Main minorities and indigenous peoples include: Gbaya 33 per cent, Banda 27 per cent, Mandjia 13 per cent, Sara 10 per cent, Mboum 7 per cent, M’Baka 4 per cent, Yakoma 4 per cent
Main languages: Sango (official and lingua franca), French (official)
Main religions: indigenous beliefs (35 per cent), Christian (50 per cent: Protestant 25 per cent, Roman Catholic 25 percent), Muslim (15 per cent – though due to the conflict the number currently in the country is significantly lower)
Since the beginning of the current conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR), thousands of civilians have been killed, injured or displaced. While the increasingly sectarian nature of the violence has left both Christian and Muslim communities vulnerable to attacks by rival groups, the Muslim minority in particular has faced de facto ethnic cleansing. Over 80 per cent of CAR’s pre-conflict Muslim population has been driven out of the country, while in the capital Bangui the Muslim population has reduced from more than 100,000 to under 1,000. As of April 2018 more than 580,000 civilians, the majority of whom are Muslim, were still living outside the country.
The Ba’Aka forest people are estimated to number 8,000-20,000 (0.2-0.5 per cent) (April 2005 report of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Working Group of Experts on Indigenous Populations/Communities). There are approximately 3,000 Bofi forest people (April 2005 report of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Working Group of Experts on Indigenous Populations/Communities; other sources provide a higher figure), who speak an Ubangian language. A third group, the Bayaka or Biaka, are estimated to number 15,000. Many among these forest peoples still practice a hunter-gathering culture, while others have become agriculturalists. All face rampant official and everyday discrimination.
Mboum exist on the margins of society, being described as very poor refugees. Mboum fled to present-day Central African Republic from highlands in Cameroon to escape Mbororo (Fulbé) raids that had persisted into the twentieth century.
The situation of minorities and indigenous peoples in the Central African Republic (CAR) are best understood against a background of other, less marginalized groupings. The first policemen and clerks, and later the bureaucratic bourgeoisie, were recruited from among the riverine Ubangi-speaking people first exposed to French schools – Banziri, Sango, Yakoma and M’Baka (or Ngbaka). Three major linguistically related groups based in the middle and west of the country together make up the majority: Banda, Gbaya and Mandjia peoples. Linguistically distinct, but also Sahelian farmers, are Sara people; they live chiefly along the northern border with Chad. Azande people inhabit the far south-east.
Updated June 2018.
Since 2013, the Central African Republic (CAR) has been consumed by violence between primarily Christian and Muslim militias, resulting in an increasingly sectarian environment where civilians have been targeted on the basis of their religious identity. The conflict began with the formation of an alliance (Séléka) of largely Muslim fighters in the north who, angered by what they perceived as the government’s marginalization of their region, moved south towards the capital of Bangui and ousted then President François Bozizé in March 2013. Widespread human rights abuses, mostly targeted at Christian civilians, were committed during the Séléka campaign and continued even after their leader, Michel Djotodia, took power as the country’s new president.
In response, a group of armed animist and Christian militias, known as ‘anti-balaka’ (‘anti-machete’), were formed and by the end of the 2013 had staged a series of reprisal attacks against Muslim civilians in Bangui. Following Djotodia’s resignation in January 2014, anti-balaka extended their attacks to other Muslim communities, resulting in numerous deaths and large-scale displacement. Though the Muslim population has borne the brunt of the violence since then, groups of ex-Séléka have also been responsible for numerous atrocities against Christian civilians.
Despite the presence of the large UN MINUSCA peace-keeping force and ongoing efforts by authorities to restore stability, violence in many part of the CAR persists – in particular, the targeting of Muslim civilians by anti-balaka fighters. Hate speech and incitement on social media have played a significant role in fuelling inter-communal bloodshed. Between 70 and 80 per cent of the country have been controlled by various armed groups, which in some cases have established their own governance structures. Clashes between these groups, as well as frequent attacks on civilians, state authorities, UN peacekeepers and humanitarian aid workers have continued. The total number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has reached 655,000 while almost 600,000 others have fled the country, the highest numbers in five years. In February 2019 the government and 14 armed groups signed a peace accord aiming to end what has become a civil war, but the situation in the country remains highly volatile. Ongoing violence has also seen successive waves of displacement into neighbouring countries such as Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo and Cameroon.
