Coming from such a large and imposing figure, the soft voice of the general is a surprise. One has to lean in and listen closely to hear Mohamed-Moussa Dhaffane speak, sharing the high drama of the moment in something close to a whisper.

Acting President of the Seleka in the Central African Republic and a former minister of water and forests for the ousted government, General Dhaffane still haunts the capital of Bangui in discussions with local government officials, NGO leaders and representatives of the international community all over the capital.

His life is essentially in mortal peril each day as he makes his rounds for dialogue and courtesy calls. Many have urged him to leave Bangui for his own safety; his family has already fled the country entirely. But Dhaffane is determined to remain in the capital.

“Leaders should stop saying one thing and then doing something else,” says the general. “When I told the Muslims to turn back, I continued to stay myself in Bangui despite all the risks I am running.” 

He travels with two stone-faced Seleka guards in crisp jungle camoflaged uniforms and AK-47s slung from their shoulders. The general says he keeps his own “Kalashnikov” with him in the car as the small squad moves across Bangui’s sometimes invisible and sometimes thoroughly barricaded borders, demarcations of districts no Muslim is safe to pass. 

Despite the clear divisions that have erupted between the nation’s Christians and Muslims because of the conflict, Dhaffane echoes Christian leaders of Bangui in insisting that the struggle “is not religious, though politicians are trying to manipulate this as a religious conflict.

“But if we are not careful it could become a religious conflict,” he quickly adds.

Of the state of the nation now, he says, reconciliation is still possible. “The situation is difficult, but we are allowed to hope.

“We can fix the problem quickly with the engagement of all religious leaders,” he says. “Let’s separate religions from the movements. Let’s put religions aside and have Seleka and anti-balaka talk together because in reality Islam does not encourage people to go and kill civilians and Islam does not encourage people to loot houses—it’s not in the Koran or in the words of the prophet. And in reality the Bible and the life of Jesus does not encourage people to eat the flesh of others and to kill others. When Jesus took the wine and said, ‘This is my blood,’ it was a symbol meant to unify people.

“What anti-balaka has done is not in the Christian religion,” he says, “and what Seleka has done is not in Islam.

“Reconciliation is possible if the religious leaders are consistent in saying Seleka is one thing; Islam is something else. Anti-balaka is one thing; Christianity is something else.”

Despite the fact that so many Muslims have already departed to Seleka controlled provinces or out of the country into Chad and other neighboring states, Dhaffane argues that “it is not too late” to turn the exodus around. He thinks a concrete gesture like the rebuilding of many of Bangui’s destroyed mosques could help encourage the Muslim people to return.

“The Islamic community in Central Africa has paid a very high price for this crisis,” but “the future is in people living in diversity and people accepting diversity,” he says.

General Dhaffane expresses regret for the excesses committed by his rebel alliance when they came to power. In fact, he says, it was his frequent complaints about the abuses committed by Seleka foot soldiers against the defenseless citizens of Bangui that got him removed from authority and thrown in jail during the short tenure of the man the Seleka put in power, President Michel Djotodia, the first Muslim to hold the office. 

After the debacle of the short reign of the Seleka in Bangui, his comrades in the movement seem ready to take his position more seriously. In the morning (May 6), he heads for N’délé where the Seleka leadership will be meeting. He will push for an “internal review” of the movement’s actions upon coming to power with a frank accounting of its mistakes, chief among them, he acknowledges, have been the “human rights abuses” committed against of the C.A.R. populace. The movement had initially been perceived by some as a possible force of reform, but the extreme violence, sexual assaults and looting committed by members of the Seleka provoked the anti-balaka backlash which eventually drove the Seleka from the city and from power. “In reality the Seleka made many mistakes in the way they governed,” the general says. “That needs to change; I hope it is going to change.”

The movement had legitimate concerns when it came to power and the grievances of the nation’s Muslims was recognized by the international community but “because of bad judgment and bad calculations by [deposed President Francois] Bozize, we took power, so when we had power, because we were abused before, we should have given the right example and role model of leadership, but instead there was the taking of other people’s houses, continuing to arrest people for no reason, continuing to steal vehicles…the Seleka militia were all over the place and people were afraid.

“I said we can’t govern like this; we must stop and that’s what put me in jail. I came this close to being killed.”

Dhaffane has been involved in C.A.R. politics for a long time and it has already cost him much. He was jailed in Chad between 2009 and 2012, at the urging of President Bozize.

“When I was in jail I had to do a lot of thinking about how to bring us all together, how to engage in a dialogue or to take power, but my goal was not to take power [by force]. The idea was that we would take our demands to Bozize so we could have an agreement with the government, but when I was in jail I could not control what was going on, what was happening in the field.”

