Armed Rebellion, Witchcraft, and Child Soldiers

The past month has seen immense upheaval in the Central African Republic, a nation already renowned for its fragile political structure, rampant poverty, and highly erratic policymaking. On March 25, a rebel group dubbed Seleka, the word for ‘alliance’ in the Sango language, infiltrated the capital of the C.A.R., Bangui, and forced then-President François Bozizé (who himself took power in a military coup in 2003) to flee the country, ultimately taking refuge in neighboring Cameroon.
The initial days of rebel rule loosed chaos on the streets of Bangui and the nation at large. Immediately upon seizing power, the newly proclaimed president, Michel Djotodia, dissolved the nation’s constitution, as well as its governing parliament for a three year span, introducing in its place what he euphemistically dubbed a “consensual transition.” This “consensual” transition began on March 25, the day of the coup, with widespread lootings of civilian homes in and around Bangui. The movement became more gruesome once the rebel forces opened fire on the soldiers charged with the protection of former president Bozizé, many of them foreign to the C.A.R. Indeed, thirteen South African nationals were killed in that bout of fighting.
By and large, however, the rebel forces faced little resistance either by the military or by civilians and swept into Bangui almost entirely unopposed. Yet, despite the relative lack of protest, many casualties still occurred. (The Red Cross identified 78 slain bodies in the streets of the city just three days after the takeover.)
The humanitarian crisis posed by the coup inspired a quick and severe response from the international community with the United Nations and African Union condemning Seleka’s actions and sanctioning its leaders. France sent 300 troops into the nation almost immediately to protect French citizens residing there, and the United States censured Djotodia and Seleka, emphasizing that the provisional government is not legitimate on the international playing field. Nonetheless, Seleka and Djotodia have maintained their grip on the government.
The country’s new prime minister, Nicolas Tiangay, has repeatedly called on France and the United Nations to send in peacekeeping forces to help stymy the violence perpetrated by Seleka. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius assured the nation, which secured its independence from France in 1960, that France would love to help stabilize the C.A.R., but could only do so if a legitimate government were in place; Djotodia in the position of president does not satisfy this criterion.
Meanwhile, the repercussions of the violence that is plaguing the Central African Republic can be seen in a multitude of ways. Perhaps most appalling is the prevalent use of child soldiers by the rebels. Though consistently denied by rebel commanders, allegations of the use of child soldiers have been leveled at Seleka since the outset of the coup last month, with the United Nations stating that they have “clear evidence of the continuing recruitment and use of children by armed groups” in the Central African Republic. These children, often as young as ten, are tasked with protecting the ground seized by the rebel leaders. They have been involved in direct battles, including the initial coup, and, according to the United Nations, they are also being regularly used as “sex slaves, porters, and cooks.” This abominable exploitation of children coupled with the continued looting and killing that racks the country to this day have relegated the Central African Republic to a state of unrestrained pandemonium.
Yet, this issue is not unprecedented in the Central African Republic’s history. The International Crisis Group has said that, “The C.A.R. has become virtually a phantom state, lacking any meaningful institutional capacity,” since its independence from France in 1960. More power shifts have been precipitated through violence and bloodshed than through any sort of democratic means. And the term power is used quite loosely when referring to the past political leaders that have governed the country. In fact, the International Crisis Group has asserted that the nation’s lack of infrastructure is so extreme that it exists in a state of near anarchy.
Seleka specifically became relevant in 2005, beginning as a group of guerrilla fighters in the northern part of the nation and gaining power and numbers quickly as dissatisfaction grew with Bozizé’s rule. Bozizé himself, as previously mentioned, ascended to the position of president through a military coup in 2003, and, throughout the duration of his reign, he was subject to intense criticism for his disregard of the pressing humanitarian issues plaguing his constituency, including famine and the nonexistence of law enforcement. In fact, new and grisly details continue to emerge about the ex-president. Merely two weeks ago, for example, rebels who were ransacking Bozizé’s former home, unearthed two human skeletons buried in the cement underneath the structure. The human remains are thought to be products of ritual killings — a practice that is supposed to bring the perpetrator good fortune and that is still prevalent in the Central African Republic to this day. The bones from ritual killings are used for the purposes of ‘witchcraft,’ a crime that represents 40 percent of the C.A.R.’s contemporary court cases.
It’s evident that the issues afflicting the Central African Republic are deeply rooted, and they will take much time and concentrated effort to solve. Institutionalized corruption, an unenforceable constitution, pervasive poverty, and subscription to archaic beliefs and practices are just a few items on the laundry list of troubles that the nation must ameliorate before it can have any hopes of attaining a somewhat peaceable existence. Embedded in the middle of other turbulent nations such as South Sudan, the Congo, Cameroon, and Chad, the Central African Republic’s wide-sweeping instability affects not only its own populace, but also the millions of people in the nations surrounding it who are already suffering humanitarian crises of their own. It stands to reason, then, that the C.A.R.’s problems must be approached in a proactive and goal-oriented way, with attention aimed at solving the fundamental issues first, assuring that progress is made at the root level, rather than simply the symptomatic level. This endeavor can, of course, only begin with the willingness of the leaders of Seleka and the people of the Central African Republic, both of which, unfortunately, seem entirely set on the course that they are currently taking.
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