“Hate” and “Security Vacuum”: How Not to Ask the Right Questions about a Confusing Crisis

From the Series: The Central African Republic (CAR) in a Hot Spot

Photo by Steve Conover, licensed under CC BY SA.

Discourses on the crisis in the Central African Republic have quite confusedly evoked humanitarian and security issues. The two frameworks frequently applied to the conflict—“hate” and “genocide” on the one hand, “security vacuum” on the other—are erroneous and incomplete. But they have helped shape international responses to the crisis and in so doing have contributed to their failure.

A “Genocide” Fueled by “Hate”?

The phrases “on the verge of genocide” and “pre-genocidal situation” were used by French and US officials shortly before the deployment of the Sangaris mission (a contingent of French soldiers sent to CAR) in December 2013. In mid-January, John Ging, the UN director of humanitarian affairs, compared the situation in CAR to Rwanda or Bosnia and argued that the “elements” and the “seeds” for a “genocide” were present. The term “genocide” has become a simple, indiscriminately-used tool for political mobilization. Yet, far from being simply a synonym for a major crisis, genocide is a crime defined by the 1948 Convention. Moreover, the term was employed even before Muslim populations became victims of the “ethnic cleansing” denounced by Amnesty International.

Prompt to raise the ante on the global market of indignation, international actors are correct to question what they did not see coming. Contrary to what Gérard Araud, the French UN ambassador, said in mid-January, the error lies not in having “underestimated the hatred and the resentment between the communities,” but rather the consequences of the inversion of the balance of power when the anti-Balaka militias, some of whom were supported by former president François Bozizé, launched an attack on Bangui on December 5th, the very day the UN Security Council adopted the resolution authorizing the deployment of Operation Sangaris.

Since the beginning of December, the anti-Balaka militias have dangerously increased in strength. In January, the forced resignation of President Michel Djotodia, a political-military entrepreneur whose troops were responsible for pillaging and violence, led to his replacement by a female politician, Catherine Samba Panza. But Djotodia’s removal exacerbated the vulnerability of Muslims. Victims of atrocious reprisals, these populations have been driven out of the country. Samba Panza is powerless in these armed struggles.

Despite the horror stories sent to us from the Central African Republic, one must refrain from psychologizing the supposed “hatred” between Christians and Muslims. This perspective poses several problems. First, it tends to reify identities that are neither unique nor rigid. Analyzing the conflict solely as Christians versus Muslims traps more than four million diverse people into two homogeneous and supposedly antagonistic blocs. In so doing, it obscures more than it clarifies. Seeing conflict in CAR through the lens of religion repeats the mistake made about African conflicts in the 1990s, which were described as “ethnically” motivated. Rather than religion or ethnicity per se, the conflicts are about the various ways in which these categories have been politicized.

Second, the “hate-discourse” fuels a deeply rooted misconception: namely that violence has its origin in hate. Central Africans did not necessarily hate their neighbors before they became a threat. Violence is not the mechanical result of hate; it is organized by political entrepreneurs who can play the national, ethnic, or religious card in their attempts to mobilize fighters. Political maneuvering like this is not about the good or bad feelings one might have toward others. It is about pursuit of one’s interests and negotiating survival in a situation marked by uncertainty and duress. The polarization of identity is more often a consequence of than a cause for war.

Third, saying that the shortcomings of international interventions have been due to their organizers’ underestimation of Central Africans’ hatred creates a smokescreen that masks serious political errors. International troops have been reticent to oppose anti-Balaka militias and have demonstrated an inability to protect the Muslim minority.

“Security Vacuum” or the Profusion of Injustice?

The discourse on genocide and hate is at odds with the discourse on the “failure of the state” and the “security vacuum,” and yet they are frequently paired. The same political actors blithely transition from one to the other. Laurent Fabius, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, has evoked the “absolute disorder” in a country “on the verge of genocide” (he later stepped away from the genocide terminology). These analyses in terms of disorder and genocide are, however, incompatible. Institutions are required to organize the destruction of a population. The genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda twenty years ago had been carefully planned, orchestrated, and implemented by the state.

If one considers public services, the state in CAR is not far from “failure.” It is crucial, however, to question the success of the framework of the “failed state,” which appeared in the 1990s and enjoyed a resurgence among experts and in diplomatic circles following September 11. What does this notion teach us about concrete modes of governing? Nothing. About the production and regulation of violence? Nothing. So then why does “state failure” enjoy such success to the point of being used to describe states as different as the Central African Republic, Mali, and Afghanistan? Perhaps the answer can be found in the slippages that such a vague phrase allows.

Official discourses range, in fact, from the security of civilians in CAR to national and international security. But whose security is the French military ensuring? Communications from the French Minister of Defense have sustained the confusion between humanitarian and security arguments. In January, Jean-Yves Le Drian chose Bangui as the site from which to “salute all the forces involved in the armed struggle against terrorism.” One month prior, he had already insisted on the links between the “security vacuum,” trafficking, and terrorism. While armed actors, from Chad and Uganda in particular, know how to use sparsely populated regions of the country, CAR is neither Somalia nor Mali.

Behind the deceptions of the “failed state” and the “security vacuum” stand real issues: political violence, a concessionary economy, the capture of resources by political and economic entrepreneurs connected to the global economy, the marginalization of rural areas, and the dereliction of public services. In CAR, as in many regions in the world, people do not suffer solely from a “security vacuum” but also from the profusion of injustice. Is it really surprising that young men (less frequently women) take up arms when civilian life is often a daily combat? Or when state-sponsored violence sustains a permanent “inter-war”?

Describing CAR through reference to notions and frameworks forged in other contexts, and with political agendas far removed from the local population’s own preoccupations, prevents us from grasping the conflict’s political and social root causes and leads to flawed intervention strategies.


This article is a revised version of an op-ed published in the French newspaper Le Monde on February 20, 2014, under the title “Centrafrique: attention aux mots,” and was translated by Benn E. Williams.