Over the last few weeks, the usually unrelenting stream of baby pictures and lose-weight ads in my Facebook feed has increasingly been interrupted by news from the Central African Republic (CAR). “Unspeakable Horrors in a Country on the Verge of Genocide,” blared one particularly oft-shared headline. As someone who has studied the place for a decade now, I found myself fielding emails, too, including from people with only a vague idea where the CAR is, expressing concern and curiosity about what is going on there. The reason for this sudden upsurge of interest is partly related to the continuing deterioration of the security and humanitarian situation in the country, and partly — perhaps mostly — related to the fact that someone pulled the g-word: genocide. There are two questions that need to be answered in relation to the Central African “genocide”: first, is it in fact a genocide-in-the-making? And second, why did the analytical frame become set on genocide? I start with the first.
So is the CAR on the verge of genocide? That depends on how you define genocide. The Oxford English dictionary defines genocide as “the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.” In other words, it captures both the strong and the weak senses of the term. By the weak standard (deliberate killing of people), the violence in CAR qualifies as not just a genocide-in-the-making but an actual genocide. Massacres have certainly taken place. But in the strong sense — the attempted extermination of a particular social group, the definition preferred by the Holocaust Museum, among others — the argument becomes much harder to sustain. Christians have killed Muslims in CAR, and Muslims have killed Christians. The divisions within these seemingly monolithic categories might be as great as the factors that unite them.
It’s not that religion is unimportant, but rather that religion maps onto a host of other historical divisions in the country, chief among them “foreignness.” Among people in the capital, Bangui, there is a widespread anxiety that their country is being invaded and plundered by foreigners. They have a fair amount of historical support for this fear: whether in the case of the trans-Saharan trades’ nineteenth-century raiders or the case of the French-backed concessionary companies of the early twentieth, or of incompetent contemporary ministers’ corporate contracting, people with roots in far-off places have been the ones to obtain greatest monetary benefit from the CAR’s resources. The fear of foreign plunderers — and especially “Chadian,” “Muslim” plunderers — festered and grew during former President Jean-Francois Bozize’s decade (2003-2013) in power, because of the support he received from Chadian President Idriss Deby, who sent a contingent of Muslim soldiers to assure Bozize’s security. The impunity “Chadians” in Bangui enjoyed as a result was the source of much tension. The fact that the Seleka alliance that toppled Bozize in March was also predominantly Muslim piled more injustices and abuses onto these longer-standing tensions.
In terms of the fighting currently taking place, there are a number of groups involved, with a range of origins, that are largely non-centralized. So though the “anti-Balaka” fighters might describe themselves as Christian, and though the ex-Seleka offshoots might describe themselves as Muslim, the battles are not organized or planned in the way that the term genocide suggests. Both anti-Balaka and ex-Seleka consist of disparate assemblages of people, some smaller and some larger, none of which have a large-scale command-control hierarchy.
So why use the term genocide to describe what’s going on in the CAR? The term genocide was first invoked by the French in early November. Rather than an analytical term, its use in this case always had a major advocacy component. The UN Security Council was debating whether and how to strengthen the regional peacekeeping force currently operational in the CAR, and whether the force should be dispatched under the auspices of the UN or the AU. France and Rwanda pushed for the former, but the US and everyone else preferred the AU — with funding for the UN mission in Mali coming up short, how would they drum up financing for another mission in a country that few people have even heard of, the Americans and those on their side wondered? So, as part of a bid to convince people of the need to do everything possible to help, the French called the situation in the CAR a genocide-in-the-making, and a number of journalists only peripherally covering the conflicts there snapped to attention. The crisis had been translated into language that conveyed its gravity to editors, and the genocide framework continues to be frequently invoked.
On the surface, more attention to the CAR seems like an unalloyed good. There is truth to Mia Farrow’s claim that Central Africans are among the “most abandoned people on earth”. But as so many Darfur activists found out five years ago, attention and awareness do not translate neatly into a reduction in fighting. And if that alleged impending genocide does not emerge, there is a risk that people will turn away, having felt misled: Oh. Sounds awful. But it’s not a genocide. With its attention-grabbing potential, the word genocide runs the risk of hijacking the discussion of policy options, giving the false impression that it is possible to locate a victim “side” and a bad guy “side” and then intervene. In fact, the problems in the CAR are much messier than that — as they are in most, maybe all, places.
The media accounts of the conflicts in the CAR are full of the usual tiresome cliches that cause me, as an anthropologist, to cringe. (“Cut from colonial cartographies, the broken heart of Africa lies abandoned by the world,” opined a recent BBC radio segment on the CAR. Al-Jazeera published a piece with a similar headline.) But as sigh-inducing as the cliches are, the critiques of them can be tiresome as well. Journalistic accounts will never live up to academic standards for complexity. That being said, there are a few misleading tropes that, though not unique to accounts of the CAR, are especially prevalent in the CAR case, and thus merit a bit of attention.
First, the situation in CAR is frequently described as a “forgotten conflict,” or even “the world’s most forgotten conflict.” (Similarly, the CAR is frequently described as on the verge of becoming “another Rwanda,” or “another Somalia,” or “another Mali” even though the dynamics in the country are markedly different from all of these places. Rarely does the CAR just get to be itself, because the CAR doesn’t matter much in the calculus of Western newsrooms. It matters only to the degree that it can be compared to places that do.) More than help us understand what’s going on, describing the CAR as “forgotten” seems calculated to make readers ashamed for their lack of knowledge of the suffering. In other words, the coverage prioritizes advocacy and admonishment over analysis. Perhaps more to the point, describing the CAR as “forgotten” hides the fact that the country has received a decent amount of attention — it has been a kind of a laboratory for international peacebuilding initiatives — none of which has succeeded in building lasting peace or accountable institutions.
And second, many articles describe the CAR as immensely well-endowed with natural resources. The connotation, implied or explicit, is that armed elements are fighting over those resources, or that if only extraction were managed like that of oil in Norway the country would become rich. Though it’s true that the CAR has resources, all of those resources are difficult to exploit except on an artisanal scale. The diamonds are mostly industrial grade and widely spread; the gold is mostly in powder form; the uranium is in a form that requires a special processing treatment and the profitability of its extraction thus depends on the existence of especially high global prices; the land is copious but the tropical soils not well-suited to intensive agriculture. One thing that the country has in copious, readily-available form is water, lots of water, but even that is diminishing. Access to these resources is one reason for conflict on a local level, but this is not a situation of a Leonardo DiCaprio-style Blood Diamond war. Nor will the country become rich from industrial-scale resource exploitation anytime soon; the French colonists invested very little in infrastructure, and even less has been invested subsequently, so getting equipment in and goods out is very difficult to accomplish profitably, even before you factor in corruption making the CAR the “second-worst place to do business in the world“.
So where might one turn for more thoughtful analysis? International Crisis Group just released a new report on CAR. For those without the time to read the whole thing, there’s always the executive summary. Human Rights Watch has published a few reports, too, for those who want all the gory details of the abuses, and the people who did the research have written their own pieces as well. Global Observatory has published some pieces by the always-insightful Roland Marchal. In terms of daily news sources, Radio France Internationale’s journalists tend to have the context necessary to produce nuanced reports, and the Reuters team has been following pretty closely as well. Taking all of this together, it’s clear that the CAR isn’t forgotten, even though people there justifiably feel totally abandoned. Here’s hoping that these various analyses can inform peacebuilding efforts that achieve their goals, and that, as a result, Central Africans are a little less abandoned.