Central African Republic: Genocide is about Politics
The alarms have been sounded. This week, the BBC released an article stating that the Central African Republic may soon see sectarian conflict that amounts to genocide. This seems like typical British understatement in light of ongoing massacres by Muslims against Christians, Christians against Muslims, and Christians of Group A against Christians of Group B. These killings are ruthless and thorough. It’s clear that the religious pluralism of the CAR is tearing the country apart. Or is it?
If sectarian difference in itself accounted for genocide, New York, Los Angeles, and London would be bloodbaths, while Rwanda and Sudan would never see violence. Central African Republic has relatively few Muslims, and only a few separate religious groups overall. Genocide is expressed as ethnic, religious, racial, or political groups attempting to create more homogenous societies. But that is the end activity, rather than the cause.
The origin of today’s conflict in the Central African Republic is political, and genocide is one expression of ongoing political struggle. The Failed States Index produced annually by the Fund for Peace (full disclosure: I have worked at the Fund for Peace) has had CAR in the top 20 countries in the world at risk for state failure since 2005. It entered the top 10 in 2008, and has stayed there ever since. The Failed States Index does not indicate actual state failure; rather, it uses public information to measure risk factors for state failures. In 2013, grievance levels actually decreased as a factor in CAR’s slow-motion state failure, but public services have worsened and there have been large movements of people throughout the region.
This year’s big news in the Central African Republic has been a large, dramatic power struggle. Seleka, an armed faction, took control of the government in March. The current president, Michel Djotodia, is expected to step down in the next several hours to two days, under pressure from the Economic Community of Central African States. This is government by the strongest faction, and it drives genocide. Stoking and encouraging grievance against one’s neighbors accomplishes two goals for a faction seeking power. First, it quells disagreement. Second, it serves as both a cause and a distraction, making civilian populations easier to control. Failing and failed states are fertile ground for genocide because genocide is a way of gaining and keeping political power. Likewise, in Rwanda, the genocide was precipitated by Hutu factions who took advantage of the plane crash (likely not accidental) that killed several government officials, including the President. It served as a method for Hutu leaders in Kigali to consolidate their power.
Given the risks, should other countries intervene when states begin to fail or fall into civil war? Perhaps they should. The bigger question, however, is what interventions would be effective in a given situation, and which countries could intervene without further fanning the flames of conflict. This is a delicate operation, and in general, countries choose to do nothing for fear of doing the wrong thing. The likelihood of doing the wrong thing is so high that it may never be possible to find an effective way to protect civilians from atrocities in complex conflicts.