The Other ‘Heart Of Darkness’: The Overlooked Crisis In The Central African Republic


In the classic and controversial novella titled ‘The Heart of Darkness’,  Joseph Conrad depicts the Belgian colonized territory around the Congo river as a place of intense savagery, madness, and depravity – at least to his European gaze. Conrad took what is now the modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C.) as his subject of exposition – a country which remains on the periphery of international news for its ongoing resource- conflict which has led to the mass displacement of millions of people both within the country and around its bordering countries.  While considerable attention has been given to the D.R.C., very little is known about the burgeoning civil unrest silently brewing within its relatively unknown and oft overlooked northern neighbour, the Central African Republic (C.A.R.).

The Overlooked Crisis

The extent of the violence and human suffering in the Central African Republic is difficult to overstate, and yet it has received little attention.  In 2018, the Guardian cited the conflict in C.A.R as one of the top three humanitarian crises that both the world media and international community have continued to wilfully ignore.

Since gaining independence from France in 1960, the C.A.R. has been marred by a history of civil strife and political instability ranging from military coups, martial law declarations and even the proclamation of a ‘Central African Empire’ in 1976. At present, the country is ravaged by fighting that began in 2012 when the predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels marched on Bangui and ousted then President Francios Bozize,  sparking reprisal attacks from the largely Christian anti-Balaka militias.

The UN deployed a peacekeeping mission called MINUSCA in August 2014 which helped abate the crisis and resulted in the peaceful presidential elections conducted in 2016. However, tensions have continued to rise since the inauguration of President Faustin Touadéra, and it is thought that up to 80 percent of the country is now controlled by armed non-governmental groups.

Although the struggle for power is primarily between competing rebel groups, it is the citizens of the C.A.R who have borne the brunt of this destruction. To elaborate, it is estimated that as much as a quarter of the C.A.R’s 4.7 million population has been displaced in the years of turmoil, and the life expectancy for men and women is as low as 51 and 55 years, respectively. The statistics, though shocking, pale in comparison to the accounts of contemporary life in the Central African Republic from those who are directly affected by this chaotic and inhumane civil war.

Human Cost of  Insurgency

Human Rights Watch (HRW), an organization that has been active in documenting the human cost of the insurgency, interviewed the survivors of an attack in the village of Zaorossoungou on 20 January earlier this year. 19 people were killed including a 14 year-old. One resident described how her sons were shot in front of her,  and another, while he fled. She added: “I don’t [ know]what to say about this. All I can say is that I wish the attackers had killed me too. I have nothing to live for.”  Non-combatants have, since the outbreak of widespread violence in 2013, been targeted by militias on both sides who have routinely executed, murdered, tortured, and raped civilians including holding women and girls as sex slaves. Relief workers and medical groups face great difficulty as they attempt to alleviate human suffering. Not only is much of the country inaccessible to aid organizations, but militias have  also targetted aid workers and medics. Sadly, it is unlikely that the perpetrators might ever face justice as while the HRW group suspect the rebel group 3R to be responsible for the Zaorossoungou massacre , they cannot be certain.  Such is the nature of the conflict; it is difficult to ascertain which groups control which areas and to determine whom is responsible for which atrocities.

Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council, is one of several experts who has highlighted the failure of the current UN deployment to region, and has called for  greater funding of the MINUSCA mission. He stated that “the UN effort it not succeeding, the donor effort is not succeeding, and the government is in no way steering the country toward good governance.” MINUSCA has struggled to contain the violence and is also itself under investigation for suspected sexual abuses by soldiers in the peacekeeping force.

Hope?

There have been glimmers of hope. Late last year, a new tribunal in the domestic court system, the Special Criminal Court, began operating with the aim of trying war crimes and crimes against humanity. Earlier this year, a new peace accord was signed by the government of the C.A.R. and 14 Non-State Armed Groups on 6 February in Khartoum, Sudan. All groups which signed the Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation have been allowed into a new cabinet of 39 members by President Faustin-Archange Touadera whcih demands for a more inclusive government. However, amongst the rebel groups now represented are the Popular Front for the Rebirth of Central African Republic (FPRC) and the  Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC) – members of which were responsible for an attack on civilians on 23 January in Ippy, resulting in 15 deaths including five children.

This highlights one of the core issues in the conflict: while the leaders of groups may be involved in peace discussions with the government, members continue to run amok and no side is prepared to renounce the use of violence. The coverage of the accord and commentary on the situation in the Central African Republic makes clear the tension between justice and reconciliation. On the one hand, amnesty is a sticking point for armed groups and they will not participate in peace talks without its guarantee demonstrated by the leader of the FPRC  who urged  “the Central African people… to accept an apology from those who have committed crimes, a sincere apology… [as] we must have amnesty to have peace.”

On the other hand, the population of C.A.R. deserves justice for the atrocities of recent years, and the introduction of the Truth, Justice, Reparations and Reconciliation Commission (TJRRC) which encourages pardons and reconciliation , may be troubling to many among the population who had hoped for something more akin to international justice for past crimes. It looks as if those who commit acts of violence will not be held to account – an appalling injustice against the country’s maligned citizens.

A Crisis of Trust and Neglect

It seems that the problems of the crisis in the Central African Republic stem from a crisis of trust. It was stated in the Bangui Forum of March 2015 that there could be no amnesty for perpetrators of violence and acknowledged that the lack of justice is a central factor in the cycle of armed insurrection. In an essentially lawless nation, rebel groups run amok because they know they can without penalty. The international community and the UN must support those initiatives in the country, such as the Special Criminal Court, in the pursuit of truth and justice for the people of the C.A.R, which should be measured, procedural, and without vengeance. The substitution of justice for reconciliation, while noble, may only lead the nation deeper into civil war, as there is seen to be no punishment for human rights abuses. The absence of justice only deepens distrust in the government response and fuels national tensions.

Finally, the Central African Republic is in dire need of additional resources for the MINUSCA mission.  as well as more attention from the global media. Presently, the C.A.R. is a backwater on the international scene. No doubt the crisis goes on because fighters believe no one is watching and because there are no consequences for inhumane action.

And they are right.

Until the crisis in the C.A.R. is recognised as exactly that, then the nation is unlikely to pull itself away from civil war.

David N Rose

Writer and postgraduate student of MA Intercultural Communication at the University of Manchester, UK.
David N Rose