I believe the CAR crisis is at base a land use crisis (pastoralists vs farmers), fueled by climate change (desertification pushing pasturelands further south, across borders), meddled in because of uranium (France’s oil), funded by minerals though fought over trauma (there’s no incentive for anyone, at any level, to stop). I’m trying to figure out how to explain all that. Here’s one try:
One of the Central African Republic phenomena that doesn’t get reported or talked about, and that gets a little deeper into the complexity of how this is not a religious conflict at its root, is that the Lebanese and Arab merchant class, the owners of Bangui’s big supermarkets and nicer restaurants– who speak Arabic and wear head scarves or boubous, who decorate their stores with paintings in Arabic script and have prayer rugs folded in the corners– are still around, still owning and selling and walking in downtown Bangui, still speaking Arabic to each other, still practicing Islam in public. It’s simplistic (though at times expedient) to say that Muslims are being ethnically cleansed (lynched, murdered, ghettoized, bombed, chased out of) in CAR. The violence is more specific than that.
I asked a Central African (Christian) driver about it today and he said, of course no one targeted the Lebanese merchants. According to the driver, people only targeted the black Muslims in CAR for reprisals because they saw the Central African Muslims as collaborators with the Seleka. To the extent that partial truths are true, what he said is true: some Central African Muslims did welcome the Seleka victory last year (after all, while some Seleka are Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries, many are Central Africans, from neglected and marginalized parts of CAR; otherss joined later to partake in the spoils and power), and still others benefited from the massive Seleka looting that methodically pillaged and burned villages across the Christian and non-Muslim parts of the country, which were comparatively better developed than the barren eastern dryland from where the Seleka first organized. Others still were implicated when Seleka forced Muslims in towns across the country to house Seleka troops while they went on their pillaging. Certainly, in Bossangoa for example, the rumor was that even the Muslims trapped in the École Liberté camp were hoarding the belongings of Christians seeking refuge in the camp at the Évêché. When the last Muslims evacuated École Liberté, their former neighbors were already looting (or “reclaiming,” depending on your perspective) the scraps left behind before the last Muslim person had boarded the last truck.
So, a partial truth: some Muslim Central Africans collaborated with the Seleka. But not the whole truth. The whole truth is the collective punishment, the collective revenge, being exacted upon all CAR’s Muslims starting with the pogram in Bangui in December 2013 when the Christian self-defense militia pushed the Seleka out of Bangui and turned their violence against the civilian Muslim population.
But not all of them. What you ended up with is that during the mass of anti-Muslim mob violence in December, January, and February, some non-Muslim Black Central Africans were ‘accidentally’ attacked and lynched for looking “foreign” and “Muslim” while the publicly practicing, Muslim, Arab expatriate merchants continued to live and work in the country. No one was really safe in CAR at that time, but this group, despite their public Islamic practice and actual immigrant status, were and are generally excepted from the anti-Muslim violence that is driving Central African Muslims from the country they were born in.
And that leads to the other mindfuck in all this. The language that is used to justify the ethnic cleansing of Muslims from CAR (the language of the driver I talked to, even as he explained how expatriate, Arab Muslims are not implicated in the crisis) is that “Muslims are foreign.” Muslims come from Chad. The mothers of Muslims come from Chad. Muslims are nomads. For those whose grandfathers were born here, their families are foreign, are nomads. It’s not foreign-ness per se that is targeted. It is the ‘foreign-ness’ of pastoralists, the association of settled Muslim communities in CAR with pastoralist Peulh and other Sahelian peoples whose herds may range from Chad, Niger, and Mali through Cameroun, CAR, and into the DR Congo.
In CAR, you can talk about conflict over diamonds and gold, which are funding the powerful and political of the militias, and you can talk about the Muslim Seleka and the Christian Anti-Balaka, each targeting the others’ religious group. But to get at the heart of the anger and the violence, you have to look past what glitters, whether mineral or faith. The crisis in CAR is about how you use the land.