‘Kony 2012’ and the forgotten conflict in the Central African Republic

Although Joseph Kony still poses a threat, the rebel leader is not the most urgent problem facing CAR right now.

Eyes will usually flick over headlines about yet another distant, ‘sectarian’ African conflict. The Central African Republic (CAR), a landlocked former French colony that does not even have a British embassy, is about as obscure as it gets for the UK.

CAR is believed to be the hiding place of Joseph Kony, the world’s most notorious rebel leader, but this desperately poor country remains largely unknown. ‘Kony 2012’ focused on northern Uganda rather than the neighbouring countries where the severely weakened Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) actually operates today.

The current conflict in CAR probably benefits the remnants of the LRA, allowing them to regroup and recover amidst the unrest. But although Joseph Kony still poses a threat, the rebel leader is certainly not the most urgent problem facing CAR right now.

Ongoing violence threatens a humanitarian disaster immeasurably greater than the danger posed by Kony and his scattered followers.

The UN estimates that 2.2million people, equivalent to the population of Birmingham twice over, now urgently need humanitarian assistance as a result of the conflict.

Hundreds of thousands have fled their homes, each case a unique personal tragedy on a scale which is hard to comprehend.

And twenty years on from Rwanda, the UN warns of the ‘seeds of genocide’ in CAR.

The UN desperately tries to raise the profile of the conflict, but only 6 per cent of its $247million fundraising target has been met. The difficulty of generating interest in African conflict is perhaps partially a result of the way violence is reported.

The media tend to focus on isolated events without delving too deeply into the wider political context needed to understand and follow conflict; the historical processes that link events together are less tangible and are seen as having less news value.

The presentation of violence in Africa tends to be especially crude, placed in the same one-size-fits-all frame of ‘religious’, ‘sectarian’ or ‘ethnic’ strife.

All African conflicts are made to look alike. Overloaded by the same language and symbols of ‘sectarian savagery’ seen hundreds of time before, we can remain unmoved by reports of even the most extreme violence.

CAR is no exception and has too often been understood as a straightforward battle between two irreconcilably opposed religious groups with deep-rooted, primordial hatreds.

The French Ambassador to the UN gave a typical reaction when he suggested that only “ethnologists” could understand a conflict involving “deep ingrained hatreds” between “two communities who want to kill each other”.

In fact, the most puzzling feature of the current conflict is the historical absence of tensions between religious groups in CAR. This is certainly not an example of ‘ingrained’ hatreds bubbling to the surface.

Throughout CAR’s bloody post-independence history of coups, authoritarian leaders and foreign interference, there have historically been peaceful relations between the Christian majority and Muslim minority.

In most respects, the current conflict is an extension of the civil war that started in 2004 and on paper ended with shaky peace agreements between the government and most rebel groups in 2007.

It involves similar domestic actors: the leader of Seleka and ex-interim president, Michael Djotodia, who led the main UFDR rebel group in 2004; President Bozize, who seized power in a 2003 coup and was ousted by Seleka in March 2013.

It involves similar foreign actors: Chad, absolutely crucial to understanding the conflict, which initially helped General Bozize to power but is now accused of supporting Seleka; and France, with a long and murky history in CAR, supporting Bozize in the 2004-2007 conflict.

But there is one key difference. Violence between 2004 and 2007, like the cycle of coups that have plagued the country since independence, was mobilised along ethno-regional divisions, not an explicit religious dimension.

There is very limited precedent, if any, for tension between religious groups in CAR. Identities that are lazily presented as deep-rooted hatreds between two clearly demarcated groups are in reality extremely fluid and unstable, constructed and manipulated in complex ways.

Similarly, the idea of ‘two’ coherent, opposing blocs is misleading. Seleka contains disparate groups with very different interests and ambitions, many with roots in the 2004-2007 civil war.

The ‘anti-balaka’ forces now ‘cleansing’ Muslims out of the Western CAR are also complex. Local ‘self-defence’ forces have existed for decades in a country that has never been able to provide basic security to all of its citizens, but following the 2013 Seleka coup, these groups became much more co-ordinated and only then adopted a ‘Christian’ identity.

Entire, broad communities are not at war; indeed, the belief that they are echoes the arguments of the ‘anti-balaka’ forces who view every Muslim civilian as responsible for Seleka atrocities.

The archbishop of Bangui pointed to the moderate Christians who have also been attacked by ‘anti-balaka’ forces and said ‘please, spare us the word ‘Christian’’ when describing the militias’.

Today, the world has moved on from central Africa at a time when the region really does need global attention: the quiet decline of ‘Kony 2012’ was as remarkable as its spectacular rise.

Amid general apathy, if the international community misidentifies violence in CAR as solely ‘religious’, solutions are far less likely to succeed.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.