By Thibaud Lesueur
BANGUI — Since last Thursday’s attacks in Bangui by “anti-balaka” groups from the provinces — villagers and former soldiers, usually Christian, who have formed themselves into self-defence militias — a tense calm has returned to the Central African Republic’s capital thanks to the deployment of French troops.
Members of the Seleka, an armed group whose takeover of the capital earlier this year led to the installation of a new government under President Michel Djotodia, continue to kill those they suspect of supporting the anti-balaka. They have also gone door-to-door in neighbourhoods such as Boeing, Boy Rabe, and PK12 to seize men over fifteen — often to execute them. Residents of Bangui have fled en masse to sites where they hope to find some protection: the airport, the community of Don Bosco, the church in the Castor neighbourhood, the monastery of Boy Rabe, the St. Paul parish in Rwango or, for Muslims, the mosque of Ali Bodo near the neighbourhood of Miskine. Many thousands have sought refuge in these places, which are fast becoming urban displaced-persons camps but which are not adequately secured. Since the Thursday attacks, Bangui’s residents have been arming themselves, and the majority of Muslims in the PK5 neighbourhood, for example, now have machetes and firearms. In the last few days, groups of Peul (Fulani) pastoralists, who are generally Muslim and have been targets for the anti-balaka, have killed Christians in Bangui in retaliation.
On the orders of President Djotodia and pressured by French troops, Seleka elements have been much less visible since Saturday on the main roads of Bangui, but they remain very present in Muslim neighbourhoods like PK5, Miskine and Combattants, and are preparing themselves for a confrontation with the anti-balaka.
At the time of writing, several scenarios present themselves:
1) Urban war and religious massacres
In recent hours there have been persistent rumors of an impending action by anti-balaka led by former CAR army officers. In the confrontations with Seleka forces last Thursday, the anti-balaka retreated, but they did not lose many men and remain well armed with AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). Moreover, there are anti-balaka fighters in the provinces who could come to Bangui and help launch a new offensive; they could probably count on the support of many Bangui residents. This would amount to an attempt at reconquering the capital in the hope of chasing the Seleka from power. Violent clashes between Seleka with nothing left to lose and anti-balaka enjoying the support of part of the city’s population would probably devolve into a religious confrontation, with Bangui’s Muslim and Christian quarters arrayed against each other and supporting their respective champions. In such a scenario, massacres would take place on both sides, a logic of religious (rather than ethnic) cleansing would take hold in Bangui and French and MISCA forces would undoubtedly be too weak to contain the violence.
2) A long and dangerous standoff
If the anti-balaka elect not to attack Bangui but remain near the city, French and MISCA forces could stick to their initial goal: namely, bringing order to Bangui. This would require them, first of all, to neutralise those Seleka elements who continue to commit acts of violence or refuse to return to quarters, as President Djotodia has ordered; and secondly to arrest anyone carrying arms in the city. The French and African forces might thereby improve security, but the city would remain tactically and psychologically under siege. They would soon find themselves confronting the refusal of Seleka combatants to disarm, given the ongoing anti-balaka threat to the city and Muslims’ fear of reprisals. The African and French forces would probably end up having to position themselves between Muslims and Christians in the event of clashes or concerted attacks.
3) The conflict moves out of Bangui
The anti-balaka would return to the provinces and Seleka combatants either leave Bangui or agree to being kept to barracks and disarmed. A program of demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration, which is only at an embryonic stage, would be accelerated in order to find and absorb the country’s militiamen. Christian and Muslim leaders would appeal to the population for moderation and reconciliation. Such an ideal scenario would imply strong military pressure on the Seleka but also a certain understanding among Seleka leaders in Bangui that it will be necessary to hit hard against fighters who do not respect the rules — but not so hard as to endanger Djotodia’s rule, which would send a dangerous signal to CAR’s Muslims and deprive the political scene of an interlocutor who at least commands the loyalty of some Seleka. If this scenario comes to pass and Bangui is secured, troops would then need to be deployed in the rest of the country to secure the provinces — a sizable task indeed.
Regardless of which scenario prevails, there are several urgent moves that will help preserve the calm in Bangui and reduce the likelihood of massacres. The informal displaced-persons camps around the city need much better security, as do hospitals and medical centres. French and MISCA forces need to reinforce their patrols in sensitive neighbourhoods like Boy Rabe, Boeing, Gobongo, Benz-vi, Fouh, Miskine, Combattants, PK5, Catin, Yakite, Castor, Begoua and PK12. And finally, MISCA needs to station troops around the clock along the main roads and at principal intersections.
Thibaud Lesueur is Crisis Group’s Central Africa analyst.
See our report Central African Republic: Priorities of the Transition and the briefing Central African Republic: Better Late than Never. Crisis Group President Louise Arbour sent an open letter to the UN Security Council regarding CAR on 15 November 2013.