Before the current conflict began, roughly 15 per cent of the national population were Muslim. Besides pastoral farmers and herders – including nomadic Muslim cattle-herding minorities such as Mbororo (also known also as Fulbe, Peuhl, Fula or Fulani) living mainly in the north-east, at roughly 4 per cent of the national population – many other Muslims belonged to a more urban-based merchant class. Both groups have seen their lives and livelihoods disrupted or destroyed by the conflict. In Bangui the Muslim population had diminished from over 100,000 to under 1,000, less than 1 per cent of the original population, while in the country as a whole around 80 per cent of the Muslim population had reportedly already left the country by the end of 2014.
Despite their supposedly ‘religious’ character, today both anti-balaka and ex-Sélékaare widely reported to be involved in criminal activities, surviving by preying upon and extorting revenue from the civilian populations in areas under their control. As a result, the line between ‘sectarian’ violence and simple criminal violence is blurred, even as the Muslim minority is largely driven out of the west and centre of the country, and territory becomes effectively partitioned between anti-balaka and ex-Séléka forces.
A further complication to the CAR’s current environment is the perennial conflict linked with the seasonal migration into the CAR of Mbororo cattle herders from Cameroon and Chad. These Muslim pastoralists and their herds have historically moved through the region, crossing national borders in search of grazing for their cattle. However, climate change, desertification and other factors have reduced available pastures, pushing them further south where they come into conflict with settled communities over crop destruction and access to water and pasture. In a climate in which targeted violence has driven many of the CAR’s own Mbororo herders to cross borders and take refuge in neighbouring countries, tensions around this traditional seasonal population movement have been increasingly acute. The outbreak of the current conflict in the CAR has made the situation worse due to the breakdown of traditional community mediation mechanisms and the spread of the perception that the herders are linked to ex-Séléka armed groups.
As of March/April 2016, almost 600,000 refugees from CAR were living in neighbouring countries while a further 655,000 remained internally displaced. Muslims and nomadic pastoralists (commonly referred to as Mbororo and also known also as Fulbe, Peuhl, Fula or Fulani), despite making up a small proportion of the CAR’s population, now comprise the large majority of its refugee population. Consequently, besides the pressing humanitarian concerns, their continued displacement into neighbouring countries has important implications for the future of the CAR as a multi-religious, ethnically diverse country. At present, most refugees are unlikely to wish to return to the CAR, given the clear risks this would present for them, and many may prefer to integrate into their host communities in the long term. Nevertheless, for those wishing to return to the country once security is established – including a large proportion of its Muslim and pastoralist minorities – ensuring their ability to do so safely must be a major priority.
Despite being framed as a religious and ethnic conflict, until recently the CAR had generally avoided large-scale violent division between its different communities. Nevertheless, much of the current violence is in fact rooted in long-term issues of discrimination, poor governance and inequalities over access to resources – issues that must be resolved if the underlying drivers of the conflict are to be addressed. This includes the perennial conflict linked with the seasonal migration into the CAR of pastoralist Mbororo cattle herders from Cameroon and Chad, a situation further aggravated by climate change and desertification.
Updated June 2019
The Central African Republic (CAR) borders Chad and Sudan in the north, South Sudan in the east, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Republic of Congo in the south, and Cameroon in the West. The south has a tropical climate and vegetation, while the north is savannah prone to drought and desertification. The CAR is an exporter of diamonds, uranium, gold, and timber, and is suspected to have significant oil reserves.
The history of the Central African Republic has been marked by long episodes of predation and conflict. The Atlantic slave trade gave rise to a network of riverine peoples in the south who raided peoples further north. Demand for slaves and ivory via Egypt and Sudan led merchants based in Muslim emirates of the savannah to carry out raids from the north. Besides helping to depopulate vast areas, these traumas left residues of hostility in the historical memory of several groups.
France’s armed conquest in the 1880s and colonial domination from 1894 were a decisive factor. Inspired by Belgian King Leopold II’s lucrative looting of the Congo Free State (today’s Democratic Republic of Congo) to the south, France granted large concessions to private companies in the area they now called Ubangi-Chari. The companies committed numerous atrocities against the indigenous population and made wide use of forced, unpaid labour. Missionaries and administrators sought to distinguish African ethnic groups, and then to arrange them in hierarchies. Ubangi-Chari became part of the Federation of French Equatorial Africa in 1910. Until they had their power stripped from them in the following decade, African elites in business with the colony and its companies received modern weaponry with which they accelerated the local slave trade and depopulated much of the eastern part of the territory.
