YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – The Central African Republic needs “radical change,” according to Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga, the archbishop of the capital, Bangui.
In 2013, a Muslim rebel group called Seleka took over the government of the country, giving rise to the pro-Christian anti-Balaka militia movement. Eventually, Seleka was driven out, but tit-for-tat violence between the two groups continues to this day, and the central government has until recently had trouble exercising power outside of the capital Bangui.
However, Nzapalainga estimates the government currently controls about 75 percent of the country, and it is now necessary to capitalize on the progress that has been made to bring lasting peace.
“The government has received help from Russia and Rwanda in the fight against the rebels, and the first finding is that at least 75 percent of the country’s territory is under State control. Now we need to face the social drama of the population and encourage radical change. Change must come from the heart because not having weapons is not enough: A peaceful heart will undoubtedly lead to the fact that one no longer takes up arms,” the cardinal told RFI.
He said the armed rebels who previously occupied the towns and cities have now fled into the bush, but it remains to be seen whether this is real or just temporary peace.
“Now it is important that there is awareness among people. It is crucial to create a sense of peace in people in order to disarm hearts. Not only the rebels, but society as a whole must find a balance and pave the way to peace,” he said.
Christians make up about 80 percent of the population of the Central African Republic, and Muslims about 15 percent.
The Muslim population is concentrated in the north of the country that touches on the Sahel region of Africa, although there are many Muslim traders in the south.
Nzapalainga dismisses the notion that it’s an inter-religious conflict unfolding in the CAR, telling RFI in an interview that “if you ask people if there is war between Muslims and Christians, they will tell you ‘No, there is no war between us.’ Because in the Koran as in the Bible, it’s not permitted to kill, to rape, to destroy or to burn. Those who committed such acts are out of step with our sacred scriptures, and little by little, people have come to that realization.”
He said none of the fighters was fighting for the Koran or the Bible.
“They are fighting for diamonds, gold, cows… to make money,” he said.
The cardinal said people were gradually returning to their homes but warned that it’s no indicator that the country was out of danger.
“Today, we think that the weapons that circulate a lot in the hands of some are a factor of tension. It is also a factor of fear, which paralyses the poor mother who cannot go to the field because she is afraid of finding someone armed… She cannot cultivate, how will she live? The poor shopkeeper who can’t move around, because he is afraid of being stopped ten or fifteen kilometers away to take all his goods… You can’t get sugar, you can’t get soap… It’s everyday life that is paralyzed. And we don’t want that, that’s why we have to stop the flow of arms and take other options,” Nzapalainga said.
He said those options include “frank, sincere and inclusive dialogue.”
On March 18, President Faustin-Archange Touadéra announced a dialogue including a range of participants, including the Catholic Church.
“The Catholic Church met and prepared a text. The Church’s vision is that when you go to a dialogue, you don’t have a fixed position, you go to negotiate, you go to try to preserve lives,” Nzapalainga said.
But it appears the dialogue won’t include those who have taken up arms against the state, an approach the cardinal said is shortsighted.
“From what I have heard, a distinction has been made between those who have taken up arms and those who have not. The format of this dialogue is constructed by those in authority. I ask that this dialogue be extended to as many people as possible, so that we can listen to them and take them into account. The more people we have who are frustrated, scattered, who are in the bush, the more people we will have who are wild and possibly dangerous,” he said.
Nzapalainga said that even if the authorities don’t have confidence in inviting the rebels to the dialogue table, there should be other ways of talking to them, including through informal channels.
“I believe very much in this and I ask that religious and social actors should rise up to engage in this informal dialogue. You have your brothers who are in CPC, who are in the bush … Have the courage to go and talk to them. Listen to them. Come back to talk about it with the prefect, with the people, to see how to make sure that these people find their place, because it’s in everyday life that we must have this dialogue. It’s in the long term,” he said.
He said if those aspiring to gain positions of power could go to all parts of the country, they’d be able to “see the suffering, the misery in which people live.”
That way, the cardinal continued, they would better appreciate why it’s critical that weapons be put away “and give children the chance to go to school, give a chance to farmers to go back to the farms, and the wounded to visit the hospital, and give administrators the chance to accomplish their missions. But if we remain with our selfish desires, we will keep fighting.”
Nzapalainga also said at the level of inter-religious dialogue, leaders help bring peace.
“We want to disarm hearts and minds. We will continue to do that. It’s not one day’s work. As long as there is no peace in this country, we will always be there as peace crusaders,” he said.