Rwanda’s legacy – implications for the Central African Republic

By Lucy Phillips, on 17 April 2014

By Lara Macdonald

Christian militia in the CAR

Christian militia in the CAR

The 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide has been marked by a series of remembrance events worldwide, the most significant of which took place in the country’s capital, Kigali. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking at the event in Kigali, told the crowd, “We must not be left to utter the words ‘never again’, again and again”. His statement was a poignant and indeed, telling, reference to Clinton’s 1998 speech in Rwanda, where he declared “Never again must we be shy in the face of evidence.”

Ban Ki-moon made a quick visit to the Central African Republic (CAR) on his way to the ceremony in Rwanda, a visit that has no doubt highlighted the parallels between the two countries. In his address to the CAR, Ban Ki-moon reassured the citizens of “the heart of Africa” that they were not forgotten, and that their strife is the first thing that crosses his mind when he wakes up. If, as Ban Ki-moon insisted, the words ‘never again’ are more than empty rhetoric, the commemoration of the Rwanda genocide must underscore the importance of not shying away from the atrocities that continue to plague the CAR.

In the past week, the UN announced plans to deploy 12,000 troops to the CAR in order to fulfill the primary task of protecting civilians. Moreover, the US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, announced that the US has committed an additional $22 million in humanitarian aid to the CAR to address the most pressing issues facing citizens, including healthcare, food distribution, water sanitation and security. Both statements demonstrate an encouraging interest and commitment on the part of the UN to the desperate situation in the CAR. However, the fact that the citizens of the CAR will have waited 17 months by the time the UN peace-keeping force finally arrives, compels us to question the speed with which the UN acts when faced with irrefutable evidence of human rights abuses.

Whilst the CAR has been marked by political instability since it gained independence from France in 1960, the last nine months have witnessed a state collapse of epic proportion. The most recent and bloody bout of civil conflict was sparked by the Seleka militia, a group led by Micahel Djotodia, the CAR’s former interim President. In March they seized the capital Bangui and ousted then-President François Bozizé. The arbitrary nature of Seleka’s abuses has brought sectarian tension and hostility to the fore.

Ongoing conflict in the CAR

Ongoing conflict in the CAR

Whilst the majority of the CAR’s population, including President Bozizé, are Christian, the Selekas are predominantly Muslim. This, combined with the recent emergence of the Christian-based ‘anti-balaka’ militia in response to Seleka’s actions, has given violence a disturbingly religious edge.

Catherine Samba-Panza, previously Mayor of the capital Bangui, was elected as the interim leader of the CAR in January of this year. Samba-Panza follows in the footsteps of fellow female African Presidents Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Joyce Banda of Malawi. These leaders were both successful in rebuilding their countries politically and economically in the wake of conflict, and they serve as important role-models for Samba-Panza.

Whilst the dominant narrative in mainstream coverage of the CAR crisis has been one of a conflict driven by religious tension, Samba-Panza has been anxious to quash this ‘myth’. According to Caesar Nyeko Poblicks, Projects Manager for East and Central Africa at Conciliation Resources, the focus on ‘religion’ is an oversimplification. He argues that while the violence in the CAR has taken place along religious lines, the causes and motivations behind it are in fact political and economic. His diagnosis supports claims by Samba-Panza that the conflict is instead rooted in bad governance, corrupt institutions and poverty.

Whilst this oversimplification is at best ‘lazy diagnosis’, at worst, it paves the way for future tension and conflict. There is a very real risk that the creation of a false dichotomy by the global media will only serve to exacerbate existing divisions. On top of this, it risks provoking the international community into a response that is based on wrong-headed objectives.

The temptation on the part of the international community and the global media to reduce the complexity of the situation in the CAR to a binary, religious conflict is seemingly irresistible. However, at the same time, if we view the CAR through the lens of the Rwandan genocide, there also exists a real desperation to avoid yet another ‘misinterpretation’ of a civil conflict. The conflict which erupted in 1994 in Rwanda was quite clearly driven by ethnic motivations, yet the international community, most specifically Western powers, refused to call it a genocide. Perhaps the tragic legacy of the international community’s silence in Rwanda has led to the hasty categorization of the situation in the CAR as a religious conflict. If this is the case, a more nuanced approach is needed if we are to successfully bring this catastrophe to a halt.

Today, the CAR stares into an abyss of dreadful proportions. The primary objective must be to quickly restore security, whilst beyond that, the paralysed state needs to be revived, the institutions built from scratch. This process calls for a tailored, country-specific approach, not one modelled on the recycled lessons from other African conflicts. If the legacy of Rwanda is to be a constructive one, the actions of the international community can no longer be clouded by their guilt.