Tragic conflicts have broken out in the Sahel but “age-old ethnic rivalries” are not the main cause.
Internally Displaced Persons make camp next to the Catholic Cathedral
on November 10, 2013 in Bossangoa, Central African Republic.
Credit: MATTHIEU ALEXANDRE for Caritas International.
While the world has been concentrating on the crisis in Syria, the world economy and Nelson Mandela’s passing, genocidal violence has been brewing in Africa’s Sahel region. Once more the world has been ignoring this terrible threat, just as it did in Rwanda in 1994.
Will it be a case of “too little, too late”, yet again? In the last decade, tension has been spreading in the middle of Africa, in the region to the south of the great Sahara Desert and stretching from Senegal on the west coast eastward to the Sudan.
The reasons for the rise in tensions are numerous. Some have to do with, ironically, a rise in relative wealth for some of the population -- and an increase in poverty for others -- following Chinese investment in a region where the West is often conspicuous by its absence.
Big media has not reported on this rise of local tensions. Perhaps news services that deal specifically with the region or the oil industry have mentioned this, but the tendency has not been picked up by the mainstream.
Another cause is historical. Although resentment is deeply buried, the traditional believers and Christians south of the Sahel belt have not forgotten the centuries of slavery that came from the Arab-Muslim north. Between 10 and 18 million Africans were sold into slavery in Arab and Turkish markets. In recent times the practice has been formally outlawed, but it continues to exist in various forms for hundreds of thousands of people in the region.
The cultural legacy of slavery varies from place to place, but the rise of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the west of the region and Al-Shabaab in the east (Somalia) -- a militant version of Islam that wants to force Sharia onto all Muslims and often on non-Muslims – has awakened old fears and resentments.
One country where the imposition of Sharia has been followed by militancy is Nigeria, where Boko Haram, a group aiming to prevent outside influences (including Western jurisprudence and human rights concepts) from entering northern Nigeria, is causing havoc.
A combination, therefore, of historical hurts and newfound Islamic militancy would naturally add to regional tensions. Again, this is something overlooked by the mainstream media (with the National Geographic Magazine as an honourable exception.)
Part of the problem is logistical. It is not easy to get a reporter and a camera crew to a country with few roads, airports or hotels. As a result, reporters get sent to countries whose history and current affairs they are not familiar with and this results in over-simplification, often misleading. One recent report about the Central African Republic (CAR) spoke of “an attack on the capital, Bangui … by a Christian militia.”
This is outright wrong. The militia, which calls itself the “anti-balaka” (or anti-machete) live in Bangui and could not have attacked it from the outside as the wording of the report suggests. Also, they are not linked to any Christian church or group.
But there’s much more. Under the radar, the region, along with the Sahara, has become a veritable highway for drugs; gun-running; human trafficking and other criminal and terrorist activity. While none of this is widely reported, it has a strong knock-on effect on countries in the region and the continent as a whole.
Incomplete or outright incorrect reporting has effects that linger for decades, sometimes even a century. False reporting of the Vietnam War by Americans who understood little of Vietnam and less of the reality of Communism undermined American efforts to help South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, with genocide as the result.
In 1994, reports came out of Rwanda claiming that “age-old tribal rivalries” were active in the region. The reader understood that because it had always been that way, there was little point in trying to change an “age-old” mindset. There was indeed tribally-based violence, but this was a result of deliberate propaganda by rebels with political goals. Claiming “tribal rivalry” would be like saying that “Jews and Germans, playing out ancient ethnic rivalries, fought each other during WWII and both Jews and Germans died.” No, it was a deliberate plan. The same in Rwanda. The result of this oversimplification? Genocide.
Today it might be the turn of South Sudan, or the Democratic Republic of Congo. Or perhaps the CAR, where Nestor Aziagba, the Catholic Bishop of Bossangoa (a city north of Bangui), told IRIN (the UN Humanitarian News Agency):
“My main concern is a genocide, which might start at any moment. So, what I want to try to prevent is this war against brothers and sisters who have been living side by side in this area for a very long time. This is the responsibility of the government, and unfortunately, the government we have is not assuming this responsibility.”
But international media are oversimplifying it by saying it is a “Christian-Muslim” fight. That is simply untrue. At the end of 2012 a rebel coalition, well-armed and well supplied, invaded CAR from Chad. It received support from northern (Muslim) areas of CAR but also released convicts from jail and together they descended on Bangui.
In an unreported but major battle, the coalition, or Séléka, with an estimated 3,000 fast-moving rebels, attacked a South African force of less than 200 which had a training mission based in Bangui. The South Africans, made up of elements of the country’s Special Forces and Parachute Regiment, suffered 15 dead, while inflicting some 800 casualties on the side of Séléka.
The point is that Séléka is a force of made up largely of foreigners. (Because of language differences they were unable to communicate with peole in the CAR, except in the far north.)
That was in March 2013 – already high time for the South African government, the Southern African Development Community (the regional grouping) and the African Union, plus the United Nations, to intervene. Instead, they simply recognised the mostly foreign invaders and their leader, Michel Djotodia, as the interim government and promplty forgot about it. Soon, reports came of massacres, of hospitals around the country that couldn’t cope with the numbers of wounded, and then rapes and murders.
Then Djotodia did the worst thing he could have done. Instead of confining his fighters to baracks, he simply disbanded Séléka. So, from having some kind of military discipline, command and control, the rebels became literally armed thugs, common bandits.
The world studiously ignored the situation. After all, didn’t Africans always fight civil wars? Didn’t Africans engage in age-old tribal rivalries? And let us not forget that events involving the British, Americans and others who own the main media outlets were taking place elsewhere. Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq would mean more to British or American audiences, so mere African issues naturally slipped off the news diary.
So for eight months, Séléka raped, looted and killed its way around the country. We heard nothing. In early December, people in Bangui had had enough. Forming anti-balaka groups, they attacked the former Séléka members, who just happened to be Muslim. The angry militias just happened to be Christians because in that part of the country, that’s what there is on the ground.
And now? We read in respected media sources like Associated Press of “an attack on the capital, Bangui, earlier this month [December] by a Christian militia aiming to overthrow Michel Djotodia.”
The mainstream media has got hold of an easy-to-use moniker, “religious war”. We are told “rival militias” of Christians and Muslims are fighting in CAR. We are not told about the churches that protect Muslims or the Muslim neighbourhoods that prevent ex-Séléka rebels from attacking their Christian neighbours. No, it’s “Christians versus Muslims”.
As Bishop Aziagba’s plea indicates, these wars are fratricidal before they are genocidal – civil wars launched by power seekers who may use old grudges to set neighbour against neighbour. It happened in the former Yugoslavia and it happened in Rwanda.
I fear it is happening in the Central African Republic. Djotodia’s inept (non-existent) “government”, and the lack of response by the world community, aided and abetted by incorrect reporting, might together bring another genocidal war to Africa.
Christopher Szabo is a freelance journalist based in Pretoria, South Africa.