Have We Forgotten the Central African Republic?

by olgasoutstanding

My good friend Sherif asked, not long ago, why people aren’t paying attention to Central African Republic.  In a previous post, I outlined why we tend to stop paying attention to genocide, or never start paying attention at all.

Ukraine is in a state of political transition, and state assets and territory are being appropriated by Russia. A plane went missing between Malaysia and China. The world seems to be coming to pieces. So is the crisis in the Central African Republic over? Is it contained? It certainly hasn’t been in mainstream news lately.

This is an excellent example of expectations amnesia. Expectations amnesia is when we come to expect certain behavior and so, after the first shock, ignore or forget about it.

The Central African Republic is an African nation. In the eyes of many Americans and Europeans who are not specialists in African affairs, this lumps the country in with other failed or very weak states such as Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We expect violence, mayhem, and danger from these countries. No matter how stable the country is, when one of us goes to an African country, we’re confronted by family and friends who worry that we will be caught in the crossfire of some “tribal” war, that we will not have access to aspirin or clean water, and that the people we meet will be in some sense “primitive” – on the political left, full of country lore and wisdom, steeped in tradition, and unpolluted by modern life (most Americans would be shocked at how popular Tupac is in Mauritania); on the political right, dirty, barbaric, dangerous, and savage.

We don’t see African conflict because we see Africans as victims and perpetrators, not people. We don’t see it because we see Africans as foreign and exotic. We don’t see it because we see them as uniform, undifferentiated, monolithic. Africa has become the world’s blind spot; an invisible bloc of more than 50 countries. We don’t even recognize more familiar African countries, such as Morocco or Egypt, as African at all.

Our blindness with regard to the CAR is exacerbated by the popular view of Islam in the United States. When Muslims are systematically targeted and slaughtered, we say that this is “warfare” or “conflict” rather than genocide. This is because (in the United States, anyhow) we expect Muslims to be the aggressors. We accept explanations that the people who are being killed are the ones who orchestrated a coup d’etat last year – and we’re kind of OK with that. We tend to see Muslims (at best) as a group of cruel, repressive men and powerless women or (at worst) as terrorists, period. We don’t differentiate between children and adults, so why should Christians in the CAR?

Convulsions continue to wrack the CAR. Ordinary people have been infected by the political machinations in Bangui. They are consumed by a political mythos that makes enemies out of neighbors and keeps the populace nicely busy while those who are well-placed in Bangui fight for as much of the resource and power pie as they can get. CAR is an incredibly resource-rich country, strategically placed to be an excellent transit point for all sorts of materials. Keeping it lawless frees those materials of customs and other pesky government inspections, and aids kleptocrats large and small in profiting maximally from materials both originating in CAR and in transit. Why don’t we see this genocide going on? Sadly, Sherif, I think our expectations have made us incapable of seeing it. And as long as this is the case, the UN Mission is going to have to continue to ship as many people as possible out of the country for their own safety, and they are going to continue to fail as household after household falls victim to murderous people once thought of as friends, colleagues, and neighbors.

We cannot afford to forget anyone who is being targeted for extermination. We must demand whatever information can be found. Giving up is the option we most often choose, but clearly, it doesn’t make things any better.