What is really happening in the Central African Republic, and what can we do to help the Muslims there?
by Musa Cerantonio
Many of you will have read about the recent massacres being carried out by Christians against Muslims in the Central African Republic. Some of you might have shared the statuses with others, some maybe left a comment, others will have put some time aside to make du’a for the Muslims there. Besides making du’a which is one of the greatest things that a Muslim can do, I dare suggest that almost none would have done anything practical to help the Muslims there. The reason why is not too difficult to explain – It is because almost none of us know anything about what is going on, and even fewer have any idea what needs to be done to help the Muslims there.
Don’t believe me? Then honestly ask yourself the following questions –
Before you read about the events there, did you even know that a country named the Central African Republic existed?
Can you locate it on a map? (despite the fact that the country’s name practically gives away its location, I have found that most still cannot locate it)
What are the major languages of the CAR, and which are the influential tribes? To which tribes do the Muslims belong, and where are they mostly located? What percentage of the country is Muslim?
Who are the Séléka and who is Michel Djotodia?
If you could not answer all or even any of these questions do not feel bad, as most could not answer them simply because most who live outside Sub-Saharan Africa know very little about the area. Don’t be proud of this ignorance however as it is a large reason for why such wars and massacres take place in the region, because most of us simply lack concern for this part of the world, sometimes to the point that we act as if it does not exist. We as Muslims must be concerned for the Muslims of Sub-Saharan Africa and we must be doing our part to support them not just in times of fighting and hardship but also in times of peace. They are are brothers and sisters and they deserve our support just as much as any other Muslim, regardless of where they may be.
So how did this all begin? Why are Muslims being massacred in the CAR?
A complete and comprehensive answer to this would be quite long, so I will try to explain things concisely and as best as I can without going too far back in history.
The Central African Republic is located at a migration crossroads in the centre of Africa. Historically 3 major groups passed through it and settled, they were the Ubangis who came from the West of Africa, the Bantus who came from the South and the Sudanic who came from the Northern areas. Each of these groups formed their own smaller tribes and they settled in and around what is the modern-day CAR. Despite the early growth of Islam in the areas to the North (Chad, Sudan) and North-West (Nigeria, Niger) it was not up until the 1800′s that Islam fully entered into what is now the CAR. Initially Muslims entered as traders, and maintained a peaceful relationship with the locals, many of whom embraced Islam. However shortly afterwards groups from the north, primarily from Sudan and Chad began to raid the eastern part of the CAR and took most of the population as prisoners, many of whom were sold as slaves, quite often ending up on the West African coast to be sold to slave buyers from the USA. These raids had a lasting effect on the eastern part of the country, so much so that up until today the areas are almost entirely depopulated. These areas never recovered from the raids and as such have become land used by nomads from the North.
As the European powers began their scramble for Africa, trying to divide the continent for themselves to rule over and exploit, the ruler of Egypt and Sudan attempted to claim the areas of the CAR as part of his state. Considering that the CAR bordered South-Western Sudan, the claim was a credible one that could be backed up with Egyptian and Sudanese troops, however around this time the French had also laid claim to the area, and this lead to a conflict between the 2 nations. Egypt and Sudan was considerably weakened during the period due to heavy losses during the Mahdi Revolt and were unable to put up a strong fight, which meant that the French easily defeated them and claimed total control over the area. Thus began the history of European and Christian influence over the CAR. Throughout this period, much like the rest of Africa, CAR was exploited by French corporations and the French government. Slavery was kept in place by which workers were forced to work free of charge for the French. For a short period, the Western part of the CAR was ceded to Germany which had its colonial base to the West in Cameroon, however the area soon reverted back to French rule and the French maintained complete hegemony over the area up until 1960. In this time almost all of the Animists (Mushrikeen) were exposed to the French ways and many of them had adopted Christianity as well as the French language. The French however never maintained a strong rule over the North-Eastern areas, and thus the Muslim nomads of the area who spoke Arabic and maintained close ties with Chad and Sudan were able to remain quasi-independent, as well as the Christians and Mushrikeen of the area, many of whom began to spread into Southern Chad.
