In August 2012, a loose alliance of mainly northern Muslim political groups came together under the banner of Séléka (meaning “coalition” in the Sango dialect) in rebellion against the government of president Francois Bozizé of the Central African Republic (CAR). The Séléka were led by Michel Djotodia. After failed mediation in Libreville between the government and the rebels, Bozizé’s government was overthrown in March 2013. Much has been made of the purported misreading of the ensuing conflict in the CAR.1Reverend Nicolas Guerekoyame’s (President of the Evangelical Alliance in CAR and member of the Transitional Parliament) presentation on “The Central African Republic: A Pre-Genocide Situation” at the School of Oriental and African Studies–University of London on January 15, 2014. Is it an ethnic conflict, or is it not? What are the political explanations for the pogroms taking place? Underlying this interrogation is a sense that current media coverage subscribes to and projects onto the conflict a simplistic “ethno-religious” labeling that fails to capture its complexity. In their presentation, the media appear to be conflating conflict manifestation (that is, the form of the fighting taking place), with conflict nature (its substance, or the causes of and reasons for the fight). This conflation is being taken as the point of departure in analyzing what is really happening and why.

The media has the tendency to provide instantaneous description of an evolving conflict, often capturing conflict manifestation. Journalistic proximity to seemingly wanton acts of violence can then generate “x versus y” narratives that make for better storytelling while failing to capture the deeper dynamics of the larger situation. Readers and viewers have been subjected to stories and images of revenge killings, the torching of corpses, cannibalism, and arson. Reporting has also often focused on the heroics of the Mission International de Soutien à la Centrafrique sous counduite Africaine (or MISCA, the African-led international support mission to the CAR) and the French—with more emphasis on the French—in their efforts to disarm the belligerents. Occasionally, a feel-good story is told of Muslim and Christian communities bucking the dominant narrative. Generally, these simplistic narratives project images of the CAR as the epicenter of an emergent “heart of darkness,” where acts of violence on the part of individuals or groups of individuals are the manifestations of ethno-religious divisions.

Simply put, describing the manifestation of the conflict as it evolves piecemeal, though it might paint a picture that reflects the schisms among the people involved, fails to capture the seldom-Manichean underlying dynamics which sustain these schisms. The politicization of identity is a fundamental manifestation of conflict within states, with identity (whether ethnic, religious, class, age, or gender) serving as a rallying point for belligerents. Hardly do the gory descriptions seek to capture the networked history, geography, and resource dynamics that give way to processes of violence. It is the nature of the conflict, not its manifestation, which lends itself to the adjective that often precedes the word “conflict” itself in its analysis, as in “x conflict” (e.g., “resource,” “environmental,” “ethnic,” or “religious” conflict). Rarely do these singular descriptors capture the complexity of conflict.

Assigning such adjectives often requires a deeper understanding of the social, historical, and political economy that underpins a conflict. In the case of the CAR, gaining such an understanding requires deep insights into elite, regional, and developmental factors. For example, the spectre of the “Emperor” Jean-Bedel Bokassa (from 1966 to 1976) and his personalization of politics still looms large over an impoverished country, bereft of the administrative wherewithal to control its sovereign territory effectively. Successive leaders of the CAR have contributed to the consolidation of a dysfunctional state, unable to meet its end of the social contract by providing basic services throughout its territory.

Geopolitically, the CAR sits on the fringe of two conflict complexes. A “conflict complex” can be defined as a set of interconnected conflicts or a network of intrastate conflicts, which cross national borders through the deliberate creation of alliances between national belligerents and subregional actors and governments. The northern conflict complex incorporates the Chadian Civil Wars (1965–79 and 2005–10), in which Chadian, Libyan, and Sudanese militias honed rapid and precise marauding guerrilla tactics of rebel deployment. These tactics were clearly evident in Séléka’s sweep from northern CAR to the installation of Michel Djotodia into the presidency in the capital, Bangui. The Chadian conflict system also incorporates elements from the Darfur conflict in Sudan (2003 to present), which continues to operate in parts of northeast CAR and southeast Chad. Here, disparate groups of well-trained and combat-hardened mercenaries are central to the subregional labor market in armed conflict. The CAR also sits to the north of the Great Lakes conflict complex, which, since the First Congo War began in 1996, has incorporated the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. So far any analysis of the nature of the CAR conflict has been silent about the implications of these neighboring conflict complexes, as well as the insecurity resulting from the movement of mercenaries, trafficking of small arms, and light weapons into the country.

Meanwhile, UN Security Council Resolution 2127 is meant to set out the rules of engagement for both MISCA and French troops deploying in the CAR, while charting the course for a political solution to the crisis. UNSCR 2127’s focus on the role of the Seleka, the anti-Balaka (militias formed to counter Séléka repression post-March 2013), and the Lord’s Resistance Army (the anti-government rebel group from Uganda), highlights the understanding of the security threat posed by nonstate entities in the CAR. While Séléka rebels seem to have withdrawn with the advent of the African Union’s MISCA and French forces into the CAR, they certainly live to fight more battles. The exacerbation of insecurity, the expansion of the French forces under Operation Sangaris from 1,200 to 1,600 troops in February 2014, and the extension of their time commitment in the CAR to 20152“Centrafrique: L’opération Sangaris comptera 1.600 militaires français pour désarmer les milices,” Zone Militaire Magazine, accessed March 20, 2014, http://w demonstrate the challenges of moving beyond stabilization. As insecurity persists, the conflict complexes continue to feed contending networks on the CAR stage, which will add to the intractability of the current conflict. If peacebuilding initiatives are to be developed that give equal importance to statebuilding, everyday politics, and human security, a more thorough analysis of the conflict is needed that clearly distinguishes its form from its substance.

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