Central African Republic

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Central African Republic
and surrounding regions

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The Central African Republic (CAR) is a landlocked country that has been in an escalating, violent crisis since March 2013. In the heart of Africa and bordered by countries experiencing armed conflict and instability, CAR has a long history of coups and authoritarian rule. Its past and current crises are the result of poor governance and a chronic conflict over state power, access to natural resources, and revenge. In addition, CAR is part of a regional conflict system in which the country is destabilized because of the involvement of neighboring and international actors pursuing political and economic objectives. Multiple external actors have been motivated to intervene because of CAR’s natural resources, which include diamonds, timber, uranium, and potential oil and gas deposits. CAR’s leaders, unable to protect the country’s sovereignty, have allowed this meddling.

The past year’s violence has been worsened by national and regional actors using perceived religious tensions between the Christian majority and Muslim minority to mobilize supporters and fuel the conflict. The most recent crisis has spun out of control and deteriorated to a series of retaliatory attacks by both sides. From early December to April 16, 2014, the conflict has resulted in the death of at least 2,000 people, roughly 643,000 internally displaced persons, and an additional 100,000 refugees to the more than 200,000 that were already living in neighboring countries.

History of Conflict

What are non-state armed groups? Groups that:

  • Use force to achieve political, ideological, or economic objectives
  • Are not within the formal military structures of States
  • Are not under the control of the State(s) in which they operate

other terms used: rebel groups, militias or insurgents


Since gaining independence from France in 1960, CAR has experienced six authoritarian leaders and the continuous presence of foreign troops. Following a series of coups, civil wars, and foreign interventions, CAR held its first multiparty elections in 1993. However, instability grew and, with the backing of Chad, Army General François Bozizé rebelled and took power in 2003. Although Bozizé brought relative stability for several years and was elected in 2011, many Central Africans began to view him as an autocratic leader. Many rebel groups were already active in the north and northeast, including groups formerly loyal to Bozizé, and in 2012, they formed a loose alliance known as Séléka, predominantly made up of civilians from northern CAR. To gain supporters, Séléka exploited frustrations with the concentration of power in Bozizé’s family and the underdevelopment of the northern region. In March 2013, the Séléka, backed by heavily armed mercenary fighters from Chad and Sudan, overthrew Bozizé. The group’s leader, Michel Djotodia, became the first Muslim leader of the mainly Christian country.

Over the following months, the Séléka led brutal attacks against civilians. Under a U.N. resolution, France deployed an initial force of 1,200 troops to CAR in December 2013 to stabilize the capital, Bangui. Violence intensified beyond Bangui when former-President Djotodia resigned in early January due to pressure from governments in the region, and a transitional government took over. Thousands of Muslims fled the country out of fear of retaliation attacks by self-defense militias known as Anti-Balaka. The Anti-Balaka, who are mostly Christian, seek revenge for the acts of Séléka over the last year and perceive Muslims as Séléka collaborators. This is in part because Séléka forces include fighters from neighboring Muslim-majority countries, Chad and Sudan. While the violence could appear to be religious in nature, religious-based violence is an outcome, not a cause of conflict. Economic and political incentives are motivating internal and external actors.

Natural Resources and External Players

CAR is rich in natural resources, including diamonds, timber, uranium, and potential oil and gas deposits. Just as in the past, powerful rebel groups in CAR, such as the Séléka and Anti-Balaka, and neighboring countries, including Chad and Sudan, have attempted to gain control over these economic sectors. South Africa and France have also tried to maintain influence in the oil and uranium sectors.

Armed groups in CAR are financing their activities in part with significant profits from these natural resources and lootings. Séléka rebels and their foreign fighters have been plundering, looting, and smuggling diamonds and ivory to pay for arms, fuel, food, and their soldiers’ salaries. Although CAR has been suspended from the Kimberley Process, an international certification mechanism designed to prevent conflict diamonds from entering the international market, since May 2013, Séléka have forced local traders to mine and sell diamonds at low prices. Meanwhile, Anti-Balaka militias have taken control of diamond-rich areas in western CAR.

Other countries have also pursued economic interests in CAR. In supporting Bozizé in 2003, Chad wanted to support a cooperative government in Bangui that would preserve Chadian oil interests in northern CAR and prevent Chadian rebels from having a safe haven in CAR. Similarly, France maintained a positive early relationship with Bozizé because he allowed French dominance of the uranium sector and investments in oil, minerals, and timber. Although Chad and France helped install Bozizé in 2003, neither intervened to protect him in March 2013 because Bozizé increasingly favored South Africa and China for trade and military cooperation. South Africa deployed 400 soldiers to CAR in 2007 to train the army; however, it has been reported that these soldiers were actually sent to protect South African investments in the oil and diamond sectors. Thirteen South African soldiers died protecting the Bozizé government from the Séléka coup in March 2013.

Current Status

The Anti-Balaka and Séléka continue to commit atrocities throughout CAR. In December 2013, fighting escalated in Bangui between the two armed groups with dire humanitarian consequences. Civilians are still threatened by armed militias nationwide, and retaliatory attacks result in multiple deaths in Bangui every day. Nearly all Muslims have been evacuated from Bangui. Humanitarian actors are trying to aid the 2.5 million people in need of assistance, but are greatly limited by instability, underfunding, and the inability to restock areas ahead of the coming rainy season. The existing French and A.U.-led peacekeeping operation has 8,000 troops; however, this is not enough to maintain security nationwide and disarm militia groups. The U.N. Secretary General has recommended a reinforcement of these forces until the deployment of a full-fledged U.N. peacekeeping operation (UNPKO), which was approved by the U.N. Security Council in early April. Although the UNPKO has been approved and the U.S. has recently appointed a Special Representative for CAR, there remain massive security, humanitarian, political, and economic concerns to address in the upcoming months.

A Way Forward

The current crisis shows few signs of decreasing and requires an intensive regional and international effort to end the conflict. The United Nations and African Union should lead a national reconciliation process focused on local negotiation and dialogue involving youth, women, traditional leaders, religious figures, and armed groups. The recommendations of these groups must be integrated into CAR’s transitional political process. For the current transitional government to be successful, they need immediate financial support from the U.N., European Union, and bilateral donors in order to pay civil servants supplying hospitals, schools, judges, etc. to the people of CAR. Support like this will allow the government to rebuild the justice system and prosecute those responsible for the violence throughout CAR.

In addition, there must be support for addressing transnational security and economic concerns through regional negotiations between actors like Chad and Sudan, who have played a part in driving conflict in CAR. There will be no stabilization of the crisis in CAR unless these border regions are secured and mechanisms are established to address their involvement in CAR. Lastly, CAR has massive development needs, including the need for reform in the diamond and general natural resources sectors, which could help bring revenue to the poor and underdeveloped state. The A.U. and U.N. should mediate negotiations between Chad and CAR on their cross-border oil fields, and the U.S. and China should urge investigations into the smuggling of conflict diamonds from CAR to major international diamond hubs.

Read more about the drivers of the conflict in “Behind the Headlines: Drivers of Violence in the Central African Republic.”

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