DAKAR — The Central African Republic is in the grips of unprecedented conflict that pits Muslims against Christians and Christians against Muslims. But as new transitional authorities try to restore order in the capital, residents say this crisis is political, not religious and the solutions to country's problems lie in the political sphere.
"There is no religious crisis," said Bangui resident Brice Ngagoui. "It's just political manipulation because the rebels that came to power, [President Michel] Djotodia, are majority Muslim. Politicians took this community affiliation to give a religious connotation to this crisis. But in reality there is not an inter-religious crisis."
He and others told VOA that violence in the capital over the past month stemmed from opposition to ex-rebel leader turned interim president, Djotodia.
Djotodia resigned Jan. 10 under regional pressure, something residents said could be a step toward easing tensions. The country's National Transition Council will elect a new interim president.
Year of abuses
As rebels pushed south toward Bangui in early 2013, the president they would oust, Francois Bozize, was making speeches referring to "mercenary-terrorists" and "foreigners" coming to "Islamize" the country.
In the months before Bozize was ousted, there were reports of abuses by rebels in the provinces, along with reports that young armed Bozize supporters in the capital were attacking Muslims perceived to be from the north.
The Seleka coalition of rebels didn't profess an Islamist agenda. But they did want power, and things got worse when they took it in March.
Rebels and armed men, some of them Chadian or Sudanese, destroyed villages and killed civilians. Rebel leaders had little or no control.
Militias comprised mainly of Christian men rose up to fight back but were accused of taking their revenge against Muslim civilians, not rebels.
Things came to a head when anti-Seleka fighters attacked Bangui on Dec. 5. That spun out into weeks of inter-communal slaughter in the city that prompted the deployment of French and regional peacekeepers.
"This crisis has its origin in abuses, the theft, the rapes, the looting orchestrated by Seleka fighters since they took power," said Bangui resident Paul Namsene, adding that people are associating all Muslims with Seleka.
"This crisis comes from the suffering endured by the population at the hands of Seleka," he said. "The bigger Central African crisis, it's a problem of governance. So the new authorities that will be chosen need to work in the interest of the people. It is only then that we will be able to find a real solution."
Regional analysts say the Bozize government sowed the seeds of its own overthrow.
Bozize took power in a coup in 2003 and then, fearful of another coup, proceeded to further hobble an already weak army. He, like his predecessor, consolidated power in the hands of his relatives and supporters, breeding resentment.
The government signed peace accords with rebels in the north in 2007 and 2008 but then failed to follow through on the terms.
Analysts say the rebel leaders weren't much better - they put personal gain from those deals over development for the north, thereby contributing to a continued sense of regional marginalization.
A national historian at the University of Bangui says Bozize mismanaged the country but there's blame to go around.
"Who asked Seleka to come? Nobody," Henri Yenzapa said. "Nobody asked Seleka to come. And when they did come, they should have done what Mr. Bozize didn't do, what his government did not do, but they came and plunged the country into crisis, into grief. When you replace someone you are criticizing, you have to do better than him…but the country has fallen and that is why I say that the blame is shared."
The solution is to restore order in the short term and then hold elections as soon as possible, Yenzapa said.
Thousands have been killed since the Seleka takeover last March. On Monday, the U.N. refugee agency said more than one million have been displaced from their homes.
Jose Pouambi contributed to this report from Bangui.