News / Africa

    Struggle for Resources at Root of Central Africa Religious Violence

    A man wounded in overnight clashes is assisted by peacekeepers and family members in a neighborhood in Bangui, Central African Republic, Dec. 23, 2013.
    A man wounded in overnight clashes is assisted by peacekeepers and family members in a neighborhood in Bangui, Central African Republic, Dec. 23, 2013.
    Reuters
    Mariam watched in horror as militiamen burst through the gate of her home in Central African Republic's capital Bangui and demanded her husband say whether he was Muslim. When he said yes, they shot him dead.

    “They killed him just like that in front of our child,” said Mariam, who fled through the back door. “Then they hacked and clubbed our neighbors, a husband and wife, to death.”

    The two-day frenzy of violence in Bangui this month fed fears that Central African Republic was about to descend into religious warfare on a scale comparable to Rwanda's 1994 genocide.

    A French soldier patrols in a neighbourhood during a daytime patrol as shooting continued overnight the capital Bangui, Central African Republic, Dec. 26, 2013.A French soldier patrols in a neighbourhood during a daytime patrol as shooting continued overnight the capital Bangui, Central African Republic, Dec. 26, 2013.
    x
    A French soldier patrols in a neighbourhood during a daytime patrol as shooting continued overnight the capital Bangui, Central African Republic, Dec. 26, 2013.
    A French soldier patrols in a neighbourhood during a daytime patrol as shooting continued overnight the capital Bangui, Central African Republic, Dec. 26, 2013.
    More than 1,000 people were killed, according to Amnesty International, as mostly Muslim fighters from the Seleka rebel group that seized power in March retaliated against Christians. The slaughter prompted France to immediately deploy 1,600 troops under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians.

    Religious leaders had sounded the alarm over abuses by the Seleka after they burned churches, looted and killed during their southward march on the capital early this year. The violence has displaced some 700,000 people so far.

    Many in the country insist that the origins of the bloodshed have little to do with religion, in a nation where Muslims and Christians have long lived in peace. Instead, they blame a political battle for control over resources in one of Africa's weakest-governed states, split along ethnic faultlines and worsened by foreign meddling.

    “We carried out these attacks because we have been invaded by foreigners by Chad and Sudan,” said Hercule Bokoe, a member of the militia, known as “anti-machete” and set up for self defense before the Seleka rebels arrived. He said his group's aim was purely political: it would fight on until Seleka leader Michel Djotodia, installed as interim president, left power.

    “We said to ourselves that the country cannot continue to be held hostage by foreigners,” Bokoe told Reuters.

    'Political conflict'

    Rich in diamonds, timber, gold, uranium and even oil, Central African Republic has been racked by five coups and numerous rebellions since independence from France in 1960 as different groups fought for control of state resources.

    x
    That - and spillover from conflicts in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Chad - have destroyed the rule of law, leaving a phantom state with an ill-disciplined army, corrupt administration and a lawless interior.

    Djotodia and other Seleka leaders launched their uprising to gain access for northern peoples to resource wealth - particularly oil being exploited in their northern homeland by the China National Petroleum Corporation.

    Djotodia says his northern Gula tribespeople - Muslim pastoralists neglected both under French colonial rule and post-independence governments - were betrayed by former President Francis Bozize, who sought their aid for a 2003 coup but surrounded himself with his Gbaya tribe once in power.

    With support from battle-hardened Chadian and Sudanese fighters, many of them also Gulas, Seleka swept southward, overrunning not only Bozize's poorly equipped troops but also a South African peacekeeping force in March.

    Once in Bangui, unable to speak French or the local Sango language, Seleka fighters sought out Arabic-speaking Muslims and stayed with them, often hoarding looted goods in their homes.

    Non-Muslims equated this with complicity, said Archbishop of Bangui Diedonne Nzapalainga, with the devastating effects seen in the early December violence.

    “To non-Muslim locals, Muslim now equals Seleka and Seleka equals Muslim,” said Nzapalainga, who for months has worked with Muslim clerics to try to calm rising religious tensions. “We came out early and declared that this conflict was not a religious conflict but a political one.”

