Gérard Ouambou is a journalist and cameraman from Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. At the end of December 2020, as part of a project by ACN International (Aid to the Church in Need), he travelled to Bangassou to talk to the priests and religious sisters there who are caring for the victims of terror and violence. He had also hoped to report on the initiatives pioneered by the diocese of Bangassou to consolidate the peace that was beginning to return to the diocese. However, things turned out very differently. In the interview below with ACN, he talks about the situation in the country and the reasons underlying the conflict. He was interviewed by Maria Lozano.
You were in Bangassou over the Christmas period. What was the situation like during the time you were there?
Already, as I was arriving at the airport in Bangassou I noticed how many of the employees of the NGOs were leaving the city, on the pretext of taking their end of year vacation. By the time I got there, rumours were already circulating of a possible attack on the town of Bangassou itself. As I had already worked there in the past, together with Cardinal Nzapalainga, to help the town during the earlier crisis of 2013, I checked in my address book in an effort to make contact with some of the former fighters, so as to gain a feeling for the situation and at the same time advise them, based on past experience, not to take part in any rebellion.
What was the mood among the people?
On Christmas Day itself, after Mass, some of the people were beginning to flee in the direction of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to a town by the name of NDOU, not far from Bangassou. Other people were seeking refuge at the military base of the UN MINUSCA (Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic) forces, located 2 or 3 km outside the town, while yet another group of people chose to flee into the bush to take shelter from the impending attack. Meanwhile, all the traders in the central market shut up their businesses and stored all their goods away safely. All flights were cancelled.
What struck you most forcibly?
When I arrived at the base of the MINUSCA forces I was astonished to find all the political and administrative authorities of the town holed up there in safety, along with the defence and security forces (FDS) and the men of the Central African Armed Forces (FACA), who were supposed to be defending the population.
Despite warnings from Bangui, the senior leadership had turned a deaf ear. A few days after I had actually left Bangassou, the town was finally captured by the rebels. 10 days later Rwandan soldiers reached the town, and there were further clashes.
What is the situation like generally in the country?
As we speak, the situation remains tense. The rebels are part of the so-called "guerrilla" groups and are present throughout almost the whole of the country. I live with my family in the capital Bangui. A few days ago they even encircled this city. There were secret agents everywhere, in the various quarters of the town, and there have been numerous abductions and settling of scores with supporters of the former president François Bozizé and his political party, the KNK (Kwa Na Kwa = ‘Work, nothing but work‘). All in all, the situation in the Central African Republic is very worrying. If nothing is done about it we risk another coup. Among other things, it would be important to engage in dialogue, but the government will not hear of it.
Some of the media are reporting that two-thirds of the country is already in rebel hands. Is that correct?
I don‘t know on what basis these calculations have been made. At the moment I would say that 95% of the Central African Republic is in their hands.
It seemed at one time as though, after almost 7 years of violence (from 2013 to 2019), some kind of peace had begun to return to the country. Is that true?
In Bangui life had returned to normal, but not in the Central African Republic as a whole. In the interior, the torment has been continuing for many years – with armed groups exploiting and oppressing the ordinary peaceful population. In some towns, illegal roadblocks had been set up. But yes, during 2020 a semblance of peace had returned to the country.
Is there a religious dimension to the conflict? Or is it merely a question of wealth and power?
The conflict in Central Africa is by no means religiously motivated. On the one hand, it is about the mineral wealth – the armed groups are occupying areas that are rich in diamonds, gold and so forth. At the same time, it is also about the hunger for power, as in the present case. François Bozizé, who ruled the country from 2003 to 2013, wanted to stand again as a candidate for the presidential elections on 27 December 2020. But since the constitutional court, the highest judicial body in the land had rejected his candidacy, he chose instead to form an alliance with those who had deposed him as president during the coup in 2013. Together with these people he formed a new rebel group called the "Coalition of Patriots for Change" (CPC), in an attempt to overthrow those in power in Bangui with the support of a group of foreign mercenaries.
There is another reason behind the conflict, namely the presence of Russian "military" personnel, which has upset France, which sees the Central African Republic as its own exclusive reservoir of mineral reserves. In order to protect these interests, France decided to violently destabilise the power of President Touadera. In the battle at a geopolitical level, the ordinary people of the country are no more than pawns in a game of chess.
But there are many people who believe that behind these rebel groups and mercenaries from abroad there are radical Islamist groups who need these resources and this power to fuel their expansive growth. What is your opinion about this?
The Central African Republic is a landlocked country in the heart of the continent, with an area of around 240,000 square miles (628,000 km²) and a population of around 5 million people. It has a young and overwhelmingly illiterate population and vast mineral reserves that have never been properly exploited, but only by basic manual labour. This potential wealth is an incitement to people to invade this country. This is true in the case of the Fulani, the wealthiest and most brutal tribe in Niger, with a population of around 15 million people, who have penetrated via Chad into the Central African Republic in search of pasture for their cattle. They are looking for a new paradise for their cattle and plan to settle there. But in order to achieve this, they need to advance using violence and rebellion.
Are the rebel groups and guerrilla movements open to all religions? Can Christians and animists freely practise their faith and their convictions?
For the moment yes, the rebel groups and guerrilla movements are open to all religions; their first and foremost concern is merely to acquire power in Bangui. But as soon as this goal has been achieved they will split apart. Just as happened in the past with the Séléka, who initially included both Christians and Muslims. But once they were in power, the Muslim members of the Seleka decided to remove Christians from the scene, either by quietly killing them or by promoting Muslims to positions of greater power and authority than the Christians. It is all about power, and this collaboration is merely a temporary means to an end. There is no future in it.
What does the Church's work consist in? What role does she have to play in all these conflicts that the country is currently experiencing?
The Church has done a great deal and continues to play her role as a prophet and mediator. Through her position on the Platform for the Religious Confessions of the Central African Republic (PCRC) she has done a great deal for the return and consolidation of peace.
The Catholic bishops of the Central African Republic in fact held their annual plenary assembly just recently, from 11 – 17 December 2020. At the end of this conference, in a statement on the current situation, they spoke out against the increasing polarisation of the political classes who have surrendered the country to the looters and mercenaries of every kind, equipped as they are with weapons and sophisticated armoury.
They emphasise that the war that has been forced upon us is aiming to undermine the deepest strivings of the Central African people. We are weary and disillusioned with the political calculations, the conflicts and divisions.
Featured Image: Refugee children at the Carmelite Monastery at Bangui. Photographer: Fr. Federico Trinchero OCD. Copyright: Aid to the Church in Need.