As the European powers began to withdraw from their colonies in Africa, new countries were being created and independence was being proclaimed. The Central African Republic officially came into existence in 1960 and thus began a new era that was free from direct European influence. The French however were sure to maintain a grip on the leaders of the nation, as they did in all of the countries which they ruled over. Just a week before elections for the CAR’s first government were to take place, the main candidate Barthélémy Boganda was killed in a plane crash, and the French quickly pushed one of his close associates, David Dacko to run for the leadership. His main rival, Abel Goumba was quickly arrested and thus Dacko easily claimed the leadership and established what was essentially a dictatorship within the next two years. He ran in the next election unopposed (since all opposition was officially banned) and he remained in power until January 1st 1966 when his cousin, General Bokassa overthrew him in a military coup. Bokassa proclaimed himself as the ‘Emperor’ and ‘President for Life’. His rule was heavily corrupt and soon enough the French invited his cousin Dacko to France to plan a coup against him. The French supported Dacko in overthrowing Bokassa, and in 1979 the French coup succeeded and Dacko was put back into power. However, two years later in 1981 yet another military-led coup took place, this time by General Kolingba, who managed to maintain close ties with the French, ensuring that he was able to stay in power without the French plotting against him. He banned almost all opposition to his rule and it was not until 1990 that popular opposition to his rule forced him to hold elections which he promptly lost to Ange-Félix Patassé who became the first democratically elected ruler of the CAR.
It was during the rule of Patassé that the foundations for what is taking place today were set. Patassé immediately began removing all of those who belonged to the tribe of the former ruler Kolingba from important posts. Kolingba’s tribe, the Yakoma were being punished for what Patassé saw as the crimes of Kolingba. Many mutinies began to take place among the Armed Forces of the CAR, complaining of tribal discrimination, unpaid wages and other grievances. The French who kept troops in the country for ‘peacekeeping’ were deployed to quell the mutinies, leading to increased tension and demands for Patassé to resign. Many of those opposed to the government began to rebel and take up arms against it, which led to a fear of a possible civil war. In December 1996 Patassé was forced to call upon the presidents of the neighbouring countries of Gabon, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali to help draw up a truce and peace plan between his government and the rebels opposed to it, the is culminated in the 1997 Bangui agreements, named after Bangui which is the capital city of the CAR and the city in which the agreements were signed by all parties. Initially a force of African peacekeepers were deployed in the CAR to ensure peace, however they were soon replaced by peacekeeping forces from the United Nations. The next election was held in 1999 and Patassé managed to remain in power, easily defeating his main rival Kolingba. In this time Patassé had forged close links with Colonel Qaddhafi of Libya, and Libya began to became a sgtrong base of support for the Patassé government. In 2001 a group of the military staged a coup against Patassé and stormed government buildings in Bangui, however the rebels were quickly defeated with the assistance of Libyan soldiers who came to support the Patassé government. After the coup attempt, efforts were made to destroy all rebels opposed to the government, and fighting continued around the country, any group suspected of being linked to the coup was attacked and imprisoned or killed. Patassé began to uncover information that one of his Generals, François Bozizé was planning to lead the rebels against him, and so he tried to arrest him but Bozizé managed to escape into Southern Chad with his troops before they could be caught. It was there that Bozizé waited for the right moment to attack, and it soon came in 2003.
Whilst Patassé was outside of the country attending meetings, Bozizé decided to strike and led his forces into the CAR and up to the capital of Bangui. Despite heavy resistance from the Army as well as the many Libyan troops sent to protect the government, Bozizé’s men were able to take power. His first acts were to incorporate all of the rebel groups into his new givernment, ensuring that he had a wide base of support from the people. In order to authenticate his rule, he had elections held in 2005 however Patassé was banned from running in them, and thus Bozizé easily won them. Bozizé made sure to make peace with the French, and they supported him against the former government supporters, some of whom had taken to fighting in a rebellion against him in what became known as the ‘Bush War’. Many other rebel groups joined in and the country soon began to spiral into yet another civil war. Bozizé asked the French for assistance in quelling the rebels, and they sent in fighter jets that bombed rebel positions. Elections were again held in 2011 which Bozizé won, however there were widespread claims of vote-rigging and corruption.
