BANGUI: The bloodshed in the Central African Republic is often presented as pitting Muslims against Christians – an echo of other religious conflicts raging across the continent.
But analysts say the real reasons behind the violence that has claimed thousands of civilian lives and turned up to a quarter of the population into refugees have more to do with ethnicity, class and politics than religion.
Envy at the success of immigrant Muslim traders from Chad and Sudan, power politics and even tensions that date from when the country was a key point on slave trade routes, all play their part, experts say.
“People are manipulating youths into killing because they have lost power, because they want it back,” said Nicolas Guerekoyame Gangou, the leader of the country’s Alliance of Evangelist Churches.
“Christians and Muslims have always lived together ... But even before the conflict took hold, we religious dignitaries saw the danger coming by way of fiery, warmongering statements by politicians.
“They are the ones who pull strings in the strife to give it an inter-religious character,” he said.
French peacekeeping troops intervened in the former colony in December last year, along with a multinational force raised by the African Union, amid fears of a Rwanda-style genocide.
They helped force the mainly Muslim Seleka militias, who had ousted former President Francois Bozize 10 months before, out of the capital Bangui in January. Then “anti-balaka” fighters, mostly Christian Bozize supporters, began ruthlessly hunting down Muslims in brutal revenge attacks.
The cycle of tit-for-tat violence has seen massacres, rapes and looting by both sides.
The Seleka are largely made up of Central Africans from the north and east of the country, as well as mostly Muslim fighters from neighboring Sudan and Chad.
Meanwhile the “anti-balaka” are mainly Christians from Bozize’s Mbaya ethnic group from the center and south.
However both sides maintain strong animist beliefs, and are often seen sporting amulets and charms and experts agree the hatred is being fueled by something far deeper.
Abdoulaye Hissene, a former Seleka rebel leader who has become an adviser to the presidency, said describing the conflict as inter-religious alone was “completely false.”
“They aren’t real Christians destroying mosques, or real Muslims attacking churches. They are individuals bankrolled by enemies of peace.”
Another longtime thorn in the country’s side seen as contributing to tensions is what analysts condemn as meddling by regional power Chad, where about half the population is Muslim.
“For the local population, a Muslim is a Chadian,” said Roland Marchal, a French researcher who specializes in the region. “And Chad is a burdensome neighbor.”
Chad’s President Idriss Deby Itno supported the coup that brought Bozize to power in 2003, with backing from Paris and regional leaders who wanted to get rid of the troublesome former leader Ange-Felix Patasse. Ten years later, Chad was widely accused of backing the Seleka to oust Bozize.
When it then sent peacekeepers to join an African Union force, tensions quickly flared.
Chad withdrew the contingent of more than 800 troops after the U.N. accused some of its soldiers of opening fire in a crowded Bangui market, killing around 30 people, with N’Djamena angrily rejecting the charge.
“The people didn’t rejoice at the departure of the [Muslim] Senegalese traders, or Malians, but the Chadians, yes,” Marchal said.
Marchal pointed out that “migratory paths for Chadians and Sudanese pass through the CAR,” as do the routes originally used by slave traders.
The CAR has natural resources including diamonds and gold, but decades of misrule have left it low on the U.N. Human Development Index.
In this climate, Muslim traders often originally from Chad or Sudan have typically fared better than others, controlling diamond mining hubs and the vital road transport business.
These socioeconomic differences between traders and farmers – reflected elsewhere in Africa with Lebanese people in the west and others of Indian origin in the east – arouse envy and sometimes looting when order breaks down.
Marchal argues such “social jealousy” is all the stronger as it is linked to cultural beliefs that “hold that success isn’t natural, but is brought about by sorcery, by the invisible.”