The Central African Republic crisis, explained

September 26, 2017
Photo by Chris de Bode, Panos Pictures

Since late 2012, the people of Central African Republic have suffered bouts of sectarian violence that have displaced over one million. Here are the facts behind one of the world’s most underreported crises.

Key facts:

  • Slightly smaller than the state of Texas, Central African Republic (CAR) has a population of 4.6 million people
  • The majority of the population is Christian, with a Muslim minority community
  • Natural resources include: diamonds, uranium, timber, gold, and oil
  • More than 85% of the population is quite literally “off the grid” — lacking electricity
  • As of 2016, life expectancy was just under 52 years
  • CAR is consistently ranked at or near the bottom of the UNDP’s annual Human Development Index, making it the least developed country in the world

CAR refugees and IDPs

The situation:

In late 2012, a number of armed groups from the North of the country formed a coalition known as the Séléka, and launched a rebellion culminating in a coup d’état. In response, groups of armed militias using the name of Anti-Balaka formed. The conflict became extremely violent, with both sides committing atrocities, causing widespread destruction and  a humanitarian crisis that has forced more than a million people to leave their homes. Despite numerous attempts to broker peace, the crisis in CAR continues to worsen. Here are some numbers behind the conflict:

  • 2.5 million people lack reliable access to food
  • 2.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance
  • 592,000 are internally displaced
  • 513,000 are now refugees in other countries
Golden Marlenue and her family in CAR

Golden Marlenue, 27, outside her home with her children. The two youngest children, Naomi and Athanase, are both malnourished. Concern helped to re-open the nearby Ndanga Health Post so that the children can now get the treatment and support they need. Photo: Chris de Bode, Panos Pictures

How did this happen?

A history of instability

Ever since gaining its independence from France in 1960, the Central African Republic has been plagued with political instability, underdevelopment, and waves of violent conflict. However, the sectarian nature of the current conflict is relatively new.

One nation, two peoples

CAR is home to both Muslim and Christian communities. Since independence, relations between these two groups have mostly been harmonious. Many towns and villages were mixed, and intermarriage was common. While people from both faiths live throughout the country, the north is predominantly Muslim and the south is mostly Christian. Since independence, the majority Christian population has generally held political and economic power.

The conflict

The Séléka, while a majority Muslim force, did not originally have religious motivations. Born in response to François Bozizé grabbing power in a coup d’état in 2003, the group, meaning “Union” in the Sango language, started fighting government armies in 2007. The ensuing civil war was resolved with peace agreements between the two groups that promised that the North, and particularly Muslims, would be better represented in the government — a promise that was largely unfulfilled.

Young girl collects water in CAR

A girl collects water from a spring near a gold mine in Gaga village, CAR. When conflict erupted in October 2013, 58 wells were contaminated with dead bodies, leaving thousands of local people with far fewer water collection points. Concern has since built two water pumps and six wells. Photo: Crystal Wells

In December 2012 the Séléka launched a rebellion, partially supported by foreign interests eager to secure access to CAR’s natural resources.

Even before the war, CAR was one of the world’s least developed countries, with little electricity or transportation infrastructure.

By March of 2013, the rebels had captured the capital city of Bangui, and deposed president François Bozizé. Séléka leader Michel Djotodia then proclaimed himself President. Séléka troops spread throughout the country and widespread violence against civilians was reported. In response, the Anti-Balaka, predominantly Christian self-defense militias, formed. The situation quickly deteriorated, spiraling out of control throughout the country. At one time, almost half the capital’s population fled to informal camps and over 100,000 people took refuge in the city’s airport. Under international pressure, at the end of 2013 Djotodia stepped-down and a transition government was put into place.

Four years later, despite peaceful elections and a democratically elected government, the situation remains volatile and armed groups are once again gaining strength and committing atrocities.

Humanitarian situation

Years of violence and instability have taken a heavy toll on CAR. Even before the war, CAR was one of the world’s least developed countries, with little electricity or transportation infrastructure. CAR has the highest number of maternal deaths in the world, and six out of 10 adults cannot read or write. Since the most recent conflict began, much of the little that existed has been destroyed and social services have broken down.

More than three quarters of CAR’s working population relies on agriculture, but cycles of displacement have driven farmers from their land, leaving fields abandoned. Even when farmers return to their land, many do not have seeds to plant, or are reluctant to plant crops without a stable future to plan for. As a result, crop production has dropped by over half since 2013, food prices have soared, and almost half the population is without reliable access to food. Malnutrition rates in some areas exceed emergency levels.

Escalating violence has made it increasingly dangerous for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to work in the country.

Safe drinking water is scarce, and proper sanitation scarcer. Over a million people have fled their homes: internally displaced within the country, or have become refugees in neighboring nations.

Half the population needs humanitarian aid. However, escalating violence has made it increasingly dangerous for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to work in the country. In recent months the UN has reported a marked increase in attacks on humanitarian workers, which has led some organizations to suspend operations or withdraw completely. Money is also an issue: the overall UN-led humanitarian response plan is less than 30% funded  for 2017 despite growing needs.

health worker in CAR

Gladys Doro-Nzerintou works as a community health volunteer at the Boyali Health Post where she has learned about childhood illnesses and how to screen children for malnutrition. Photo: Chris de Bode, Panos Pictures

What Concern is doing in CAR

Concern has been working in CAR since May 2014 and has reached hundreds of thousands of people. The complex situation demands a holistic response, so we’re engaged in a range of activities, including:

  • Providing seeds and tools through seed voucher fairs
  • Improved farming practices (which we call Farmer Field Schools)
  • Supporting families to re-start vegetable gardening and fishing activities
  • Cash-for-work programs, which allow some of CAR’s most vulnerable people to access cash, while improving the country’s infrastructure (e.g. rehabilitation of roads)
  • Construction of and restoration of water points (such as boreholes and wells) that were damaged during the conflict
  • Teaching improved hygiene practices and promoting toilet construction
  • Treating acute malnutrition and illnesses in children under five  and providing vaccination and maternal health services
  • Supporting community health volunteers, who do critical work conducting health and nutrition screenings and delivering health and hygiene messaging to their communities

CAR Crisis Explained