It is during this time of the Bush War that the Muslim groups begin to play a larger role. Up until that point, the Muslims in the North-East remained largely nomadic and played no rule in the politics of Bangui. However it did not mean that they were not interested in taking power, rather they were simply waiting for the right time to become involved. With the ongoing civil war in Sudan to its North and West, many of the Sudanese militia known as the Janjaweed were able to pass into the CAR and become involved in the rebellions taking place. Naturally they allied themselves with the Arabic speaking Muslims of the North-Eastern CAR, and they in turn allied themselves with the other Muslim groups spread throughout the area. The different rebel groups united under a banner known as the ‘Séléka’ which means coalition or alliance in the Sango language (Sango is the lingua franca of the CAR along with French). There were 5 main rebel groups that formed the Séléka, each of which was predominantly led by Muslims. They were -
The Union of Democratic Forces for Unity – Led by Michel Djotodia and General Damane Zakaria (both Muslims)
The Democratic Front of the Central African People – Led by Abdoulaye Miskine (Muslim)
The Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace – One faction led by Abdoulaye Issène and the other by Hassan Al-Habib (both Muslims)
The Patriotic Convention for Saving the Country – Led by General Mohamed-Moussa Dhaffane (Muslim)
These groups were augmented by the addition of the Chadian group the ‘Popular Front for Recovery’ led by the Chadian General Abdel Kader Baba-Laddé, who supported the Séléka.
The alliance came to be led by Michel Djotodia who like all of the others was from a Muslim from the North-Western area of the CAR. Like most of the other leaders, he was not a practicing Muslim, and he was most definitely not seeking to establish an Islamic State of any sort, rather the scope of his rebellion was one of seeking power and at most strengthening the oft-abandoned Muslim North-Western portion of the country, however the main aim was clearly simply one of seeking power. Djotodia was raised in a Muslim family, however he soon left the CAR to go and live in study in the Soviet Union where he remained for 10 years. Whilst in the Soviet Union he married a Russian woman and became fluent in the Russian language. Upon returning to the CAR he held various government positions in the Muslim dominated North-Eastern region of Vakaga which borders both Sudan and Chad. It was in this area that Djotodia grew up and as such learned the Arabic language due to it being one of the main languages of the area.
Despite being a Muslim and speaking Arabic, it has always been clear that Djotodia, as well as the rest of the Séléka leaders did not have any Islamist agenda at all, rather they sought power for themselves and it only happened that they happened to belong to Muslim tribes. The Imams of the Muslim majority areas quickly disassociated themselves from the Séléka, with one Imam from the Vakaga region claiming outright that Djotodia “Wanted nothing more than to be president.. He really wanted power.” It was because of this lack of an Islamic goal that the Imams and the religious Muslims did not support the Séléka, despite the fact that the Séléka were almost all Muslims by name. This phenomenon of ‘secular Muslims’ forming political alliances against the non- Muslims is not something unfamiliar, it has happened numerous times in the last century. One of the more famous examples of this were the Mǎ Group (马家军/Mǎ Jiājūn), who were a group of Chinese Muslim Generals all from the Mǎ family (Mǎ is the Chinese name for Muhammad) who allied with the Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang) in the Chinese Civil War. Their aim was to seek power and were ruthless in doing so, at their peak controlling almost one third of all of China (predominantly the North-Eastern areas which were sparsely populated). The Mǎ group, like the Séléka were all Muslim by name, and in many ways helped to serve the financial interests of the Muslim Chinese, however were led by a want of power and not at all by an Islamic cause. The Mǎ group never ruled by Islam despite having power over large areas of China, they openly committed acts of kufr (such as worshiping the God of the Lake at the Kokonuur Lake Ceremony with the Kuomintang), and actually fought and suppressed the Islamists of China who spoke out against them.
