7:31 p.m. October 17, 2013

The C.A.R.: The Tide Comes In from the North

The Central African Republic has never mattered very much, and it never makes the news unless people are being killed there in large numbers. That requirement is being fulfilled at the moment, which is why the C.A.R. has come drifting back into the news.

C.A.R. has never mattered very much, even to other African countries. It’s a vacuum, and the grim destiny of vacuums is to get filled with whatever gaseous ideology is circulating in the neighborhood. And when an ideology starts filling a vacuum, people die in numbers big enough to make the international news feeds.

I talked about the history of this quiet chunk of African scrub in an article I wrote last April, describing how the C.A.R. was drawn into France’s huge, mostly useless African empire. It wasn’t so much that the French colonizers even wanted this obscure chunk of bush as that, in the colonial fever of the late 19th century, European states truly felt it was their duty to act like a physics theorem and occupy any vacuum that happened to be contiguous to the African territories they actually wanted. The logic was, “If we don’t grab it now, those lousy Brits/Germans/French/Belgians will!” That was the logic that brought the French and British to the brink of a world war in 1898 over Fashoda, a little river town in what’s now South Sudan. The French were the ones to blink that time, mostly because they knew they’d need the British against the power they really feared, Germany—and because a slowly-dawning sanity sank in, causing cooler heads in Paris to say, “What the fuck do we want with that fever-ridden swamp junction Fashoda anyway?”

But giving up Fashoda caused heartbreak and rage among the non-cool heads in France, which were about 99% of the population at the time. Seriously folks, most people have no idea how insane, how cannibalistic and rabid, the Europeans were a hundred-odd years ago. You know them in their post-Stalingrad, gelded state, and you just don’t realize what Godzillas they were in your great-grandpa’s time.

The French chauvinists had traveled up the Oubangui River to Fashoda, and once l’Empire realized that Fashoda was lost—Oh, lovely Fashoda, with its sweetly humming malarial mosquitoes, its pungent swamps, its sauna climate—the French colonists were issued new policies: To occupy every damn bit of land in Africa not yet taken by those perfidious Brits, starting with the part drained by the Oubangui.

It was in pursuance of this policy that France finally trudged into the area now known as the C.A.R. They set up a small colonial town on the river—even named it “Bangui” after the river, because the river was about all the place had going for it.

And that was about it, news-wise, until the next big event, official independence. Even that happened late here; it wasn’t until 1960 that the C.A.R. became independent, and once its flag—which looks like a Christmas-wrapped gift box—went up on the UN wall with all the other champions of democracy and peace, it went dead quiet again until 1979, when the crazed “Emperor of the Central African Empire” Jean-Bedel Bokassa, a former French noncom who’d fought against the Viet Minh, beat dozens of schoolkids to death for refusing to buy the school uniforms sold by his relations.

Like I said in my last article on the C.A.R., Bokassa loved all things French, wanted desperately to be the Bonaparte of the Oubangui, dressed up like the Corsican, and was heartbroken when the French dropped a plane into Bangui to take him away after he blotted his copybook with the blood of all those students. He never understood what he’d done wrong; he was just trying to be Bonaparte, just like the protagonist of every 19th-century European novel. And if you know Raskolnikov’s experiment with true crime, you know that imitating the Corsican always involved braining somebody.

Bokassa was so trusting and so dim that after six years in exile he came back to the C.A.R., where he was tried, sentenced to death, spared, and released. As an old man he declared he was the 13th apostle, an interesting detail. The history of Christianity and Islam in this murky zone about 10 degrees above the equator is at the heart of what’s happening now in the C.A.R., and Bokassa’s self-canonization might have been the last gasp of the dominant Christian paradigm.

After all the gaudy gore and grotesque comedy of the Bokassa era, the C.A.R. went back to total obscurity, where it’s spent most of its history—until last year, when a “rebel alliance” of less than 3,000 men took Bangui. There aren’t many countries in the world that could be conquered by the steady advance of an army with less than 3,000 men, but this is the C.A.R., a vacuum within the bigger power vacuum of the Sahel.

The news that a new army was in power in Bangui brought the C.A.R. back into the news for a few days and gave Google Maps a few more hits for a while, but this “alliance” was so murky, so small, so vague in its goals and ideology, that most people were happy to drop the subject. There didn’t seem to be any angle to what was happening in Bangui. The so-called rebel alliance, “Seleka,” was made up of five even smaller groups with big acronymic names, names that were grandiose in inverse ratio to their real heft: PJCC, UFDR, FDPC, CPSK, and ARR. This is something you see a lot in the irregular-warfare biz: The bigger the acronym, the smaller the force. Two of these five groups, the CPSK and ARR, were obscure even by C.A.R. standards. The other three groups had no clear ideological or ethnic identity, but one thing does stand out about their base and history: They all have a connection to the Northeast, where the C.A.R. joins Sudan and Chad, and the land dries out.

