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Lessons from history for the sectarian conflict in the Central African Republic

Efforts at addressing the deep-seated sectarian tensions at the core of the conflict must happen soon if the country hopes for stability – warns Madeleine Goerg

Recent developments in the Central African Republic are cause for some hope but the country faces a tough road ahead addressing deep-seated religious tensions. Sectarian violence spread through the country in the wake of President François Bozizé’s ousting by largely Muslim Séléka rebels in March 2013, and reached alarming heights in December 2013.

However, it has abated with the resignation of Transitional President Michel Djotodia and Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye on January 10, 2014. The CAR’s ‘pre-genocidal’ situation gave way to calls for reconciliation as the country’s interim parliament — the National Transitional Council or ‘CNT’, under the leadership of Alexandre Ferdinand Nguendet — sets out to elect a new president by the end of the month.

Though extreme, the situation in the CAR is not unique in the region; countries in the Sahel have contended with increased sectarian tensions and the emergence of extremist groups in recent years. As the Sahelian states manage these inter- and intra-faith divisions to varying degrees of success, Burkina Faso stands out for the easy coexistence of its two main faiths and the stability of the country.

As the saying goes, the Burkinabé are 60 per cent Muslim, 40 per cent Christian and 100 per cent adhere to traditional beliefs. Burkina Faso has long combined a strong Muslim presence and a powerful Catholic Church. The Roman Catholics form an influential minority, especially in the capital, Ouagadougou and the southern economic center Bobo-Dioulasso.

The past few decades have also seen rising numbers of Protestant churches, which so far have not fundamentally altered the status quo. 
Despite fears of a spillover effect from neighbouring Mali — where Tuareg, Senufo, Fula, and other ethnic groups line the border — Burkina Faso has weathered the storm.

Externally, the crisis enhanced Burkina Faso’s diplomatic reach in the region with President Blaise Compaoré’s role as the official mediator for the Economic Community of Western African States. Internally, the leadership of Burkina Faso’s main religious institutions played a central role in navigating the threat of extremism. Extremist voices in the country were met by the united front of the Catholic Church and Muslim leaders with a strengthened and public inter-religious dialogue.

The Episcopal Commission for Christian-Muslim Dialogue renewed its commitment to joint training and regular meetings at the level of the dioceses. The proactive stance of El Hadj Adama Sakandé, Grand Imam of Ouagadougou and the narrative he provided to the Muslim community further stymied the advance of more radical groups. The message was one of national unity and mutual respect of religious beliefs.

Based on my conversations in Burkina Faso, the country has also achieved what few others have, with religious communities living together rather than merely side-by-side, particularly in the country’s major cities. In Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso, different religious groups share schools, neighborhoods, and festivities. Since the early 2000s, the Catholic Church has been one of the main providers of education from primary school to university, which Catholics and non-Catholics alike attend.

The capital’s Cathedral and Great Mosque are only a few blocks apart; Christians often join in the Tabaski celebrations, a major Muslim holiday, while Muslims might attend Midnight Mass on Christmas to enjoy the hymns. Economic activity is regulated by the rhythms of both faiths, and inter-faith marriages are a common fact of life.

The country certainly faces its share of challenges. Burkina Faso remains among the poorest countries in the world, with $634 GDP per capita in 2012, according to the World Bank. Its stability will also be put to the test in 2015 as it holds key elections, which could result in the first political transition since President Compaoré’s coup d’état in 1987. Burkina Faso, however, demonstrates that a peaceful coexistence of different religious communities is possible in the region, but it requires both leadership and sharing everyday life.

The Burkina Faso blueprint bears keeping in mind as the CAR looks to peace and reconciliation. The former’s multilayered and sustained inter-religious dialogue could provide insight for efforts that the religious authorities in Bangui, the CAR’s capital, started in June 2013 to bring local religious leaders to the table. The CAR is still in the early stages of transition and peace is shaky. Violence has dropped significantly in the past week but has yet to stop. Electing a new interim president is first on the CNT’s agenda but efforts at addressing the deep-seated sectarian tensions at the core of the conflict must happen soon if the country hopes for stability.

Madeleine Goerg is a programme coordinator at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think-tank. The GMFUS first published this article as part of its Transatlantic Take series: Two Religions under one roof: pointers for the Central African Republic

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