The Séléka, much like the Mǎ Group began first taking over areas within the Muslim majority parts of the country. Djotodia’s group, the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UDFU) began the attack against the government by taking the city of Birao, the capital of the Vakaga region in the North-East. From there the Séléka forces marched towards the capital Bangui, in their path destroying any resistance that they met. Despite the presence of troops from Chad,Gabon, Cameroon, Angola, South Africa and Republic of Congo who were meant to act as a defence against the rebels, the Séléka managed to conquer almost all of the North-East and Central areas, and easily marched upon the capital by the end of March in 2013. Before entering Bangui, the Séléka rebels stopped their political ministers from preceding them into the city, knowing that if they did so then the ministers could quickly proclaim power and begin to cement power for themselves while ignoring their comrades who were doing the fighting. Eventually when the rebels saw that they had enough power to prevent this from happening they marched forth to take the capital. Bozizé did not stick around for long and quickly fled the country, leaving the Séléka to claim power which they immediately did, declaring Djotodia to be the new President of the CAR.
Upon taking power, Djotodia kept Nicolas Tiangaye as the Prime Minister, he had served as the Prime Minister to Bozizé and was widely liked by the CAR’s population. Djotodia had to manage on one hand pleasing the Séléka who had fought to put him in power, but at the same time not alienating the Christian/Animist majority who were suspicious of the new ‘Muslim’ ruler. Djotodia managed to have the leaders of the military and police support him as the new president, and so he set out to form a new government which would please all sides. Initially Djotodia placed only 9 members of the Séléka in the new government, however it was alleged that the 16 posts which were given to civil society activists were in fact all given to Séléka leaders masquerading as civil society activists. A further 8 posts were held by non-Séléka former opposition members, and only 1 post was given to a former ally of Bozizé. This perceived favouritism to Séléka members made the former opposition members protest and they refused to take part in the new government.
In order to please both sides Djotodia proposed to hold new elections after 3 years time, however this was refused by the former opposition as well as a group of African leaders who met in Chad, who demanded that instead elections be held within 18 months whilst the country was led by a transitional council. Djotodia reluctantly agreed to this timeline and arranged for an election to elect the leader of the transitional council, which he ended up being the only candidate for and thus remained as the leader of the CAR’s transitional government, however it was stipulated that he would not be able to run in the election to be held after 18 months, to which he agreed. These developments were beneficial for Djotodia and the Séléka ministers, but were not at all pleasing to the Séléka fighters who had put them into power. They wanted their share of the spoils of war, and so they continued to raid areas around the country and managed to raid and destroy almost 40 villages up until April 2013. Bozizé, the deposed president took advantage of this and declared that with French support he would seek to regain the presidency, in order to clean up the country from the Séléka rebels, suggesting that they were acting upon orders from Djotodia even though by that point it was clear that they were acting alone and in their own interests, not under command from Djotodia or his new government.
Djotodia saw that he faced a crisis if he continued to be linked to the Séléka fighters who continued their raids, and so he publicly proclaimed that the Séléka were to be disbanded, and that they must cease all operations in the country. This proclamation at least made it clear that he was no longer responsible for the Séléka, however what it did not change was the fact that it was him and his allies that had led the Séléka for so many years, and thus the public would continue to blame Djotodia for anything that the Séléka fighters did. As was expected, most of the Séléka fighters refused to accept the order of disbandment and continued their raids. This forced Djotodia to turn the CAR Armed Forces against them, which was seen as an act of great treachery by the Séléka, having their former leader declare war against them, rather than supporting them and paying them what they saw as their dues. Fighting increased drastically and by September almost 500,000 people had been displaced by the ongoing war. The Christian and Animist majority of the CAR held great resentment against the Séléka who were nominally Muslims, and as such they began to carry out reprisal attacks against Muslims, even if they were not part of Séléka. The violence between Muslims and Christians began to increase, and fighting between forces loyal to Bozizé and the Djotodia government also increased. The French government promised to immediately send more troops to stop the fighting (and of course to ensure that Bozizé or another suitable ally would be put into power), and the UN also announced that they would become involved on the ground.
