One of the world’s poorest nations has become a battleground for foreign powers and criminal gangs vying for influence over its vast diamond and gold resources.
This week the United Nations Security Council will meet to discuss a humanitarian crisis in a country where six out of ten people have been forced out of their homes, tens of thousands live in constant fear of being attacked and the government has ceded authority to armed groups.
The Central African Republic (CAR), the poorest country in the world according to the UN Human Development Index, requires international financial assistance to feed and take care of 680,000 displaced people.
“Sons are killed, fathers are killed in this endless cycle of violence,” said Hajer Naili, from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), who had just visited the CAR.
“The security situation has really deteriorated and it’s the civilians who are being targeted,” Naili told TRT World.
“The world needs to realise there’s a serious humanitarian crisis, where 63 percent of the population is dependent on humanitarian assistance.”
A muddled conflict
The CAR, a former French colony, has been yearning for stability since gaining independence in 1960.
Five successful military coups, abundant mineral resources—which have become a curse—and the interference of countries ranging from Sudan to Russia, have turned it into a playground of conflicting interests. For ordinary people, it is perpetual suffering.
The recent round of troubles started in 2013 when an armed militia called Seleka, made up of mostly Muslim fighters, overthrew the government of former president Francois Bozize, a military commander who had come to power in a coup.
Bozize’s rule was characterised by corruption and the suppression of the Muslim minority, which makes up 15 percent of the population. Thousands of Muslims fled to neighbouring Chad during his tenure, which also saw emergence of a dozen resistance groups.
However, the Seleka coalition, itself accused of atrocities against Christians, wasn’t able to hold onto power for long due to infighting between various factions and an onslaught of a mainly Christian armed “anti-Balaka” movement.
That confrontation resulted in thousands of deaths, women being raped and entire villages burned to ashes.
The country is now ruled by more than dozen armed militias, which exert influence over vast parts of the country. Almost all of them are accused of committing human rights violations.
The authority of President Faustin Archange Touadera, a former academic and mathematician who came to power in 2016 following an election, extends to only the capital Bangui.
Over the years, multiple efforts have been made to bring the warring factions to the negotiating table. Their representatives have been flown to meetings in Angola and Rome on all-expense-paid trips. But a settlement remains elusive.
“That’s because those who come to negotiate are criminals who are behind trafficking of arms and natural resources, extortion and running violent gangs,” says Nathalia Dukhan, a conflict analyst at The Enough Project, which studies exploitation in wars.
A proliferation of arms and guns-for-hire from neighboring Chad and Sudan have further fuelled the conflict. Alliances shift between the groups, who on the surface represent specific ethnic and sectarian interests.
NGOs have documented numerous cases where civilians say they have been attacked because of their beliefs.
Earlier this year, an attack at a church left 16 people dead and most of the mosques in the country have been destroyed.
But Dukhan says religion has been used as a weapon for war rather than being the cause of the conflict.
“The violence is driven mainly by political interest. Militia leaders want control over the resources,” she told TRT World.
Lawlessness has reached a point where local gangs wanting to exert influence have surfaced even in refugee settlements.
“You can buy a grenade for as much as loaf of bread,” said Naili of the NRC.
Free for all
Despite an international embargo on the sale of weapons to the CAR, the UN gave an exemption to Russia in 2017 to sell guns to the country.
That’s not unusual though. France has also tried to re-exert influence in its former colony by recently announcing it will supply the country’s embattled government troops with weapons.
France has often intervened in the CAR, sending its troops to prop up politicians of its choice and more recently after the fall of government in 2013.
While the foreign powers might have their geopolitical interests, the diamond, gold and uranium mines of the CAR are also what businesses in their countries are vying for.
“Of all the African countries, the mineral resources of the Central African Republic are least explored,” said Dukhan of the Enough Project.
Poverty by wealth
The conflict has taken its toll on one of the CAR’s key exports: diamonds. Diamond exports hit a peak of $62 million in 2012. In 2017, that figure had come down to only $6 million, according to Kimberley Process, which keeps a check on blood diamonds.
Actual exports could be much higher than official numbers as armed groups control vast parts of the country including its mines.
Tens of thousands of people are associated with the diamond mining business. But its is not regulated and workers often use shovels and their bare hands to search for gem-quality diamonds, which fetch more on the international market.
Diggers are often killed when mines collapse or divers who have gone to riverbed to bring the gravel never return, writes Ned Dalby in an essay for the book Making Sense of the Central African Republic.
Agriculture continues to be the backbone of the economy though, with the vast majority of the population relying on farming for their livelihoods. The ongoing conflict has also made that difficult as armed groups have taken over villages, leaving some to collect and sell firewood for survival.
The CAR's GDP is only $418 per capita, making it one of the world’s poorest countries, where planes bringing in aid supplies often land on dirt runways in the middle of towns.
“Many people earn just 80 cents a day. You can’t do much with that,” says the NRC’s Naili.