In the late 1920s, in reaction to continuing brutality and forced labour, African peoples launched a protracted rebellion against the concessionary companies. An independence movement took shape in the 1940s, and in 1946 the Ubangi-Chari was allowed to elect territorial representatives and have representation in the French parliament. In 1958 the territory became an autonomous unit within French Equatorial Africa and changed its name to Central African Republic (CAR).
In 1959 Prime Minister Barthelemy Boganda died in a plane accident, and his nephew David Dacko came to power with French backing, becoming CAR’s first president at independence in August 1960. Dacko ruled a one-party state until his ouster in a military coup led by Jean-Bedel Bokassa in 1966. Bokassa abolished the Constitution and ruled by decree. In 1976 he declared himself emperor of the ‘Central African Empire’. Despite his erratic dictatorship, commission of widespread human rights abuses and disastrous economic stewardship, Bokassa maintained good relationships with France and the United States until the late 1970s when he became close to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. In 1979 French forces aided a coup that restored former dictator David Dacko to power.
A bloodless coup toppled Dacko in 1981, and army General André Kolingba took the presidency, installing many of his ethnic group, the southern Yakoma people, in positions of power. Although cronyism and economic mismanagement continued, international financial institutions lent large sums to CAR, driving it deep into debt. Kolingba maintained good relations with France. He ruled as a military dictator until 1986, when a new Constitution and staged elections transformed him into a civilian dictator. With rising internal dissent and the end of the Cold War, Kolingba allowed a national commission to write a new constitution in 1991 and submitted to authentic elections in 1992, in which he garnered a mere ten per cent of the vote. He cancelled the result, but under international pressure, CAR held elections again in 1993 and he lost to Ange-Félix Patassé, a northerner from CAR’s largest ethnic group, the Gbaya.
The politicization of the north-south ethnic divide begun under Kolingba continued under the Patassé government, as he moved to appoint northerners to positions of patronage in place of southerners. His favouritism of northerners in the military ranks set the stage for three army mutinies in 1996-1997, which were put down with military assistance from France and several Francophone African states. United Nations peacekeepers arrived in 1998, replacing a small African peacekeeping force. Patassé won the 1999 elections that were largely free despite some irregularities. His rival, Kolingba, rejected the result and attempted a coup in May 2001, which was again rebuffed with the aid of Libyan forces. In May 2002, Patassé signed a 99-year concession for Libya granting rights to CAR’s gold, diamonds and suspected oil reserves. In October 2002 Libya and the leader of the Mouvement pour la Libération du Congo (MLC), Jean-Pierre Bemba (who became DRC vice president in 2006) came to the aid of Patassé to put down a coup attempt of erstwhile Patassé loyalist General François Bozizé.
Bozizé succeeded with another coup attempt in 2003 after six months of fighting with Patassé loyalists who were again backed by Libya and Bemba’s MLC. Following the coup Bozizé seized Bangui, dissolved parliament and declared himself President while Patassé was out of the country. Bozizé temporarily broke with the politics of regionalism and convened a National Transitional Council with delegates from all parts of the country to draft a new Constitution, which was adopted with 77 per cent of the vote in a December 2004 referendum.
Bozizé’s coup was followed by a conflict known as the Central African Republic ‘Bush War’, during which armed groups, some of whom supported ousted President Patassé, rebelled against Bozizé. Fighting involved a large number of rebel groups of varying sizes. During 2007 and 2008 a number of peace agreements were signed between the Bozizé government and several rebel groups with the aim of resolving the ‘Bush War’. Finally, in June 2008, the government entered into a peace agreement with the Union of Democratic Forces of Unity (UFDR) rebels, as well as the People’s Army for the Restoration of Democracy (APRD). The agreement, brokered by the President of Gabon, provided amnesty to all combatants and foresaw the participation of rebel leaders in a consensus government with elections to take place in 2010. Unfortunately these peace agreements were not completely implemented and in many cases, the security situation on the ground remained unstable, with numerous smaller rebel groups still in operation. Over the course of 2008 and 2009 renewed clashes between government troops and remaining rebel groups forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee their homes. During this period banditry remained rife, with armed groups known as ‘zaraguinas’ engaging in widespread kidnappings and human rights abuses.