    "Chad is the master"

    Djotodia, 64, waged an unsuccessful uprising against Bozize in the late 2000s using a network of Sudanese and Chadian support he had established during his time as consul in Nyala in Sudan's southern Darfur region earlier that decade.

    But a rift between Bozize and his main military backer, Chadian President Idriss Deby, shifted the balance of power in Djotodia's favor. Deby, who had helped install Bozize as president in the 2003 coup, withdrew his Chadian presidential guard last year.

    Witnesses said Chadian peacekeepers simply stood aside when Seleka troops - led by a former member of Deby's own presidential bodyguard - marched on Bangui. As Bozize's replacement in the presidential palace, it is now Djotodia who enjoys the protection of Chadian bodyguards.

    Many in the capital say ethnic ties between the Seleka and Chadian soldiers participating in a 3,700-strong African Union peacekeeping mission (MISCA) are complicating efforts to resolve the crisis.

    Residents in Bangui have accused Chadian troops of supplying Seleka fighters, turning a blind eye to their activities, and even attacking Christians themselves. Olivier Domanga, a resident of northern Bangui, said Chadian troops distributed dozens of weapons to Muslim inhabitants of his neighborhood.

    “Chad is the master of Seleka and Seleka is its attack dog,” said Philomon Dounia, another Bangui resident.

    Chad says its peacekeepers are neutral and denies supporting Seleka or distributing weapons to Muslims.

    After opposition politicians and civil society activists demanded the Chadians' withdrawal, MISCA's commanding officer, Cameroon's Martin Tumenta Chomu, said on Tuesday they would be moved outside the capital to northern Central African Republic.

    • Michel Djotodia, Central African Republic's president, walks back to the Chadian armored vehicle he arrived in following his meeting with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, at the airport in Bangui, Central African Republic, Dec. 19, 2013.
    • U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power answers questions at the airport in Bangui, Central African Republic, Dec. 19, 2013. 
    • Internally displaced children escaping the violence pose at Saint Paul's Church, Bangui, Central African Republic, Dec. 17, 2013. 
    • French soldiers carry their weapons as they patrol Boy-Rabe, a northern district of Bangui, Central African Republic, Dec. 17, 2013.
    • A severely malnourished child lays by his mother at a pediatric center in Bangui, Central African Republic, Dec. 17, 2013.
    • Internally displaced people escaping violence take shelter at Saint Paul's Church, Bangui, Central African Republic, Dec. 17, 2013.
    • Internally displaced people escaping violence take shelter at Saint Paul's Church, Bangui, Central African Republic, Dec. 17, 2013. 
    • A uniformed FOMAC peacekeeper chats with local boys while another one dressed in full riot gear sits in the tense combatant neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Dec. 16, 2013.
    • People line up in front of a bank in Bangui, Central African Republic, Dec. 16, 2013.
    • A FOMAC peacekeeper dressed in full riot gear sits in the tense combatant neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Dec. 16, 2013.

    Worst ever looting

    Even in a country inured to rebellions, Seleka's atrocities have proved shocking. It has been exacerbated the lack of a command structure in the loose coalition, whose name means 'alliance' in Sango. Warlords carved up territory where they had the power of life and death as they sought to extort money, particularly from non-Muslims.

    Acknowledging he was powerless to control the fighters in a country the area of France, Djotodia announced the official dissolution and disarmament of Seleka following outcry from the international community, but this had little effect.

    As Seleka torched villages and massacred entire populations, the “anti-machete”, or “anti-balaka” - initially local militias paid to defend crops and cattle against robbers and highwaymen due to the absence of state security - began seeking revenge.

    According to local animist beliefs, members of the militia have magical powers that protect them, and amulets they wear make them invincible.

    “The anti-balaka have nothing to do with the church or Christianity. Calling them a Christian militia is wrong,” said Nzapalainga, who said the ranks of the militia were swollen by people who had lost belongings or loved ones to Seleka.

    “To them, it is revenge. I have heard people say this is the 'return match',” he said.

    Louisa Lombard, an anthropologist specializing in Central Africa Republic, said tensions between Muslims and Christians had increased over the past decade but this was due largely to the success of Muslim traders with contacts in Chad and Sudan, rather than a rise of religious extremism.

