Refugees Flee Central African Republic, a Crisis the World Neglects

An unlikely alliance of rebels is laying siege to the capital, displacing about 200,000 people, after a disrupted election. Here is an explanation of a humanitarian crisis that gets scant attention.

Published by The New York Times on February 21, 2021.

United Nations peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. (Pacome Pabamdji/AFP/Getty Images)

In the shadow of six surrounding neighbors burdened with their own problems sits the Central African Republic, a landlocked country that gets relatively little attention but that has been plagued by instability and conflict upending the lives of its citizens for many years.

The Central African Republic is once again enduring an acute bout of instability from an on-again, off-again civil war that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Despite the intervention of United Nations peacekeepers, Russian military advisers and Rwandan troops, peace is still elusive.

Almost one-third of all Central Africans have been displaced from their homes in recent years — including 200,000 who fled just since December, after a troubled election.

Here are basic questions and answers on the country’s history and what is driving its dysfunction.

Where is the Central African Republic?

Roughly the size of Texas, with a population of about 5 million, it is basically in the middle of the African continent, enclosed clockwise by Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo and Cameroon. All host refugees from the Central African Republic who have fled mayhem in their homeland.

The colonial name, Ubangi-Shari, stood for the land that straddles the Ubangi and Shari river basins. The name changed during the 1950s decolonization period of French equatorial Africa.

What is causing the fighting in the country now?

The latest turbulence can be traced to elections on Dec. 27, which rebel groups tried to disrupt. The incumbent, President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, won a second term, as rebels staged attacks and occupied major towns. Few people outside the capital, Bangui, could safely vote because of rebel violence, and the rebels even reached Bangui. The president’s opponents have accused him of fraud.

The rebels are an unlikely marriage of the remnants of two broader and formerly antagonistic armed groups: the Seleka, which means alliance and is a coalition of majority Muslim fighters from the north, along with some Chadian and Sudanese; and mostly Christian vigilante militias that call themselves anti-balaka, which sometimes translates as anti-machete. Both groups have been accused of committing atrocities against civilians, including rape and mass murder.

Why have rebel groups that were recently enemies teamed up?

The precise reasons are unclear. But they have combined in an alliance called the Coalition of Patriots for Change. And they are believed to have the support of a former president, François Bozizé. He seized power in a 2003 coup and was deposed by the Seleka in 2013. Disqualified from running in the December elections, he is believed to be in hiding and faces U.N. sanctions for his support of anti-balaka groups.

It’s not clear whom the coalition represents, but they present themselves as a legitimate political force. Abakar Sabone, a minor warlord who is something of a spokesman for the coalition, said in a telephone interview, “We would have taken power if that was what we wanted, but we are giving Touadéra a second chance to open an inclusive discussion.

“But if he tries to be stubborn,” he continued, “then we will head to the capital and get him out.”

What is everyday life like right now?

Bangui is under siege. Rebels are blocking the entry routes, constricting supply deliveries. A sack of flour in February tripled in price from a month before.

Alhadj Sali Abdou, 56, who lost the supermarket he owned when war broke out in 2013, now makes about $3 a day reselling baguettes outside his house. He said he had never seen things as bad as they are now.

“I don’t want to say that I am totally desperate,” he said, adding that if peace could be restored, he could get back on his feet.

With so many people displaced, families are camping out in churches. Many lack food, spare clothes, bedding or cooking utensils. Humanitarian groups working in the country say they have also faced rebel attacks, and some have stopped operating there.

Motorbikes, the vehicles of choice for most residents of the capital, are banned because the rebels use them, so people frequently find themselves stranded.

How long has the Central African Republic been unstable?