Forgotten Africa

05.25.14

The Curse of CAR: Warlords, Blood Diamonds, and Dead Elephants

To end the hideous civil war in the Central African Republic, sanctions against leaders may help, but we also have to stop the trade in gems and ivory that’s funding the warlords.

The rule of lawlessness in the Central African Republic, fueled with money from blood diamonds and poached ivory, has hardened religious identities, divided Muslim and Christian communities with murderous enmity, and allowed warlords to prevail in an atmosphere of impunity.

The state in CAR, which has never been strong, is now all but nonexistent. Make no mistake, even though the world is paying little attention, the crisis in the country demands a broad response to halt violence, establish order, and help hundreds of thousands of people at extreme risk.

The U.N. Security Council and the White House recently imposed sanctions on five key players in the conflict that is currently swallowing the country They target former presidents Francois Bozizé and Michel Djotodia, as well as strongmen from the anti-Balaka militia and Séléka rebels.

GALLERY: Stranded at Bangui Airport: The Refugee Crisis in Central African Republic (PHOTOS)

This is all well and good. Financial strangleholds are a step in the right direction because they address the political and economic dimensions of CAR’s crisis. But broadening the response to what is required and doing so competently means understanding the conflict’s broader dynamics and its distinct traits. Although the Séléka forces are largely Muslim, and the anti-Balaka largely Christian, the structural roots of the crisis and the forces that drive it are more complicated and have little to do with religion.

Those who are paying attention to CAR generally do so out of concern for the country’s violence. Hundreds of thousands of people have been driven from their homes, with many of them living in an airport-turned-wasteland beneath the wings of derelict jets.

What began as skirmishes between anti-Balaka militias and Séléka forces have expanded as fighters on all sides cast ever-widening nets around anyone guilty by association. Political manipulation of religious identity in CAR is nothing new, but it thrives in institutionally weak environments.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been driven from their homes, with many of them living in an airport-turned-wasteland beneath the wings of derelict jets.

In this sense, CAR’s conflict follows broader patterns of political violence in Africa. Full-scale civil wars are giving way to fragmented armed groups with decentralized power bases in remote border regions. Fitting this profile, Boko Haram unleashes madness upon Nigeria’s northeastern states because the central government lacks control of its hinterlands and overcompensates with heavy-handed repression. The current instability in South Sudan is emblematic of the country’s chronic struggles to tame peripheral power centers, which have historically ethnic contours.

In CAR, the disintegration of the state has opened the way to privatized violence and the pursuit of economic agendas by entrepreneurial militia commanders and foreign mercenaries. Power has withered at the center and devolved to an archipelago of fiefdoms where warlords rule without the burdens of governing. These warlords want to control areas with alluvial diamonds and exploit opportunities for ivory poaching, cattle rustling, and bush-meat trafficking in the country’s periphery.

Sanctions targeting the conflict’s bigger players can help because these actors have wider regional political connections. But the local actors that operate on a smaller scale also sustain the commercial networks that feed global demand for gems and tusks. And their disproportionately violent impact on ordinary Central Africans calls for a hard look at who’s buying these blood-drenched baubles.

CAR’s gems have funded Séléka and anti-Balaka fighters. The Kimberley Process for tracking conflict diamonds officially suspended CAR one year ago. But the country’s gems still are moving and materializing in places like Dubai. A new Kimberley Process working group to monitor CAR might help focus attention on the guilty and choke the diamond flow.

Poaching in CAR is killing more than just elephants. African park rangers are part of the regime’s security apparatus but ill equipped to fight against the raiders. Foreign security sector support can and should include efforts to interdict poachers. But it is also time to curtail the demand for ivory in Asia. Raising the profile of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s global moratorium on the ivory trade might change the dynamics of this market.

In March 2013 the Séléka rebellion toppled the frail Bozizé regime. But the Séléka was incapable of ruling once it seized power. Its caustic mixture of homegrown rebels and regional mercenaries could neither stay cohesive nor project authority over CAR’s vast expanse—larger than California. And, unusually, Séléka leader Michel Djotodia failed to win acknowledgment from other nations as CAR’s sovereign head of state.

African leaders used to recognize almost anyone. No one batted an eyelid when 27-year-old Sierra Leone Army Captain Valentine Strasser fell backwards into Freetown’s Executive Mansion in 1992. Zimbawe’s rigged election in 2002 was met with a collective regional shrug. Even Idi Amin was Chairman of the Organization of African Unity in 1975.

Djotodia’s non-recognition signals a change in Africa’s regional norms, where seizing power violently is now widely viewed as illegitimate and reversible. Djotodia stepped down in January under a pall of political abandonment, and 5,000 African Union troops, backed by French forces, now help CAR’s National Transition Council establish a new government. That the Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza is a woman is another exception to the rule.

Max Weber said, “the existence of the war lord… depends solely on a chronic state of war and upon a comprehensive organization set for warfare.” Although imposing sanctions on the conflict’s biggest villains is a crucial first step, the forces driving CAR’s violence are unlikely to diminish before September’s scheduled deployment of blue helmeted peacekeepers from the United Nations. The region’s smalltime warlords will grow more intransigent, not less, and the conflict more intractable.

CAR’s victims require much more help than they’ve seen so far, and they need it soon.