Bangui, Central African Republic – Warnings of genocide in the Central African Republic are mounting as anarchy following a March coup pits a heavily armed, largely Muslim force of ex-rebels, mercenaries and bandits against a Christian population that has risen up to form self-defence units, some armed only with poisoned bows and arrows.
But there are also calls for rapid intervention to counter the complete lawlessness, looting and increasingly sectarian conflict that could lure in terrorist groups from across the continent. France, which already has about 400 troops in CAR, said recently it will send about 1,000 more in coordination with the United Nations and the African Union.
Edmond Mulet, assistant secretary general to the United Nations Peacekeeping Operation in New York, says Nigeria’s Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, which the United States recently designated a terror group because of its capability to launch attacks on the west, is already trying to set up shop.
I've not heard any news about Boko Haram in this place.
“Certainly Boko Haram, we have some indications that there is some kind of a presence here. In different places, different elements are really already trying to get hold of some presence in the country,” Mulet said during a recent visit to country.
The group’s reach already extends to northern Cameroon, which borders northern CAR. There, “warlordism” has already taken hold among the country’s self-appointed security forces which have been accused of mass human rights abuses on mainly Christian civilians, whose “anti-machete” groups, int turn, have exacted a deadly revenge on Muslims.
The country’s transitional Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye, a lawyer and human rights defender, agreed when asked if Boko Haram was present – before watering down the threat.
“There are indications. I can’t talk to you about it. It’s just because you brought it up but it’s not enough to confirm it yet,” he said.
But he said some radicals were already eyeing CAR – a densely-forested and sparsely populated country that boasts diamonds, gold, uranium, and ivory in some of the most neglected and remote areas.
“In any case for the jihadists, yes, we have some elements … For now, we don’t have all the elements to confirm their effective presence,” Tiangaye said.
The Nigerian embassy in CAR said it was not aware of any threats.
“I’ve not heard any news about Boko Haram in this place,” said first consul Solomon Obono.
Post-coup chaos is nothing new in CAR, which has lurched from one crisis to another since its independence from France 50 years ago. But the current vacuum of power and presence of so many foreign fighters could attract more, and greater militants from far and wide. Mulet cited the lesson in the vast, neglected deserts of northern Mali, that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) moved into following a 2012 coup.
“When there’s a failed state or an absence of presence of state, these radical groups, they tend to go to these places to establish their positions and bases. If we allow this country to go deeply into failed-state situation, these groups will find a haven in the central of Africa to establish their own bases,” he warned.
The country’s new de facto President Michel Djotodia recently admitted to Al Jazeera that he was not in control of his forces.
|CAR security forces stand with their weapons [Reuters]
They are made up of ex-rebels and many mercenaries from Chad and Sudan calling themselves “Seleka”, meaning alliance. But he doesn’t know who is now a member or where they’re from. Nor do the aid agencies who are trying to help about half the population, but who are severely restricted in their efforts by insecurity. Nor do the military commanders banning regional troops from travelling more than 5km from main villages, nor does anyone else.
Seleka’s ranks swelled from “the real 5,000”, a presidential aide says, to 25,000 in the days of looting after the coup, and Djotodia’s alleged offer of $10m for the presidential seat.
But the gates are open and a transitional government meant to be planning elections for 2015 has no clout. A $50m loan from neighbouring Congo to pay staff has gone, and armed groups have already set up private fiefdoms to plunder whatever they can, says Mulet.
“There’s a large presence of foreign fighters inside the CAR trying to take advantage of the vacuum of power and trying to get hold of the riches and trying to carve for themselves some areas of control, which they’re already doing,” alongside kidnapping, killing and extorting the general population.
Mulet says the new regime has already lost control of all revenues apart from the trickle of customs tax on the Cameroon border, as the private sector has fled or been destroyed.
“All the other mines, all the national resources are in the hands of rebel groups right now. and rebel groups are getting more or less 40 or 50 percent that should come into the local coffers. It is now staying into the hands of these local commanders and rebel groups.”
The initial raiders are thought to have come from the bush, reportedly hacking open computers in the capital with machetes and stealing remote controls that they mistook for safes and phones. But with guaranteed returns and few repercussions for pillaging, they could soon be replaced by more organised groups looking for ready and under-the-radar cash.
One aid worker in CAR, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said any terrorist networks in CAR would “finish a country on the path of Somalisation”, adding groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb “probably have a bigger budget than the government” here.
“Porous borders, the absence of state authority, opportunities for the illegal and lucrative exploitation of natural resources, as well as the remoteness of many parts of the country provide a conducive environment for transnational criminal activity, such as the flow of arms and mercenaries, as well as a potential breeding ground for radical networks,” UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon said in the latest CAR report.
Hollywood actress Mia Farrow, who recently represented the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on a trip to CAR, has also chimed in.
“When you see a failed state in that region, it’s a calling card to extremist groups.”
I don't answer to any minister. We brought Djotodia to power and soon we will get him out.
And an inviting one. Notorious warlord Joseph Kony has promoted the country as a safe haven and potential rear base from which to launch attacks by his brutal Lord’s Resistance Army. It has killed more than 100,000 people across four countries for a decade while he has evaded capture by US and Ugandan troops with a price on his head.
“It’s a crossroads. If you have money, you can hide here. If Kony’s here why not anyone else? It’s a huge country and if you have a private plane you can land it anywhere,” said one senior UN worker in CAR.
UN special envoy Abou Moussa says that Djotodia admitted on a recent trip that he had sent Kony 20 bags of food that he had requested, apparently a ploy to “get him out of the bush” before handing him over.
Torture and execution
With Seleka occupying state and public buildings, former soldiers in hiding and police too scared to return even if they had weapons, any notion of security has vanished. Intelligence officers now focus on alleged widespread torture and execution of former regime supporters rather than any outside threat.
Djotodia has ordered all foreign fighters and an estimated 6,000 child soldiers to return home, but those who installed him are refusing to bow out gracefully. Some want their salaries, while others have no intention of ending unchecked violence, rape and pillaging.
His calls unheeded, armed groups have instead streamed into the northwest. In the main town of Bossangoa, 40,000 people from Christian and Muslim communities are hiding.
Men with amulets the size of handbags to protect them from bullets cannot speak the country’s two languages. They won’t give their names, don’t accept press accreditation from the capital, and at a checkpoint leaving Bangui hold up a pre-arranged convoy of regional troops, dismissing government authorisation for the country’s Archbishop and top Imam to pass.
“I don’t answer to any minister. We brought Djotodia to power and soon, we will get him out,” barks Ali, who didn’t give his full name, as his men assembled and disassembled heavy weapons for more than an hour while others tore open bags and waved grenades around.
Tiangaye dismissed such claims as rhetoric. “Those who launch coup d’etats don’t shout about it from the rooftops.”
But with no one listening and the door unlocked, whoever wants to sow fear and terror in CAR next need not whisper.