The security and humanitarian situation in the fragile north and north-west remained poor during 2009-2010, with ongoing fighting between government troops and rebel groups. Problems were also felt in the south and south-east, where Uganda’s Lord Resistance Army (LRA) launched an insurgency, provoking intervention from Ugandan security forces. In the south, late 2009 and early 2010 saw the arrival of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) which exacerbated the humanitarian situation.
In November 2009 Former President Patassé returned from exile, hinting that he might stand for the presidency in 2010. Over the course of 2010, however President Bozizé postponed the date for elections multiple times. Finally, in January 2011 presidential and parliamentary elections were held and Bozizé successfully won another term, while opposition parties complained of electoral fraud and irregularities adding to the ‘general confusion’ which characterised the polling process.
During 2011, the north-west remained under the effective control of the APRD, who had not yet disarmed following 2008’s peace agreement. The LRA also increased the intensity of their attacks in areas in which they remained active. A report from Amnesty International concluded that around two thirds of the country was outside government control.
However, 2012 saw the situation in the CAR enter a new phase with the formation towards the end of the year of a new alliance of rebel groups known as Séléka, meaning “union” in the Sango language. The Séléka coalition was created in response to Bozizé’s failure to comply with the terms of the various peace treaties and incorporated a range of armed rebel groups, including the UFDR and the Conventions of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP). It demanded his ousting from the presidency and called for him to stand trial at the International Criminal Court. Séléka swiftly took control of several key towns throughout the northern regions, and began to advance south, stopping short of Bangui.
In late 2012 Séléka entered into negotiations with Bozizé’s government, which culminated in January 2013 with the decision to impose a cease-fire and power sharing deal with the administration. The negotiations also satisfied several of Séléka‘s key demands, including prisoner release and withdrawal of foreign troops. Some of its members were also included in a new unity government, which allowed Bozizé to finish his second term.
Séléka quickly became disenchanted with the implementation of the deal, claiming that Bozizé had failed to honour aspects of the agreement. In mid-March 2013, Séléka issued an ultimatum, and despite last minute concessions the ceasefire was broken and hostilities resumed a few days later. In March 2013 Séléka forces captured the capital Bangui, ousting Bozizé who fled the country. The next day, Séléka leader Michel Djotodia declared himself President, dissolving the government, parliament and suspending the Constitution. Djotodia reappointed Nicolas Tiangaye as Prime Minister, and subsequently established a transitional government. Séléka and Djotodia’s actions were roundly condemned by the international community and the African Union, who suspended the CAR from the organisation and imposed sanctions on rebel leaders. Under pressure from regional leaders, on 6 April 2013 Djotodia signed a decree forming a National Transitional Council with himself at its head.
The period following Djotodia and Séléka‘s rise to power was characterised by spiralling levels of violence, human rights abuses and an ever-worsening humanitarian situation. Reports from Human Rights Watch found multiple instances of mass killings, the destruction of towns and villages over the course of February-June 2013. UN reports found that Séléka fighters lacked any chain of command, and were sustaining themselves through looting and crime. In August 2013 the UN Security Council deemed that there had been a ‘total breakdown in law and order’ in the country since the coup in March, and that the CAR posed a ‘serious threat’ to regional stability.
In September 2013 President Michel Djotodia dissolved Séléka. Some of the rebels were integrated into the new CAR army, but others broke rank and fled the capital, imposing their rule on other towns. By then, governance and state infrastructure had all but collapsed, civil servants had fled and fiscal revenues were close to zero. With the country unable to deliver even the most basic public goods, the CAR began to be described as a ‘failed state’.
During this period Djotodia lacked sovereignty over most of the country and retained no control over ex-Séléka elements. Rebel fighters commit human rights violations across the country, particularly in the north, including robberies, kidnappings, rapes and killings as well as recruiting child soldiers. The National Transitional Council lacked the capacity and political will to investigate abuses, and impunity was therefore widespread. In October 2013, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution asking the Secretary General to outline possible international support for a planned African Union peacekeeping mission, with the possibility of a subsequent UN peacekeeping operation.
A new concern arose in late 2013, with the emergence of anti-Séléka vigilante groups, formed to defend their communities from rebel attacks. Known as ‘anti-balaka‘, balaka meaning sword or machete in Sango, these groups were comprised largely of Christian villagers who formed militias with the stated intention of protecting their communities from Séléka and other rebel groups. These militias were involved in multiple attacks against Muslim communities which continued throughout the last months of 2013. In November, the UN and NGO community began to voiced fears that as violence between the country’s Christian and Muslim populations intensified, the CAR could spiral into sectarian conflict and genocide.
