there is a lack of functioning administrative structures for the government to fall back on. The director of the GIGA Institute of African Affairs in Hamburg, Andreas Mehler, says the government can exert only minimal influence. The fact that Samba-Panza is a candidate of concensus, who was not involved in any of the previous conflicts, does not really help much. And the 8,000 African and French soldiers in the country are often only spectators, as was seen at the weekend when men, believed to be Seleka rebels, attacked a hospital of the aid organization Doctors Without Borders in the northern town of Nanga Boguila.

MISCA soldiers accompanying the Muslim convoy (photo: ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Despite the MISCA escort, the Muslim convoy came under attackImage: ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

More than 20 people were reported dead, including three MSF workers. In 2013 there were also attacks directed against international aid organizations.

The convoy taking the 1,300 Muslims to the north was attacked on Monday afternoon (28.04.2014) by armed men hiding in trees. Two Muslim men were killed and six others wounded, a MISCA soldier accompanying the group told news agency AFP.

Thierry Vircoulon of the ICG would like to see a greater commitment from the European Union which recently agreed to launch a military operation in CAR to restore stability. The EU should not only be there to provide security but should also work to promote dialogue in the country, Vircoulon said.