The fact that this area is drier than the rest of the country does have a connection to the sectarian wars heating up now. Islamic/Arab power has always come down from the North, across the deserts. Christian/European power made its way up the rivers, originally from bases at river mouths on the west coast of the continent. That difference in the transmission of alien influences has everything to do with how the war is shaping up in the C.A.R. Only 15% of the country’s population is Muslim, with most of them living in the dry northeast. On its own, that fraction of the population wouldn’t have the power to drive all the way to Bangui, on the river to the southwest, through a largely Christian/Animist agricultural zone.

But the internal breakdown of the population in the C.A.R. has never been important. What’s been important right through its history has been the relative power of big external forces. A hundred years ago, the Europeans were maniacs, and their religion, along with their armies and their merchants, was pushing hard up the rivers, along the coasts. Africa seemed well on the way to becoming a permanent European vassal, and adopting the baron’s religion has always been part of that relationship.

Then, very suddenly in historical terms, the Europeans just vanished. The French were a little more stubborn, and still do the occasional cleanup operation like Mali, but they’ve lost the will to impose themselves full-spectrum on their former colonies.

That makes a vacuum, and into the vacuum steps the other traditional outside player in the C.A.R., the Islamic rulers to the north. That’s what’s really behind Seleka’s push into the C.A.R.: The steady return of Islamic, land-based, desert-crossing power as the European riverine power recedes.

It’s not that the Europeans have lost what a traditional war buff would call military power. Not at all. A few thousand French regulars could hold this chunk of land against any regular Islamic army this side of Turkey. What the Europeans lost is something like morale, or the arrogance necessary to believe all that Kipling crap.

That kind of timidity has not reached Khartoum or Riyadh. Au contraire, as the ebbing French would sigh. Islam is strong in Africa now and getting stronger, even in the furthest reaches of the continent, like South Africa, where black people who feel abandoned by Christianity are shifting to Islam, a livelier, more promising religion.

Christianity in Africa exists now as a religion totally un-affiliated with its Euro/Anglo roots, which you can notice every time one of the dying sects like the Anglicans vote on a resolution endorsing gay marriage or some such newfangled sinning. The white Anglicans always vote in favor of the new flexible trend; the African bishops are always furious and vote “No” in a rage.

What this means is that African Islam is plugged in to funding, moral support, solidarity right across the Islamic arc of the tropics. African Christianity is in a muddle, sometimes infested with Western missionaries, but not with the sort of jihad spirit you really need to help a sect flourish in the lively zone north of the Equator and south of the Sahara.

As European Christianity faded, both in Europe and in Africa, Arab Islam grew stronger and more confident. They had the oil, the money, and the genuine religious devotion that had become uncool in Europe generations ago. All those things added up to power, and when power meets a vacuum like the C.A.R., the vacuum loses.

Sudan, the most powerful country messing with the C.A.R. at the moment, is almost a perfect illustration of what this sort of religious faith, combined with good old ethnic chauvinism, can do. Sudan is a country officially, explicitly defined by Islam, and has been since Omar al Bashir took power in 1989. And in Omar’s world—the “Arab” tribes along the Nile near Khartoum—being Muslim was deeply connected to seeing yourself as Arab, as opposed to “Black” or “African.” To Bashir’s people, those people were “Abeed,” “slaves.”

That kind of scary ethnic/religious chauvinism powered Sudan’s war against South Sudan, often on land just east of the C.A.R. From 1983-2005, Sudan used starvation to depopulate “rebel” areas, managing to kill something like a million and a half Africans without anybody much noticing or caring. Those Africans were fair game, from Khartoum’s perspective, because they were black, “Abeed,” and “Kuffr,” Christian—expendables twice over.

In the Darfur war (2003-?), Bashir’s Army showed that even if you only fit one of those categories, you’re vermin to be exterminated. The people of Darfur are 100% Muslim, but they’re all—whether Fur, Zaghawa, or Masalit—non-Arab “Abeed,” black, and therefore slaves, subhumans. That’s why the Janjaweed militias’ female cheerleading squads sing in chorus while their men are raping and killing, “You slaves [Abeed], you Nubians, you fakes, do you have a God? Omar al-Bashir is your God!”

And that was what they did to fellow Muslims. Sudan plays even less nice when you’re an outright Kaffir, like 85% of the C.A.R.’s population.

Sudan maintained and supplied the most powerful factions in the five-headed Seleka group in Northeastern C.A.R., close to the border. The Sudanese forces are perfectly OK with using blacks or kaffirs when the occasion calls for it; they even harbored Joseph Kony of LRA fame, who was one of the last of the old-time hack-and-slash Christians, for as long as he was useful to Bashir’s goal of weakening the tier of black-African states below Sudan.

So Sudan had no problem working with the huge egos leading the little factions of Seleka. Several of these little generalissimi were officially Muslim, including Michel Djotodia, the one who ended up in the president’s chair, but none of them had been previously noticeable for their piety. They were all classic small-time coup-makers, most of them survivors of past coups who’d fled to the bush when their big chance went bad. Being able to say a few half-remembered bits of the Quran may have broken the ice at the start of some of Djotodia’s meetings with his handlers, but beyond that this was simple power projection, one small pawn moved to the south in a long game that showed the Islamic north taking back the empty part of the board it had lost in the last century. There is, very much, a religious dimension to what’s happening in the C.A.R., but it has very little to do with doctrine.

