AFRICA/CENTRAL AFRICA - Cardinal Nzapalainga: “A small elite is trying to appropriate all goods while a people lives in poverty”

Thursday, 30 May 2024 local churches   cardinals   area crisis  


by Luca Attanasio

Bangui (Agenzia Fides) - In the various areas of the Central African Republic, the proportion of Christians varies between 75% and 85% of the total population. This percentage makes the country one of the African nations where the presence of Christians is most constant.
Catholics represent 40% of the Christian population. In modern times, a community was born from the work of a group of missionaries from the Congregation of the Holy Spirit (Spiritans) who arrived in Central Africa in 1894, exactly 130 years ago. There are now nine Catholic dioceses in the vast country, which has only 5.5 million inhabitants.
Central Africa was the scene of a fierce civil war that broke out after the overthrow of President François Bozizé in March 2013. A conflict that still leaves its mark. The two warring parties, who only apparently fought for religious reasons in a war that instead pursued strong economic interests linked to the control of land and imposing mineral resources, were the anti-Balaka militias (mainly Christians) and the pro-Islamic groups that formed the Seleka movement (which has since disbanded and split into other groups).
In recent years, the security situation has clearly improved. But after a decade of tough clashes, the country is still full of problems and questions to be resolved.

"We can finally say that the situation in our country has definitely improved," reports the Archbishop of Bangui, Cardinal Dieudonnè Nzapalainga, in an interview with Fides. "The clearest indication," continued the cardinal, who belongs to the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, "is the fact that during the worst period of the conflict, essentially 95% of the territory was controlled by the rebels, now it is the other way round. It is possible to move around the country and I myself can travel to areas that were completely unthinkable until recently. Economic activity, work in the fields and in all other areas has resumed. Schools are now always open and both students and teachers can reach them without any particular danger."
Despite these reassuring figures, the effects of the conflict are still strongly felt at all levels. "In my opinion," said the Archbishop of Bangui, "the biggest problem is that of education. Schools are now open all day and not just a few months a year, they can be reached without danger, but the years of blockade of the education system that have accumulated are now taking their toll. The level of education of students and teachers is rather poor. In some cases, teachers are simply civil servants who lack the necessary vocation. And many parents prefer to send their children to work rather than to school because they have to pay fees, but also because school does not guarantee a good education. The state of infrastructure is also serious: the roads, for example, are a disaster in some areas and some stretches are only completed after weeks."

The Central African Republic is one of the first countries on the continent where a Russian presence has developed over the years. With military advisers, army troops and, above all, the Wagner Group, Russian influence is clearly visible in the Central African territory.
"The Russians," explains Cardinal Nzapalainga, "were called in to provide security, and it must be said that the security situation has improved since they have been here. It is obvious that they are not here out of philanthropy, but to control the gold mines and diamonds, they exploit our mineral resources and have replaced the rebels in controlling the most strategic places, also because they were the only ones who could penetrate the most remote areas and expel the anti-government militias. The rebels were very afraid of the mercenaries of the Wagner group. Since the government allowed the Russians into the country, violence has drastically decreased."

As the Russians come in, the Europeans, especially the French, are leaving. Relations with Paris have deteriorated drastically since Moscow gained a foothold in Central Africa. Only recently have relations with Emmanuel Macron's France been resumed.
"Paris," reports the Central African Cardinal, "had basically already decided to break off financial and political relations. Then, in mid-April, President Faustin-Archange Touadéraera was invited to the Elysée Palace and took the opportunity to resume relations between the two countries. It was no coincidence that the meeting took place after the recent change of the Central African Constitution, which allowed him to run for a third term in 2025. The president therefore wanted to resume dialogue with France and Macron to revive the French presence in the country."

Representatives of the local Church had rejected the constitutional amendment. With the amendment introduced by referendum in July 2023 (see Fides, 31/7/2023), Touadéraera can secure the presidency for life. "The relationship between Church and State has changed since we opposed the constitutional amendment," reports Cardinal Nzapalainga. "We Catholics," he adds, "are not a political opposition force, but we feel the urgency of being a prophetic voice that tries to say what others cannot say. We must call on everyone to respect the words given and to call for a socially just distribution of goods: there is a small elite that tries to appropriate all the goods for itself and a people that lives in poverty. The Church speaks in defense of the people."
According to recent estimates, there are about 500,000 internally displaced people in the Central African Republic, about 10% of the population, plus many others who left the country during the war. In recent months, Central Africa has gone from being an "export nation" of refugees to a desperate landing place for many displaced people fleeing the terrible war in neighboring Sudan. According to the African Center for Strategic Studies, about 30,000 Sudanese refugees have arrived in Central Africa.
"Our internal and external refugees are returning," explains Cardinal Nzapalainga, "but the problem is that they find their homes destroyed or occupied by others. The Platform of Religious Leaders is working intensively on this emergency and has called on the occupiers to return the homes to their rightful owners. It is a very serious problem that is causing pain and tension." "The war in Sudan," added the Cardinal, "is a real emergency that creates problems for the entire region. Many are arriving, but it is very difficult for us to provide for them because they live in remote areas where it is almost impossible to reach. Unfortunately, we have few planes at our disposal and the aid that reaches the Sudanese is very scarce. The parish in Birao (in the north of the country, on the border between Sudan and Chad) collaborates with Caritas. And there is the daily work we do through the local Church, where we ask everyone to help as much as they can. And finally, there is a fundraising campaign in which the Church asks for support in the face of the dramatic situation abroad and calls on Christians all over the world to share and send help". (Agenzia Fides, 30/5/2024)