Cigar genially smoldering in his hand, seated comfortably in an open-air hotel lounge, Dhaffane offers a clear and even-handed précis on the origins of the chaos that has gripped his resource-rich but thoroughly impoverished nation—how the better educated “Christian brothers” in the early years of independence assumed all the positions of leadership while Muslims concentrated on trade, how Muslims themselves eventually became better educated and began to wish to improve their social status and political representation within the republic, how that desire was resisted.

General Dhaffane begins to sound more like a kindly academic lecturer schooling some particularly dull-witted student than the leader of a rebel group which has terrorized the nation. It makes an odd contrast. Outside the confines of the hotel it is likely that tonight the tit-for-tat violence between Christian and Muslim that now characterizes the conflict in Bangui has claimed new victims. In the north of the country, Seleka elements strike out in raids of small agricultural communities as they can manage them, following the ancient cattle trails that criss-cross the countryside. Even as we speak tonight with the general, in that region the French Sangaris force are engaged in what would become a four-hour firefight with presumed Seleka militia that left a score among the presumed Seleka dead.

While many Christians here insist that Christians and Muslims in the republic lived together in relative harmony before the arrival of the Seleka, blaming the movement for putting the flame to this powder keg of communal violence, General Dhaffane offers a mild corrective. It was just not so. Muslims in Central Africa, he says, have always had a second-class status to “our Christian brothers.” In general Muslim in the republic “are not considered equal; they are treated as an inferior class.”

“This is what led the Muslims to rebel, to ask for the same status as the Christians and the same rights.”

What brought the Seleka together was “the marginalization of the northeast. The region is entirely underdeveloped,” he complains, noting the irony that most of the nation’s natural resources can be found in this ignored region.

“The Northeast is completely isolated during the rainy season,” he says, pointing out that the road system is such that the region is much better connected with neighboring states than it is with the rest of the Central African Republic. “There is no infrastructure, therefore the people have come much closer to Chad and Sudan in commerce, in cultural exchanges, in everything.

“There is no infrastructure for the development and the well-being of the people. There are no schools for the children, no hospitals.

“With respect to the Muslim community, the Central African Muslim has always been considered in the political sphere as a foreigner, an outsider.” Any contact with government bureaucracy, according to Dhaffane, was an invitation to harassment and humiliation. Beyond the everyday slights and abuses Muslims endured at the hands of police and government bureaucrats, according to Dhaffane, where harder blows against the Islamic community. Whenever the government needed money, it simply slapped some new tax on Muslim commerce or industry, he says. Worse, when government officials or police needed to raise some quick cash “for a celebration,” they rounded up some Muslims and threw them in jail, then collected a payment from family members before they were allowed to be released.

With many Muslims now driven into the north where Seleka control is strongest, some have seized on partition as the easiest way to end the violence. But in opposition to many within his coalition, Dhaffane is not a supporter of the idea. “Most of my comrades are asking for the partition of the country. I say no and I stay [in Bangui] to continue the contact [with the government]. We’ve already lost plenty of lives. Do you think partition is going to save the lives of those who are living now? The current conflict is not social, it is political. If we partition the country, are we not going to have another war just like they had in Sudan?

“All of this we [will be debating in N’délé]. This is my position. Many of my comrades believe [partition] will solve the problem, but I think there would still be a lot of gold and diamond and oil on the other side [of the proposed partition line] and then there is Sudan and there is Chad and there is the international community.” He is smiling softly, running though a list of poor Central Africa’s competing external interests. “How are we going to manage all of that?” Dhaffane sees partition only as the foundation to more violence and instability in the future.

“What the American people can do to help us is stand with us as a neutral party and not take sides,” he says. He suggests that the American and the international community could help by training a professional governing class in Central Africa that will be able to see beyond religious or tribal loyalties. “With good governance, with justice, we can have an equal distribution of [resource] wealth and equal opportunity for everyone,” he says.

Down at the end of the street, the Ubangi River flows quietly, hosting mosquitos and crocodiles and oarsmen in dugout canoes crossing to the other side, a soft border between Central Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

In that benighted neighboring state for years militias from local warlords and army brigades from adjoining nations took advantage of a weak central government to pillage communities and extract precious metals that made their way into computers and cellphones around the world. Millions died while the international community watched the carnage on broadband internet backboned by Congo’s mineral wealth. With a lesson like that lurking just a few hundred feet away, it is perhaps credible that this rebel leader is sincere about dialogue and resource sharing and finding an equitable end to the violence. With its vast wealth still under the earth and many minds bent on finding the means of uncovering it, it would not take much for Central Africa to discover itself sharing its neighbor’s terrible fate.

PHOTO: Bangui's Central Mosque where thousands had taken shelter. About 400 to 500 Muslims remain, surrounded by anti-balaka gangs. All who remain here are afraid to return to their homes unless security is improved.

More coverage of the crisis in the Central Africa republic, included podcasts and photos, available here.