In light of the increasing sectarian violence and the ever-worsening humanitarian situation, in December 2013 a UN Security Council resolution gave a mandate for French military intervention to support African Union troops in the CAR. France deployed around 1,600 troops to support the 400 already on the ground, with the purpose of ‘holding the line’ between the rival Christian and Muslim forces.
Towards the end of 2013, confrontations between armed religious groups in the capital Bangui increased, with reports of numerous outburst of violence including attacks on religious sites. In December 2013, UN OCHA reported that during the previous month, at least 461 people had died in the violence between Christian militias and ex-Séléka elements in Bangui. According to the report, by the end of the year there were more than 160,000 people internally displaced in the capital alone.
In January 2014, Djotodia and his Prime Minister, Nicholas Tiengaye, both resigned from their posts. Later that month, Catherine Samba-Panza was elected as interim President: she called for national reconciliation and urged all sides to bring an end to the violence. There were some important signs of progress, including a national referendum and elections starting in December 2015. Nevertheless, the authorities have failed to bring the violence to a halt and the country continues to be characterized by widespread insecurity, with hundreds of thousands of civilians still displaced.
The governance of the Central African Republic (CAR) formally takes place in a framework of a presidential republic. The President is elected by popular vote and holds power for a five-year term. The Prime Minister is appointed by the President, who also appoints and presides over the Council of Ministers, which initiates laws and oversees government operations. The CAR’s National Assembly is made up of 105 members elected by popular vote to serve 5-year terms. Elections to the National Assembly use the two-round or run-off system.
On paper, CAR is a multi-party system with a wide range of political parties. Most of these parties claim to be aligned on ethno-regional grounds. However, there is some dispute as to the extent to which political parties in CAR are truly representative. Academic research has found that while many parties claim to represent different groups, in reality there is little evidence of them actively working to secure the interests of their supporters.
In practice, changes in government in the CAR usually take place through one of three means; violence (coups), negotiations and elections. Following independence from France in 1960, the CAR was ruled by a series of military governments, before undergoing a relatively successful democratic transition in the early 1990’s. However, since Bozizé’s coup in 2003, politics in the CAR became increasingly violent and unstable, with many of the key stakeholders in CAR politics acting both as civilian politics and as ‘violent entrepreneurs’.
This impact of armed rebellion has subverted a traditional, peaceful model of political change, as ordinary political parties have frequently been marginalised in political negotiations. Once in power, rebel groups have no claim to legitimacy, and while they may have some popular support there are no mechanisms for holding them accountable. As a result of these developments, the potential for political parties and civil society to impact upon government decision-making has become increasingly limited.
Nevertheless, despite the continued deterioration in security, some positive efforts have been made to bring an end to the conflict. In 2015, local leaders from different regions, religions and ethnicities, including some from the diaspora and refugee populations, took part in the Bangui Forum on National Reconciliation and agreed a set of recommendations on governance, justice, stability and development, issued as the Republican Pact for Peace, National Reconciliation and Reconstruction. An innovative law passed shortly afterwards laid the groundwork for a hybrid Special Criminal Court to address abuses committed during the conflict.
Ongoing violence meant that a constitutional referendum and elections initially slated for October 2015 were postponed until December that year. After some debate refugees were permitted to vote, though the registration process reportedly only reached around a quarter of those living in camps in neighbouring countries, leaving many of the largely Muslim refugee population unable to participate. The referendum, which included the imposition of a two-term limit for Presidents, passed despite low voter turnout and other issues. Presidential elections were subsequently held on 30 December, although legislative elections the same day were deferred due to irregularities. Faustin Archange Touadéra, Prime Minister under Séléka-ousted President François Bozizé, was declared winner of the February 2016 run-off election in a result endorsed by the Constitutional Court.
Updated March 2018.
- Central African Republic: The difficulties of return for the country’s conflict-displaced Muslims (2018)
- Central African Republic on the Eve of Elections: From Crisis to Reconciliation (2015)
- Jehovah’s Witnesses in Central Africa (1976)
News and updates
- With recent CAR truce hanging in the balance, MRG urges quick action by government and international community to ensure stability (21 June 2017)
- CAR electoral process must be free, fair and inclusive in order to prevent further conflict – new Minority Rights Group report (8 December 2015)
- Threat to populations in the Middle East still greatest from government forces, despite ISIS (31 July 2015)
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