    “It is more an issue of the Muslims being considered foreigners by the Christians,” she said.

    Despite these tensions, many Central Africans are proud of their tolerance and tradition of cohabitation and inter-marriage.

    Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, leader of the country's Muslims, was offered refuge at St. Paul's church in Bangui by Nzapalainga after his family was threatened. In the capital's northern PK5 neighborhood, Muslim youths guarded the St. Mathias Catholic church and protected Christians.

    Helen Tofio, one of 40,000 people who fled to Bangui airport to seek safety near a French camp, voiced concern that ongoing tit-for-tat violence would sow the seeds of religious strife.

    “We used to live in harmony with Muslims before the arrival of the Seleka,” she said. “But their abuses, and the attitude of some Muslims who seem to be supporting them, have given rise increasingly to religious conflict.”

    You May Like

    Chechen Suspected in Istanbul Attack, but Questions Remain

    Turkish sources say North Caucasus militants involved in bombing at Ataturk airport, but name of at least one alleged attacker raises doubts

    With Johnson Out, Can a New ‘Margaret Thatcher’ Save Britain?

    Contest to replace David Cameron as Britain’s prime minister started in earnest Thursday with top candidates outlining strategy to deal with Brexit fallout

    US Finds Progress Slow Against Human Trafficking in Africa

    Africa continues to be a major source and destination for human trafficking of all kinds -- from forced labor to sexual slavery, says State Department report

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Clinton Leads Trump, But Many Voters Don't Like Eitheri
    X
    Jim Malone
    June 29, 2016 6:16 PM
    In the U.S. presidential race, most recent polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton with a steady lead over Republican Donald Trump as both presumptive party nominees prepare for their party conventions next month. Trump’s disapproval ratings have risen in some recent surveys, but Clinton also suffers from high negative ratings, suggesting both candidates have a lot of work to do to improve their images before the November election. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Clinton Leads Trump, But Many Voters Don't Like Either

    In the U.S. presidential race, most recent polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton with a steady lead over Republican Donald Trump as both presumptive party nominees prepare for their party conventions next month. Trump’s disapproval ratings have risen in some recent surveys, but Clinton also suffers from high negative ratings, suggesting both candidates have a lot of work to do to improve their images before the November election. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Slow Rebuilding Amid Boko Haram Destruction in Nigeria’s Northeast

    Military operations have chased Boko Haram out of towns and cities in Nigeria’s northeast since early last year. But it is only recently that people have begun returning to their homes in Adamawa state, near the border with Cameroon, to try to rebuild their lives. For VOA, Chris Stein traveled to the area and has this report.
    Video

    Video New US Ambassador to Somalia Faces Heavy Challenges

    The new U.S. envoy to Somalia, who was sworn into office Monday, will be the first American ambassador to that nation in 25 years. He will take up his post as Somalia faces a number of crucial issues, including insecurity, an upcoming election, and the potential closure of the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. VOA’s Jill Craig asked Somalis living in Kenya’s capital city Nairobi how they feel about the U.S. finally installing a new ambassador.
    Video

    Video At National Zoo, Captivating Animal Sculptures Illustrate Tragedy of Ocean Pollution

    The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is home to about 1,800 animals, representing 300 species. But throughout the summer, visitors can also see other kinds of creatures there. They are larger-than-life animal sculptures that speak volumes about a global issue — the massive plastic pollution in our oceans. VOA's June Soh takes us to the zoo's special exhibit, called Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea.
    Video

    Video Baghdad Bikers Defy War with a Roar

    Baghdad is a city of contradictions. War is a constant. Explosions and kidnappings are part of daily life. But the Iraqi capital remains a thriving city, even if a little beat up. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on how some in Baghdad are defying the stereotype of a nation at war by pursuing a lifestyle known for its iconic symbols of rebellion: motorbikes, leather jackets and roaring engines.
    Video

    Video Melting Pot of Immigrants Working to Restore US Capitol Dome

    The American Iron Works company is one of the firms working to renovate the iconic U.S. Capitol Dome. The company employs immigrants of many different cultural and national backgrounds. VOA’s Arman Tarjimanyan has more.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora