More often not, when one overhears someone expressing the belief that religion is the opiate of the masses, it is accompanied by a certain degree of secular snark. Religion, in this interpretation of Marx’s oft misquoted maxim, is a device that serves only to artificially blunt human suffering in lieu of taking concrete steps to alleviate said suffering in the real world. This line of reasoning usually presents religion as a suppressive tool used by the ruling classes to keep the vast rabble of humanity distracted while they are being systematically oppressed. However, while there is validity to many of these points of view, they often fail to appreciate that religion, like opiates themselves, has a wide array of therapeutic purposes. For a very large portion of the global population, religion is the only thing shielding them from the unassailable reality of their powerlessness in the face of deeply entrenched poverty, oppression and violence, and it is up to the international community as a whole to refrain from addressing issues of conflict and terror by only looking at the thin veneer of religiosity that lies on top and neglecting to examine the stratified layers of socioeconomic, cultural and geopolitical tension that lie beneath.
Take for example, the ongoing civil unrest in the Central African Republic (CAR). When the Western media has covered the recent turmoil in this landlocked African nation, it has usually done so through the prism of religious conflict. In November of last year when Pope Francis ended his inaugural trip to Africa with a visit to the CAR, the violence and strife that the country has recently experienced was framed in predominantly religious terms, depicting a pitched battle between the nation’s Christian and Muslim populations. During the pope’s visit to the nation’s capital, Bangui, the unrest in the country was presented as a sectarian conflict between Muslims and Christians, a narrative that was certainly helped by Pope Francis’s visit to a mosque in the embattled and predominantly Muslim PK5 district of Bangui.
Francis’s proverbial olive branch to the Muslim community in Bangui is worthy of both praise and comment, but it only gets at the surface of the causes of the humanitarian crisis in the Central African Republic. For instance, when CNN’s Vatican correspondent Paul Allen says that the CAR was, “a place where the conflict basically breaks Christian-Muslim, and where Christians are the majority”, he manages to be technically right while also being substantively wrong. While it is true that the state of unrest in the CAR has become a war between Christians and Muslims, this rift is a recent development that flies in the face of centuries of strained, yet predominantly peaceful coexistence and largely ignores the realities of living in a failed state run by a series of corrupt autocrats operating in the long shadow of French colonial rule.
In point of fact, calling this most recent iteration of the Central African Republic a failed state does a disservice to how truly chaotic and dire the situation is on the ground. Unlike other Sub-Saharan African autocracies like Cameroon, Angola or Zimbabwe, whose fearless leaders have been in power for over 3 decades each, the CAR hasn’t even been lucky enough to find itself saddled with the relative stability that comes with prolonged dictatorial rule, instead finding itself subject to relatively frequent coups and fraudulently won elections between aspiring strongmen who had few interests beyond the accumulation and maintenance of power and wealth.
Considering that the CAR was one of the few former colonies that the French did not take an interest in developing during colonial rule, instead using it primarily for the purposes of resource extraction and the slave trade, it shouldn’t come as much of a shock to learn that the Central African Republic is one of the least developed countries in the world. According to the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index (HDI), which takes into account the lifespan, education and income of a country’s citizens, only the nearby nation of Niger is less developed than the CAR—a statistic which is actually an optimistic assessment of the situation in the CAR considering the fact that the country ranks dead last in Inequality-Adjusted HDI, which factors in how equitably distributed a nation’s gains in health, education and income are. Regardless of which measurement you use, the numbers are astounding. According to the 2015 Human Development Report, the average life expectancy at birth was 50.7 years (3rd lowest in the world), the gross national income per capita was $581 a year (lowest), and 62.8% of the population was living on less than $1.25 a day (8th highest), and all of this while the country sits on vast, largely untouched reserves of diamonds, gold, uranium and other minerals.
Now historically, power within the CAR has been concentrated within the country’s southern and western regions, which are more populous and where the bulk of the country’s natural resources are located. The capital of Bangui is situated very close to the CAR’s southern border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, given the nation’s almost nonexistent infrastructure and predominantly rural composition, most of the government’s attention and resources are usually devoted to the areas in and around Bangui, to the exclusion of the rest of the population. It is here that religious differences begin coming into play.
Although there used to be hundreds of thousands of Muslims living in Bangui and other cities in the south and west of the country, the majority of the CAR’s Muslim population lives in the northeastern part of the country that abuts the southern borders of Chad and the Sudan. This division between the Muslim northeast and the Christian south and west has existed from well before the CAR came into being, going back to the 16th and 17th centuries when Arabic speaking slave traders came into the region and began capturing non-Arabs in the south, the memory of which still lingers in the nation’s collective consciousness.
In 2003, after mounting a failed coup two years earlier, Francois Bozizé came to power in the CAR, overthrowing the government of President Ange-Félix Patassé by using the tried and true technique of waiting until the sitting President left the country and then using his rebel forces to storm the capital and refuse to let him back in. At this point, religion wasn’t at all central to power struggles in the CAR, as evidenced by the fact that the rebel forces that the southern, Christian, Bozizé used to take power were overwhelmingly from the majority Muslim nation of Chad to the north and the fact that he orchestrated his rebellion from the Muslim Northeast of the CAR. It was only later, when both foreign and domestic support was crumbling around him and he felt his grasp on power slipping that Bozizé tried to turn a primarily political conflict into a religious one.
Starting in 2011, Bozizé began a calculated campaign of Islamophobia to rile up the 80-85% of the CAR’s Christian and Animist population against the 10-15% of the country that was Muslim, attempting not only to stave off potential coup attempts from predominantly Muslim communities in the northeast, but also to solidify his own base and divert their attentions away from the failures of his own government and towards a common enemy. Ironically, considering the fact that he came to power with predominantly Chadian military support, Bozizé quickly set about to paint Muslims and CAR citzens of Chadian descent as “foreigners”, a technique that was used with increasing frequency as a new political rival—The Seleka—was coalescing up north.
When it was created in 2012, Seleka was a rebel, anti-government group without any overt religious affiliation. The Seleka—a group whose name means “coalition” in the nation’s official indigenous language, Sango—was a merging of a handful of already extant rebel groups that had participated in the Central African Republic Bush War, a smaller scale civil war in the mid-2000s that would prove to be a precursor of the present violence. Over the course of 4 months, beginning in December of 2012, the Seleka marauded and reigned down death and destruction on predominantly civilian targets, making their way from their northeastern stronghold all the way down to Bangui. In March of 2013, the Seleka took over Bangui, causing President Bozizé to flee the country and allowing the group’s leader, Michael Djotodia—a Muslim from the nation’s northernmost prefecture of Vakaga—to suspend the country’s constitution and declare himself president.
As the group’s name suggests, the Seleka are a loosely affiliated alliance of groups from the north and northeast with very little in the way of a command structure or regimentation. On the march down to Bangui, this resulted in a marked rise in small scale attacks on civilians with no real purpose outside of the personal gain of individual Seleka members. Without a proper chain of command, their battles were characterized by human rights violations such as unprovoked shootings, looting, rape and extortion that were either ordered by local level officers or carried out by Seleka fighters of their own initiative. This disorganized, piratic brand of attack certainly didn’t win the group any friends on their way to Bangui, but the Seleka-led government’s inability to rein in this behavior would be the catalyst that transformed a primarily political struggle into a religious civil war.
With no organizational structure in place and no real control over his supposed subordinates within the Seleka, Djotodia and the other newly installed members of the CAR’s transitional government were powerless to control their own members, who took the opportunity provided them by the coup to help themselves to the spoils of war, fanning out across Bangui and much of the resource-rich and predominantly Christian west of the country to create what amounted to a collection of small fiefdoms. Predictably, attacks by the Seleka were particularly pronounced in areas of the country that were known as strongholds for Bozize and his regime, like the neighborhoods of Boeing and Boy-Rabe in Bangui and the northwestern region of the country where Bozize grew up. Interim President Djotodia publicly denied any Seleka involvement, blaming the violence on Bozize loyalists and what he called “false Seleka”, but no one was fooled. By September of 2013, the general unrest had gotten so bad that Djotodia pannounced to the world that he had disbanded the Seleka, a declaration that was all but meaningless given the lack of control he had over the group.
At the same time Djotodia was claiming to have broken up the Seleka, large groups of Christian militants had begun to form a new movement to fight back against the Seleka called Anti-Balaka. With it’s origins in President Bozize’s home region in the northwest of the CAR, the Anti-Balaka was created as a direct response to the aggression and violence of Seleka fighters in the months following Bozize’s ouster. The group, whose name translates to “machete-proof ” in the native Sango and Mandja languages, is almost entirely Christian in its makeup and, unlike the Seleka, have made a point of specifically targeting Muslim communities in the CAR and routinely attacking both members of the Seleka and non-combatant Muslims with impunity. All across the country, towns and cities that had formerly seen Muslims and Christians live in peace became the sites of a religious war that quickly sent Muslims fleeing from their homes, with the lucky ones managing to either retreat to the safety of the Muslim majority northeast of the CAR or finding their way out of the country into neighboring Cameroon, Chad or the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The revenge levied by the Anti-Balaka against the Muslim population was as swift as it was brutal, particularly in Bangui, where hundreds of thousands of Christians and Muslims had previously lived side-by-side. Before the Anti-Balaka went on the offensive in September of 2013, the Muslim population of Bangui was somewhere between 130,000 and 145,000 people. By December of that year, that number had plummeted to 10,000 and by March 2014, only 900 Muslims were left in the capital. The UN has since declared the attacks by the Anti-Balaka in CAR to be ethnic cleansing and, despite the resignation of President Djotodia in January of 2014, the arrival of French and African Union soldiers and the introduction of a provisional government, the situation in the CAR has remained dire.
The provisional government, led by Acting President Catherine Samba-Panza, has been utterly toothless, with no formal state or national army to speak of and the occupying forces from from France and the AU have been problematic as well. Muslims in the CAR have accused the French military of leaving them defenseless and showing preferential treatment to the country’s Christian population by disarming ex-Seleka fighters while permitting members of the Anti-Balaka to keep their arms. And, as if things weren’t bad enough, a report came out recently from Human Rights Watch claiming that UN “peacekeepers” had raped or sexually exploited at least 8 women in the last three months of 2015.
On February 14th, the people of the Central African Republic are set to head back to the polls for a run-off election to determine who will be the nation’s next President. The two highest vote getters in the initial presidential election, Anicet-Georges Dologuélé and Faustin-Archange Touadera, are both promising to bring about peace and lead the nation out of the proverbial economic cellar and bring similar resumes to the table. In a battle being billed as “Mr. Clean versus The Professor”, two former CAR Prime Ministers are vying for the country’s top job. Dologuélé, who is running on his record as a corruption fighter and economic acumen as the former president of the Development Bank of Central African States, came in 1st during the initial vote, but Touadera parleyed his outsider status into a solid 2nd place finish and a genuine chance at victory. The hope is that these elections could lead to a sustained peace and rebuilding in the CAR, but the already escalating tensions and fighting in the lead up to the vote underscore just how difficult that will be to accomplish.
Regardless of who wins, the new President will still face a nation that is deeply divided and as destitute as ever. The Central African Republic is essentially split into two states right now, with the dividing line running diagonally through the heart of the country, dividing the resource-heavy and heavily populated Christian south from the sparsely-populated Muslim north. As recently as this past December, Muslim rebels in the north of the country declared their own autonomous state and, given the exodus of Muslims from the south and west and the likely lack of Muslim representation in the CAR’s new government, it doesn’t look like reconciliation is in the cards anytime soon. At the same time, Western fears over the rise of Islamist terror groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and Al-Shabbab, the prospects of the northern, predominantly Muslim part of the CAR being allowed to break off and form their own state are very slim, so it would appear that the CAR as it’s presently constituted is here to stay.
Where does this leave the Central African Republic? The optimistic answer is that we’ll have a much better idea after the presidential and legislative elections take place and a permanent government is put in place. The realistic answer is that, regardless of how the elections go, the CAR will remain mired in sectarian conflict and abject poverty for the foreseeable future. Going even farther than that, the reality of the situation is that the global community will, in all likelihood continue to systematically ignore the CAR, with the exception of partaking in the extraction of her resources and the mitigation of any conflict large enough to spill over her borders.
There is a brutal irony in the fact that this country that is located in the direct center of the continent that was the origin of human life and the heart of all existence is now the least livable place on the planet. Religion isn’t the source of the Central African Republic’s problems. The world as we know it today is.