Belonging, identity, and conflict in the Central African Republic

Belonging, Identity, and Conflict in the Central African Republic
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I became interested in the Central African Republic, its political and social dynamics, over a decade ago, specifically in 2013. I was a recent graduate, and I was working with the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Nairobi (Kenya). The Séléka armed group (an alliance of many armed groups in the CAR) had deposed then President François Bozizé in 2013. He was in power since 2003. Prior to my work at ISS, I had little knowledge about the country, its history, its politics, and its social dynamics. So, when friends, and academic colleagues in my life ask why that country, this is the story I tell. Indeed, beside family, everyone else assumes that I got interested in the CAR and studied the armed conflict because I am a citizen of the country. I am not.

There is another story.

As a young African in 2013, I was genuinely curious. I knew little about that country. I was even intrigued by the fact that one of the main protagonists in the war that started after Bozizé’s fall, the Anti-Balaka, claimed that they were the true Central African (the vrai Centrafricain). The Anti-Balaka were a vigilante group that form to fight the Séléka and Muslims in the CAR. Their claim to being true Central African puzzled me, particularly knowing how such claims unfolded in Côte d’Ivoire and elsewhere in Africa.

Claims to true belonging have been made in relation to the soil both in Africa and Europe, that is a claim to autochthony. Discourses of autochthony are about people claiming to have been the first inhabitant of a land and, through that claim, denying others the right to live on the same territory. In many African contexts such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Côte d’Ivoire, the claims to autochthony have been deadly.

Claiming real or true belonging, as in the CAR, is an utterance so evidently clear that defining and understanding the claim becomes challenging. What does it mean to be a true Central African? Why are people using such claims in the CAR? These are the questions that followed me throughout my research and led to the publication of my first book, Belonging, Identity, and Conflict in the Central African Republic.

Politics in the Central African Republic

The CAR is a landlocked country located right at the heart of the African continent. The country has mineral mines which have been difficult to exploit given its difficult geography and complicated politics.

Most of the intellectuals working on the CAR back in 2013 and following the Séléka coup were not surprised by the coup d’état. The CAR had known political instability since its independence in 1960. The country was particularly ill-equipped after a violent period of colonization and nonexistent infrastructure to begin its development journey. The CAR then witnessed many successful and unsuccessful coups that the former colonizer, France, supported.

The country has had authoritarian leaders, an emperor, a democratically elected president turned authoritarian, and all of this without armed violence spreading to larger swathes of the population. Bozizé came to power with a coup in 2003, many armed groups formed against his rule starting in 2004-2005. Bozizé, as well as the presidents before him relied on ethnicity and patronage to govern and secure their power. The current president, Faustin Archnage Touadéra, has been elected and he turned an authoritarian. He has not changed the governance patterns in the CAR.

What took many by surprise, in 2013, was the sectarian turn of a conflict that was first political, a conflict between president Bozizé and the leader of the Séléka, Michel Djotodia, both vying for power. Also, a greater portion of the population supported the Anti-Balaka and connected to the narrative of true Central Africanness. This connection made the armed conflict different from the previous episode of political instability in the CAR. For me, the question that it raised was why that claim was popular, and why was the claim manifested violently?

Understanding autochthony

As I turned to research the CAR, I argued that true belonging, autochthony, was not a last-minute elite strategy when Bozizé regime was faltering. Hence, I turned my mind to ordinary Central Africans and their explanation of the conflict.

To understand the appeal of autochthony, I suggest in my book, that scholars interested in African armed conflicts and autochthony must depart from the implicit understanding of autochthony which assumes that land problems are prominent when autochthony claims arise. I advanced that autochthony has no “core” meaning, but rather is an empty category that needs to be filled with political meaning.

This reconceptualization allowed me to probe how Muslims and non-Muslims in the CAR competed for the control of the political and economic space in very localized instances such as public markets as well as nationally through a coup and armed rebellion.

My aim in writing the book was to assess the period prior to the 2013 coup and how people understood autochthony. I found that land issues were not prominent. Elites and non-elites were concerned about which group should govern the CAR, and which group should “own” the economic sector. In that sense I termed that autochthony must be understood without land.

Often seen as a strategy that elites use when their regime are faltering, I shift the focus in the book. For me, meanings of autochthony are formed by ordinary discourses through claims to legitimacy, othering practices and exclusion of some groups.

In understanding autochthony without land, I was able to show how the deposed President Bozizé mobilized themes of true Central African in his speeches way before the Séléka threatened his regime. Bozizé constantly mobilized an understanding of true Central African as people who were supportive of his regime as he tried to legitimize his rule which stemmed from a coup in 2003.

In the book, I went further, showing how civil society actors mobilize autochthony, as well as street vendors in public markets. In brief, beyond seeing autochthony as a trope, the term has a performative dimension through othering practices and exclusion of Muslims in the CAR.

Autochthony is an identity category, but it differs from ethnicity. Its self-evident nature should lead scholars to always probe the content of the identity category and its boundaries. Understanding how autochthony must not be necessarily tied to land in order to become a powerful mobilizer requires us to focus on the daily utilization of the term in periods when elite regimes are not faltering.

Gino Vlavonou is a member at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. He formerly worked as a Program Officer with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the US-based Social Science Research Council (SSRC), and obtained his PhD from the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa.

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