A child holding an assault rifle designed to be used by an adult is a disconcerting sight but one that is all too common in the Central African Republic (CAR) with an estimated 13,000 children having been recruited by armed groups since the civil war began in 2012. This is not unique to the CAR, with the adage that firearms are so simple to use that a child can do it and they frequently do ringing true across contemporary African conflicts. Warlords, such as Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) favour child fighters as they can be forcibly conscripted, trained to carry out brutal acts, and peacekeeping troops are reluctant to shoot them. When we talk of armed groups other than government forces in the CAR we are talking about adult fighters and the children forcibly recruited to fight alongside them.
The myriad groups involved in the CAR’s war are too many and too complex to be covered in a single blog, but the earlier ones in this series point us towards a general overview of the situation in the period after the Seleka rebels (a coalition of armed groups) seized the capital, Bangui, transforming the conflict. On the government side, the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) was so dysfunctional that the leader of the Seleka coup announced its dissolution and it has been subject to a UN arms embargo, making it largely ineffectual. Some soldiers defected to the Seleka, their successors the ex-Seleka and rivals, the anti-Balaka. The Seleka alliance was disbanded in 2013 after a short period in which it went on the rampage, resulting in the emergence of factions of ex-Seleka whom have fought each other. There is no effective government control outside of Bangui.
The anti-Balaka groups emerged near the end of 2013 as a result of Seleka and ex-Seleka atrocities and while nominally Christian they also have Animists in their ranks. This is in stark contrast to the Muslim dominated Seleka and ex-Seleka, and an indication of the sectarian roots of the contemporary violence, which has seen inter-ethnic driven violence replace that over the question of who rules the CAR. This has led to the mistake of the violence in the CAR being understood as a Muslim-Christian conflict, when this is but one part of it, and neither Muslim or Christian leaders recognise the right of either side to represent their religions or to commit violence on religious grounds. The anti-Balaka holds significant territory amounting to half of the CAR, but are not a single structured organisation and a collection of loosely affiliated groups instead, with ten of them in Bangui alone.
Groups have also formed from within ethnic groups, with an example being the 3R (Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation), which claims to represent the Fulani, protecting this mainly Muslim ethnic group from the atrocities of the anti-Balaka. There are also war entrepreneurs and bandits in evidence across the country with the express aims of either exploiting natural resources or operating locally as armed gangs, profiting from the lack of a viable security. As a landlocked country with six neighbours and inadequate control of its border, the CAR is also vulnerable to armed groups from outside of the country. A notable example is the aforementioned LRA, which is a trans-national actor, and drew the attention of Uganda and the US, both of whom deployed troops to combat the LRA. In the quagmire that is the CAR, the complete lack of security outside of the capital encourages the development of local groups and militias for self defence. Such groups are not guaranteed to remain on the defensive and will attack other ethnic groups in return for the violence committed against their own communities. A vicious cycle of tit for tat violence emerges where the enemy is not simply defined as a group targeting one’s own in-group, but one that is supported by the people they claim to represent. For peacekeepers trying to provide security for both the people and aid workers, this is a formidable barrier, as the situation becomes fluid, the flashpoints varied, and the all important building of working relationships with warring groups more difficult, if not impossible.
Next week we look at peacekeeping operations in the CAR.
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Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator