Every day brings reports of new atrocities in the Central African Republic (CAR), where fighting between Muslims and Christians has left at least two thousand dead and displaced more than 800-thousand others. The crisis began in March 2012 when the Séléka, a loose, untrained coalition of Muslim rebels from the northeast, seized control of the capital, Bangui and installed their leader as president. Now, as Muslims are being targeted in retaliation in what has been described as "relentless wave of coordinated violence," there are fears that the violence unleashed by Seleka rebels two years ago may lead to years of regional instability.
Séléka simply means "alliance" in Sango, the language most widely spoken in the CAR. It is what the International Crisis Group has termed a "consortium of malcontents," disparate rebel factions from the northeast of the country, some of which date back to earlier insurgencies against the earlier government of Jean-Bedel Bokassa.
The Séléka had a laundry list of what many say were legitimate complaints against self-proclaimed "Emperor" François Bozizé and other governments before his, including corruption, nepotism and political marginalization.
"Their grievances are that they are not considered part of the country," says Louisa Lombard, a cultural anthropologist and post-doctoral fellow at the University of California at Berkeley's Department Geography. Lombard says the grievances include "that they've been totally ignored and neglected, and that the government has attacked them on a few specific occasions."
Lombard says there is widespread discrimination against minority Muslims in the country's northeast "who are seen as foreigners, regardless of where they were born," and thus they don't receive "a lot of largesse from the central government."
The northeast has an industrial-grade diamond industry, control of which has been somewhat of a factor for the rebels, says Lombard, but the greater issue has been access to the central government.
Additionally, the Séléka accused Bozize of failing to honor a 2007 peace deal which promised aid and jobs for rebels if they would lay down their arms.
March on Bangui
At the time they announced their coalition in September 2012, the Séléka numbered only about 1,000-2,000, but they were joined rebel fighters from the Janjaweed in neighboring Sudan, Chad and even Uganda. In December, they set off on a three month march to Bangui, which fell in March 2013. Bozizé fled to Cameroon, and Séléka leader Michel Djotodia assumed the presidency. The coup was seemingly effortless for three important reasons:
Bozizé, kept his army weak and unpaid (to offset the threat of a military coup) so they were no match for the rebels.
France, which had sent jets to repel rebels in 2006 and 2007, now said its several hundred troops in the CAR would function only to protect French nationals, not the CAR government, and thus didn't stand in Séléka's way.
The rebels were well-armed, which has led to questions about whether they are funded from the outside. In April, 2013, Bozize accused Eritrea of sending weapons through Chad, accusations both Eritrea and Chad deny.
Weapons aren't hard to get in the CAR.
A 2008 small arms survey by the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International and Development estimated that more than 50,000 weapons were circulating in the country, outside of government control-weapons which made their way over porous borders by indirect transfers by defeated or demobilized forces from Chad, Sudan or the DRC. Weapons were also stolen from military stores during coup attempts, for example, or during anti-poaching operations and weapons were shipped from France, Chad, Libya and other countries to boost various past regimes, or brought in by refugees from neighboring conflicts.
Role of religion
Some analysts have cast the conflict as a religious war, part of a greater struggle for Islamist domination of the continent, especially in light of reprisals by Christians against the Muslim population of the CAR. But most analysts disagree with this view.
John Campbell, a Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), stresses that this did not begin as a religious conflict.
"It started essentially as a rivalry between two warlords vying for political power [Bozizé and Djotodia], and particularly for possession of the city of Bangui. They, in turn, appealed to religious identities and also ethnic identities in order to bolster their political ambitions, something that in the end becomes very, very hard to stop," Campbell said.
The Séléka turned against the Christian population that had marginalized them, burning churches, torturing, killing, and looting, in part because they weren't a paid army. Subsequently, the Christian population created militias of their own--the anti-balaka, or "anti-machete," staging equally bloody attacks on Muslims.
Djotodia gave into pressure and stepped down on January 10 of this year. Ten days later, parliament elected businesswoman, lawyer and Bangui mayor Catherine Samba-Panza as interim president.
Samba-Panza has signaled her intention to re-unify the country and end the violence, appointing both Séléka and anti-balaka members to her cabinet and charging a newly-reorganized military to protect both Muslims and Christians. But she will need help.
Muslims now targeted
And there are few signs the violence will end anytime soon. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned this week that a wave of 'ethnic cleansing" has taken hold and called on French and African peacekeepers to protect Muslims from attack.
Human Rights Watch emergencies director Peter Bouckaert, who just returned from a three-week stay in CAR, told VOA's English-to-Africa coordinated attacks against Muslims began last September and are continuing.
"Literally, the entire population of the capital Bangui and of cities and villages throughout the northwest and southwest are fleeing terrific violence. I was there for three weeks, and we saw 12 lynchings and attempted lynchings in the capital alone. An in village after village and town after town, there's been massacres committed by the anti-balaka militia," he said.
Bouckaert says the anti-balaka forces and their allies, who he says are well armed, clearly have the upper-hand.
"The future of the Muslim community, who has lived in this country for countless generations, is now at stake as they flee en masse to Chad and Cameroon to try and escape this wave of horrific violence," he said.
The way forward
Thierry Vircoulon, who manages the Central Africa Project for the International Crisis Group says in response to the violence the UN will shortly be sending 500 EU troops to supplement 1,600 French and 5,000 African Union troops already there.
"I think the most important thing to do in the short term is first to reconstitute the state security services-the police and the army; and secondly, re-establish the road between Cameroon and Bangui, because this road is not only the road that brings all the supplies to the capital city, but it's also the main road for trade," Vircoulon said.
But Vircoulon stresses any foreign troops are only a "bridging force."
"The EU says that the mission is a six-month mission, and they're not going to solve anything in six months. What is expected is that at some stage, the U.N. will actually decide to send peace-keeping troops to the CAR," Vircoulon said.
The UN has extended the CAR mission for a year and has authorized the use of force by EU troops, if necessary. Earlier, the world body estimated would take another 10,000 troops to end the fighting and will consider the issue in March.
Meanwhile, the African Union has placed a $409 million price tag on bringing peace and stability to the CAR. Donors have so far pledged only $315 million-but as seen in other global conflicts, funds don't always come through. Sadly, says Campbell, it took nine months for the world to sit up and take notice of the bloodshed in the CAR. Unless and until the conflict spills over into a regional war, the CAR will likely remain "pretty marginal" to the interests of a great many states.