Amidst the chaos that the country was descending into, Djotodia realised that he could not control the situation and agreed to attend a summit in Chad in January 2014 to solve the crisis. Both he and his Prime Minister announced their resignations, hoping that it would help to bring an end to the fighting. Alexandre-Ferdinand Nguendet was placed as the interim President and elections for a new leader took place almost immediately, with the mayor of Bangui, Catherine Samba-Panza being elected to lead the country. Her election was seen as a compromise as she was neither linked to Djotodia and the Séléka, nor to the opposition or Bozizé, she was essentially a neutral politician who all sides agreed to and approved of, hoping that she could help bring an end to the chaos and fighting. The UN also praised her appointment, and the French seem to accept her, not having voiced any opposition to her. Samba-Panza immediately called on all sides to lay down their weapons, and called for both the Séléka as well as the Christian militias who were known as the ‘anti-Balaka’ to stop the fighting. This call largely fell on deaf ears, and within a few days the Séléka resumed their fighting and reportedly killed 75 in a town in the South-West of the country. A day later anti-Séléka violence broke out, and within days widespread Muslim-Christian violence was occurring all over the West of the country. The anti-Balaka militiamen (Balaka means ‘machete’ in the Sango language, as the Muslim Séléka were known to carry machetes with them often) began to kill Muslims and mutilate their bodies, there were instances of burning Muslim bodies as well as reports of cannibalism. What began as reprisals against the Séléka quickly turned into an anti-Muslim massacre, targetting anybody who is a Muslim, regardless of their association or lack of association to Séléka. This massacre is continuing up until today as I write this piece, mosques are being attacked and there are reports of anti-Balaka groups destroying entire Muslim villages, forcing the Muslims to flee outside of the country.
So what is to happen from here?
One of the first things that we must understand is that although the conflict began as an entirely secular matter, carried out by forces with no religious goals, it has ended up turning into a religious conflict where Muslims are being targeted solely because they believe in Allah and follow the Prophet Muhammad. It may be true that if you ask the anti-Balaka fighters why they are fighting the Muslims, some will say that they want revenge on the Séléka, however their actions and even their statements betray this and show that they are in fact seeking revenge on the Séléka by targeting Muslims who had nothing to do with Séléka or Djotodia and in fact may have even been opposed to them. Right now regardless of what has happened in the past we are facing a disaster in the CAR. It is true that much of it was instigated by secularist Muslims, and we are seeing the whole world over how the follies of secularists end up affecting the Muslims and due to this we can no longer sit back and allow them to continue doing things for their own personal gains which will bring harm to the Muslim Ummah, whether it be in CAR, Bangladesh, Egypt or anywhere else. Therefore we must respond to the situation on different levels, one is how to deal with the defence of the Muslims, another is how to fight those fighting us, another is how to deal with the secularists, and lastly how we can gain the best out of the situation. All of these steps must be taken with a common goal in mind, and they are not independent of each other, because each step is related to the next and to only focus on one while ignoring the others is going to cause problems in the future.
Defence of the Muslims – This is the most urgent step that must be taken, as right now there are hordes of drug-crazed cannibalistic madmen who want to kill every Muslim that they encounter. If we do not defend the Muslims then surely blood will be spilled, honour will be taken away and we as an Ummah must not allow this to take place. The first step would be for the Muslims in the CAR to organise themselves into groups who can organise the safe passage of women and children towards safe areas, whether it be in the North-West or even in Chad. The men should organise themselves into fighting units with what they have to try and protect the Muslim’s lives and properties, so long as it is safe to do so. If not then they too should migrate to safer areas. The Séléka rebels MUST repent for their errors and should turn to Allah and pledge to fight for Islam and to defend the Ummah, they must use the same forces that they used to take the country to defend the Muslims that are suffering because of their mistakes. Regardless of if they do repent and change course or not, it is necessary for the Mujahideen and Islamists of the surrounding countries to come to the aid of the Muslims, this means especially the Muslims of Chad and Sudan should come, and without doubt among the men of Sudan are brave and strong Mujahideen who are experienced on the battlefields. They should plan to come not only to defend, but to remain and teach the people about Tawheed. They must strengthen the communities and cause the people to dedicate themselves to the establishment of an Islamic State. After Chad and Sudan, groups present in the surrounding countries should also send forth men, such as the Mujahideen of Nigeria, Southern Egypt, Niger, Mali and even the men of Al-Qa’idah in the Islamic Maghreb. If they all make a way through, at least the defence of the Muslims will be possible and the enemy may be deterred from harming them.
