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Central Africa faces turmoil amid power vacuum

17 January 2014


Christian soldier?: an anti-balaka militiaman poses in Bangui

Christian soldier?: an anti-balaka militiaman poses in Bangui

THE resignation of the President of the Central African Republic (CAR), Michel Djotodia, has left the troubled nation at a crossroads, analysts have said.

Mr Djotodia, who led the Seleka coalition of rebels and overthrew the former President Francois Bozize in March, stepped down, together with his prime minister, after negotiations in neighbouring Chad last Friday. The move was largely welcomed by the country's Christian majority as Mr Djotodia had been unable to prevent fighting between former Seleka rebels - who are mainly Muslim - and so-called "anti-balaka" militias, who are often Christians.

A former expert on central Africa for the European Union's aid agency ECHO, Michael Gowen, told a briefing in Parliament on the CAR on Monday that the vacuum left behind by Mr Djotodia's resignation had created space for intervention. He said: "The CAR stands at a crossroads. Either it degenerates back into a state of anarchy with increasingly vicious reprisals between the two communities and an increasingly Islamist element from outside, or there is an opportunity to begin to build a cohesive state."

There are already 1600 French peacekeepers in the capital, Bangui, and a larger force of African Union troops as well. Neither force, however, has been able in recent weeks to prevent massacres and atrocities perpetrated by both sides. Many thousands have been killed, and hundreds of thousands forced from their homes.

There have been reports of Muslims' being murdered in the streets by mobs angered by the killings by Seleka fighters. The BBC reported from Bangui that a man known as "Mad Dog" had eaten part of the severed leg of a Muslim man who had been hacked to death.

The man said: "I stabbed him in the head. I poured petrol on him. I burned him. Then I ate his leg, the whole thing right down to the white bone. That's why people call me Mad Dog." "Mad Dog" said that "Muslims" had killed his pregnant wife, his sister-in-law, and her baby.

Two missionaries who had been working with Wycliffe Bible Translators in CAR until the coup last year, Jo and Paul Murrell, also spoke at the parliamentary briefing. Mrs Murrell said: "Sectarian violence was never our experience. Practising Muslims and Christians respected each other's beliefs."

But Mr Murrell said: "Some communities are now becoming polarised. One pastor said that within his living memory he had not known such barbaric cruelty. I myself witnessed the abduction of a young man taken away by five Seleka men, kicking and screaming into a truck. I heard the detonation of a grenade thrown into a crowd, which killed a pregnant woman. I can see why some people want revenge."

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bangui, the Most Revd Dieudonné Nzapalainga, has taken the chief imam of the CAR, Oumar Layama, into his home, however, after Mr Layama became a refugee from the conflict.

Archbishop Nzapalainga told Channel 4: "This country, the Central African Republic, well it used to be like Switzerland. I went to a school with Muslim boys. We played football together. Now we live together, we shop together, we eat roast lamb at Christmas together."

Mrs Murrell said that she knew of Muslims who had helped and protected a 15-year-old Christian girl, injured while fleeing soldiers. She said: "The leaders of each religion are advancing peace and not seeking revenge. It is very unhelpful to talk of Christian militia groups.

"They are not Christian by any definition that Churches would expect. According to pastors, many of the militia have deliberately distanced themselves from the Church."

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