Over the past couple of days, hundreds of people have died in the Central African Republic's capital city of Bangui, in the latest escalation in the fighting that has consumed the country since earlier this year. On Friday night, gunmen stormed a hospital, pulled patients out of their rooms, and killed them in the streets.
Not familiar with the country? You aren't alone.
Less newsworthy than its neighbors, the country of 4.5 million is nestled in the heart of Africa, surrounded by Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo, and Cameroon. Since gaining independence from France in 1960, the Central African Republic has played into the unfortunate narrative that has plagued so many other African countries: resource-rich states wracked by poverty and politics, marked by corruption and instability.
Its latest milestone in the pantheon of poor governance is the overthrow of President Francois Bozize on March 24, when rebels advanced onto the presidential palace in Bangui. While Bozize's government and rebel groups signed peace agreements in 2007 concluding the the Central African Republic Bush War, fighting renewed in December 2012 as the rebels felt that Bozize failed to honor the agreements. During this time, the Séléka — an alliance of militias, notably the Democratic Front of the Central African People (FDPC), Convention of Patriots and Justice for Peace (CPJP) and the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), among others, — formed.
Shortly after the Séléka installed Michel Djotodia as the new President of the Central African Republic, the alliance, with its numerous factions and fickle allegiances, became harder to control, especially in regards to the Chadian fighters and militants from Sudan, maintaining the country's tradition of a weak and ineffectual central government. Among the Sudanese fighters are the Janjaweed, the infamous militiamen who killed hundreds of thousands in the Darfur region, a section of the country that meets the eastern border of Chad and the northeast corner of the Central African Republic. It is the northeast section of the country that the Séléka have been operating in and which has taken the brunt of violence since the rebel takeover in March. Even when Djotodia said the Séléka was disbanded, many groups refused to lay down their arms, continuing to murder and pillage with impunity.
Human Rights Watch released a report chronicling the the attacks by the Séléka-affiliated groups, whose attacks have spawned militia groups among the country's majority Christian population. Known as anti-balaka, or anti-machete, civilians have started to form self-defense groups to push back against the rebels, creating an atmosphere of retributive tactics and vendettas. With reports of anti-balaka groups attacking Muslim citizens and villages, fears that the conflict will solidify along religious and sectarian lines continues to grow.
France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that the country was on the "verge of genocide" and the United Nations has echoed the sentiment, saying the deteriorating conditions in the country make the scenario more likely day by day. In an effort to stymie any further violence from taking place, France has sent more than a thousand troops to Bangui, following the United Nations' Security Council decision, and is now increasing that number to 1,600 personnel, in addition to the African Union troops and United Nations peacekeepers.
Even if the government were able to restore some semblance of law and order, it would have to deal with the strained relations between its Christian majority and Muslim minority, which continues to fray as time passes. One Christian man fleeing the conflict was questioning whether he could live among Muslims again, saying "We are angry. The Muslims should go back where they came from." While we should not conflate the mercenaries he is most likely referring to with the civilian Muslim country's population, the distinction fades as the scale of the killings grows.
Domestic issues aside, international and regional actors look to move quickly as fears that the government will lose complete control mount and attacks threaten to spill over into other countries in the forms of violence and displaced persons. Neighbors includingSouth Sudan, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have security and stability issues all their own, so any progress these countries have made could be stunted or reversed, ballooning into a wider, regional crisis. While it may not be the biggest kid on the block, the Central African Republic's wellbeing is integral to the success of its neighbors and should be viewed as such by policymakers and laypersons alike.