David Smith, Guardian (London), April 25, 2014
Rebels in the Central African Republic are calling for the establishment of a new country as a radical solution to the worsening sectarian conflict.
The name–the Republic of Northern Central Africa–and a design for a national flag, are circulating by mobile phone in the dusty town of Bambari, which divides the CAR’s largely Christian south from a northern region now controlled by the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels, according toReuters. But the United Nations, the African Union, the former colonial power, France, and many analysts insist that this is neither likely nor desirable.
The call for partition echoes numerous secessionist movements across Africa, where arbitrary borders drawn by colonial mapmakers disregarded and cut across ethnic boundaries. South Sudan, the CAR’s neighbour, gained independence from Sudan in 2011–but is now embroiled in a civil war of its own.
Bambari has become a sanctuary for Muslims fleeing lynch mobs in the south; a convoy of French peacekeepers escorted 100 Muslims there last Monday from the capital, Bangui.
Such evacuations, which are continuing, are tantamount to accepting partition, the minister for reconciliation and communications, Antoinette Montaigne has conceded.
Abdel Nasser Mahamat Youssouf, member of a youth group in Bambari lobbying for the secession of the north, was quoted as saying: “The partition itself has already been done. Now there only remains the declaration of independence.”
A colleague, Oumar Tidiane, said of the south: “They don’t want any Muslims. Rather than calling their country the Central African Republic, they can call it the Central African Catholic Republic.”
Militias known as the “anti-balaka” have driven tens of thousands of Muslims from the south, destroying mosques and virtually wiping out the Muslim population of Bangui. The UN high commissioner for refugees, António Guterres, has said the country faces “massive ethnic-religious cleansing”, while Amnesty International has warned of a “Muslim exodus of historic proportions”.
But there is no simple split. Before the crisis it was estimated that half the CAR’s population was Christian and just 15% Muslim. David Smith, a director of Okapi Consulting, who spent several years in the country, said: “The number of Muslims in the CAR was small and now it is dramatically smaller. The number calling for secession is so small that it’s hardly worth listening to them.
“There are some people who want to compare it with Sudan and South Sudan but that is completely off the mark.
“There are lot of independence movements all over this continent and most have more steam behind them than a group of young men in the CAR. It’s coming predominantly from Chadians and Sudanese who want to have free rein in the region,” he added.
Indeed, an independent north would play into the hands of neighbouringChad and Sudan, whose mercenaries played a major part in a coup in March last year, sparking a backlash along religious lines that forced the Seleka to cede power in January. This is just one reason why partition is implacably opposed by the CAR’s interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, has also warned of its dangers and the French president, François Hollande, has vowed to prevent it.
It is also unlikely to win much sympathy in the rest of Africa, where governments are resisting separatist movements everywhere from Angola to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from Nigeria to Kenya, from Somalia to Zimbabwe. At independence half a century ago, the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union) declared the borders immutable to prevent wars erupting.
It made a special case for South Sudan but is hardly like to do the same for the CAR. Koffi Kouakou, a foreign-policy expert at Wits University in Johannesburg, said: “The partition of the CAR is not likely to happen and is not desirable at political and economic levels.
“The social evidence on the ground shows that while the strife of ethnic cleansing is increasingly becoming a grave concern in many parts of Africa, mainly in central Africa, the partition of the CAR is a mirage at this stage.
“The international community will not allow it as a matter of course. A divided CAR is not feasible on international jurisdiction and on paper.”
Kouakou added: “There may be an urgent need for a solution to isolate the warring populations for a while to help subside the violence. But it will not be in the interest of all parties to seek a secession of the mainly Muslim north away from the Catholic south.
“The partition of Sudan, a bordering country, is the evidence that the partition of a country is in fact not the solution to deep ethnic rivalries in Africa.”
Smith said: “It’s undesirable because the CAR as it stands is not a functioning state and has never been a functioning state. Cutting the CAR–which was the weakest part of French Equatorial Africa–in half will mean one half has virtually no infrastructure of any kind. If you don’t have Bangui, you don’t really have anything.”
“It serves nobody’s interest to create another basket-case state that requires aid from the international community.”
Not all Muslims favour the move either. Ibrahim Alawad, one of a small band clinging to their homes in Bangui, said on Friday: “It cannot be just like that. You grow up in one country and you live in one place. We want to know what is in the minds of our fellow Christians.
“I don’t want to see the country divided. Why not dialogue?”