There wasn’t much risk to the little rebel forces in storage in the northeastern corner, waiting for their chance to attack. The government of the C.A.R. could barely hold on to its core territory in the west and south, along the Oubangui. When the president, a sleaze named Bozize, finally alienated his last allies in the spring of 2012, Seleka, an astroturf “alliance,” started to move.

The similarities to what was happening in Mali are too obvious to miss. The two countries even have roughly the same shape, with a dry/Muslim/Arab/northeastern chunk artificially welded by colonial bureaucrats to a riverine/Christian/African/southwestern blob along a major river.

And the war proceeded in almost the same way it did in Mali: The northerners sliced through the southerners’ army like the proverbial knife through ghee. In both cases, the southern “black” people were used to protection from the European power which had absented itself; the northern bloc, with a tradition of cattle raiding and Sultan/Omda/Sheikh military organization, was better prepared to make war.

And more importantly, power and energy and weapons are flowing from the north to the south in the Sahel now. The wars along the Maghrib—Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Chad, Darfur—have made for a huge flow of guns and jihadis to the southern edge of the desert. When Ghadaffi’s Tuareg mercenaries fled from his defeat, they took their weapons and vehicles back home to Mali and started looking south, to the easy pickings of a settled, disarmed, urban black population.

And when fighters from Chad, raised on war after war, and Darfur, survivors of the some of the most evil warfare in recent history, trickled into the Sudan-sponsored rebel camps in the northeastern corner of the C.A.R., they saw the same easy pickings, with the added attraction of advancing the faith among the kaffir.

A new player popped up, just as Seleka’s technical were zooming into Bangui: South Africa. S’Eff’rkih had been keeping a 400-man “training” force in Bangui since 2007, for the purpose of showing the rainbow flag among less fortunate neighbors and, some said, because Jacob Zuma’s numerous and belligerent family has a big stake in oil exploration there. Whatever the South African troops were doing in Bangui, they weren’t doing it very well, because when Seleka motored into town in April 2013, they killed at least 13 South African soldiers—some said a whole lot more—and Zuma ordered an instant retreat.

That weird cameo had no effect on Seleka’s advance. They had the capital, Bangui, and they did what disorganized irregular forces have always done: They fanned out across the territory, raping, looting and burning. Since most of Seleka’s fighting strength comes from veteran jihadis, Chadians and Sudanese, who’d never been in Kaffir territory before, their natural response was to burn churches while they were looting and raping. This did not sit well with the Christian majority in the riverine zone—it’s a strange thing, but religious outrages almost always mobilize people better than raping and killing does. The C.A.R. civilians started forming militias of their own, “anti-balaka” (“anti-machete”) groups, especially around the home territory of Francois Bozize, the ex-president, who’s very much a black and Christian politician.

The advantage goes to Seleka in these fights; they’re better soldiers, as Sahel peoples usually are in mobile warfare against agrarian “black” ethnic groups to the south, and they have far better weapons. As long as they’re only facing these militias, they’ll be able to send punitive expeditions to any uppity Christian towns or neighborhoods. Here’s a report on the way one of these police actions happened in Bangui about a month ago, after Seleka reacted to a mere rumor of Bozize support:

“After a brief lull in May, Bangui has once again become a city w[h]ere danger is permanent and omnipresent. It all started after the swearing-in of the head of the transition, Michel Djotodia, on 18 August. The new authorities are convinced that ex-soldiers are plotting in the Boy-Rabe neighborhood, stronghold of ousted President Francois Bozize. They are carrying out a disarmament process which has been transformed into a punitive expedition. More than 100 Seleka men break into homes and loot them for days. As a result, at least 20 civilians have been killed and more than 100 wounded. Many localities in the north of the capital face the wrath of the ex-rebellion whose number has risen from 4,000 to 20,000 men…”

You’ll notice that Seleka has had no trouble recruiting lately—doubled its size since taking over. That’s not a surprise. No part of the world has more freelance jihadis than the southern edge of the Sahara. If you’re one of the thousands of freelance AK or RPG men wandering the Sahel, a job riding shotgun on a technical in the C.A.R. would be a dream job: easy pickings, very little risk.

The going may get a little tougher soon, since there are calls for France to intervene here like it did in Mali. Hollande said that’s out of the question at the end of 2012, when it was clear Bozize’s army was in trouble, and he’s not likely to change his mind. The C.A.R. never really mattered to France, not even in the Fashoda era when millions of Europeans were eager to die for God and country.

Most likely, the C.A.R. will be left to its fate as it’s always been. Which means that after the little blip of the 19th century, the land along the Oubangui River will go back to what it was a thousand years ago: A happy hunting ground for slaves and ivory for the northern Sultans’ armies.