I spent the beginning of March in the Central African Republic conducting field research. CAR has suffered significantly from political violence, which has been further exacerbated by divisions along religious lines. The 2013 crisis (Seleka vs. anti-Balaka violence) resulted in high levels of displacement across the country. In January 2018, the International Committee of the Read Cross stated that half of the country was in need of humanitarian aid.
My time travelling, interviewing, and reading helped shed some light on some of the dimensions that have shaped the conflict:
1. Crisis of Citizenship
There is a general feeling that Muslims (15% of population) do not really belong; they are ‘non-native’ to CAR. They are always suspected of having ‘external’ links and connections ( to Chad and Sudan). Muslims also control over 75% of economy. In spite of this, a number of people who I spoke with (both Christians and Muslims) observed that Christians and Muslims have always lived peacefully together and frequently intermarried.
2. Violence arises, in part, from a sense of marginalization
The rise of the Seleka (2012) is not a complete surprise when we consider that it originated in the North East, a very marginalized part of the country, from a variety of grievances. It is important to note that Seleka militia is 20% Christian. Adam Ashforth argues that the violence of the anti-Balaka arose, in part, due to a feeling of “spiritual insecurity.” The group has responded to this insecurity by invoking traditional beliefs and magical practices.
What is surprising is the level and intensity of violence. An ex anti-Balaka informant stated: “it is as if something internal exploded; something ‘diabolic.’”
3. Lack of “local” initiatives in leadership make it hard to move forward
There are many foreign elements to CAR’s social history, concessionary politics and economics: Arab slave traders, French colonialism, trading companies, Chad, Sudan, UN, and missionary congregations. Imam Kobine, who I was able to speak with during my time in CAR, noted that some of these dimensions may have contributed to the marginalization of local, “native” initiatives in leadership.
4. The role of the Church in CAR
The Catholic Church plays a powerful role in the country’s social and political infrastructure. The Church also reflects the ‘external’ element of leadership. Only one of 8 bishops is diocesan; the rest are from missionary or religious congregations. The general secretary of the Bishop’s conference stated: “The church’s role is to support what the state is doing.”
The Church’s presence and positive impact are visible in the care of refugees, such as Cardinal Nzapailanga and the Interfaith Platform. However, I was also told that all too often “The church promotes a magical faith; a certain fatalism (if God wants us to have peace, we will have peace).” Thus, the church has yet to meet the challenge of unleashing the internal capacities (inner revolution) of believers.
Visible Signs of Hope
In the midst of suffering I also bore witness to visible signs of hope, reflecting an “excess of love” in the midst of violence.
1. The Interfaith Platform, founded by the Archbishop, an Imam and a pastor. It connects and brings together different faith traditions, advocating for peace and reconciliation on national and community (local) levels, and serving as an example of interfaith solidarity.
2. I was particularly impressed by Fr. Bernard Kinvi, a Camillian priest, who runs the hospital at Bossentele, and who during the 2013 crisis, offered refuge at the hospital, to both Christian and Muslims, mediated between Seleka and anti-Balaka, protected the vulnerable; buried the dead, and helped many to evacuate. A native of Togo who has been here for 7 years now, he is driven by the Camillian spirituality: “serving the poor and sick is the way to God’s heart.” He is using that spirituality to knit the social fabric of the remote village of Bossentele into a sense of belonging that closely reflects the church as a “Field Hospital”. Talk about ecclesial radiance! The two days here in Bossentele, trailing and learning from Kinvi, as he takes me around the hospital and visiting and talking to various people in the community, are without doubt, the highlight of my time in CAR!