Responding to the CAR – The location of the CAR is significant as it lies on what is essentially the border of the Ummah. To its north are all Muslim lands, and to its south are all Christian and Animist lands. Whilst the majority of the CAR falls under Christian control, its North-East is a Muslim area and thus must remain a part of the Ummah and not be mixed with the land of kufr. It should be an aim of the Muslims to either try to retake the CAR, and this would involve regrouping and reorganising the Séléka under an Islamic banner, and then preparing for a defence against the surrounding countries. If this is not possible, and even I would suggest that we are not ready for that, then we should focus on at least maintaining that the North-East areas remain as Muslim areas under our own control, and this means that like in Mali, the Islamic groups must unite and form an Army that will defend the areas and ensure that it is recognised as a Muslim land. From there Muslims from Sudan, Chad etc. should be urged to migrate there and to assist in the establishment of an Islamic State, by which a power base may be formed that can in turn be used to attack the apostate regimes of their lands and to unite the Muslims of Central Africa into a single state. The goal of autonomy and independence from the Christians is something possible, but will no doubt lead to fighting with the kuffar and most likely (just like in Mali) a French invasion in order to stop the formation of an Islamic State. The aim of the kuffar would be to stop the Islamist movements and to bring a quick end to all fighting, for they know as well as we do that an unstable area is ripe for the growth of an Islamic State, so they would aim to repress the Muslims and to stop any moves towards this Islamic goal. If however it is decided to simply abandon the options of re-taking the CAR or forming an Islamic State in the North-West, then the risk of going back to the status quo of Muslims remaining a minority will be the worst option, and will leave us open to future attacks. If this option is pursued then in the last we must maintain a strong Army ready to respond to such attacks, and focus on education of the Muslims so at least when the time is right they may seek independence under an Islamic banner.
The Future for the Muslims of CAR – The Muslims have now seen what is a timeless truth, that the disbelievers will never accept them until they follow their religion, as Allah tells us in the Qur’an. They must be aware that neither the disbelievers of the CAR, nor the French, nor the UN are truly concerned for them. Whilst the liberals among them may pretend to want to see an end to the fighting, the reality is that they too will fight us when we raise the banner of Islam. They prefer to see the Muslims as docile, weak and inactive, unable to defend ourselves against their political, cultural and military hegemony. After the era of the Séléka there will be no forgiveness, the Muslims will be held with even more suspicion than in the past, and so we must be prepared to look to the wider Ummah to find the right way ahead. The Mujahideen of the surrounding areas must play a role in this, and so far some of them have stated that they are ready to enter the CAR to offer support to the Muslims, this is no doubt an encouraging thing to see. The Muslims of the CAR have shown that they are strong, indeed strong enough to take power of the country, this means that they are not so weak as to be forced to migrate to Chad where they will face even further problems from a secular regime, but that they should aim to forge an independent Islamic State in the Muslim areas of the country. This will be better for them to fight for as the one who fights for this fights in the Path of Allah, and if he dies he dies as a martyr and Paradise is his destination. To remain as they are at the moment is not an option as it will only lead to more slaughter in the future and more oppression. The Muslims of the CAR can turn this disaster into a great blessing and becom an example for the Ummah, but they will need our help, and the call is made to the Muslims of the surrounding areas, and then to the entire Ummah to contribute to them, to travel to them, to fight along side them, and to work together for the unity of the Muslims and the call for an Islamic State that will protect the Muslims.
I will leave you with the words of one of the anti-Balaka fighters who was speaking about the killing of a Muslim mayor – “It is good that he died, the man was a Muslim. We don’t want any of them to remain in this country… Even if he was a good man, he was a Muslim”
It is clear that there is only one choice for the Muslims, and that is the same choice that was made by the Prophet and the Sahabah, as well as Muslims throughout history – Do not live in the lands of Kufr, establish an Islamic State and then you will live with honour. The kuffar will never accept you, so do not rely on them or even live among them, rather aim for what Allah commands of us, the establishment of our own State which is based upon Tawheed.