Ndele, Central African Republic – Dieu-beni Celestin Tebefra sits alone in his narrow office, a portrait of the president who named him to this post hanging over his shoulders.
He is the sole representative of the central government in this strategic northern town – but his administrative toolbox is empty.
“I don’t have gendarmes or police. It’s hard to lead and assert my authority. If I make a decision, who’s going to enforce it?” Tebefra asked with a sad shrug. “There are no judges, no magistrates.”
That’s because an armed group has occupied the police station up the road, setting up a parallel state that runs this town.
While much of the Central African Republic is engulfed by escalating violence between armed factions, the rebel presence in Ndele has ushered in an unusual calm.
For that, the bespectacled rebel commander holding court inside the crumbling police station has a simple explanation.
It's us who has the people's ear ... People here don't respect the mayor.
“We’re organised,” Mohammad Saboun says with a broad smile. “Ndele? It’s a model. It is us who secure the city, the people.”
Ndele’s armed authority – a rebel group called the Popular Front for the Renaissance of Central African Republic (FPRC) – is delivering stability and something akin to state services.
There are police, gendarmes, a prison and a military wing with a base. Fines and summonses are issued, taxes and fees collected. There’s even a water and forestry division.
Saboun starts his morning with an update on overnight events – any security incidents, arrests, disputes. Then he gets to work, writing detailed notes on the town’s happenings for his monthly reports. The arrival of any newcomers – including foreign journalists – goes into his logs.
Saboun said there are around 18 gendarmes under his authority – their rota of patrol shifts is taped to a wall of the station. When an issue in town arises, they deploy.
The officers also keep watch over the prison – a long, reeking cell etched with graffiti. Prisoners are allowed outside during the daytime to rest under a tree, if they behave – rebels say they know not to try escaping.
“We are a parallel administration,” Saboun concedes. “But there are no tribunals, no judges. It’s hard.”
He keeps a dog-eared copy of CAR’s penal code on his desk to consult as needed.
“If someone makes an infraction, it’s the penal code that judges,” Saboun says.
There are fines in place for minor crimes – money that goes towards helping sustain the rebels, who do not earn salaries.
When a more serious crime is reported, such as murder or rape, the suspect is turned over to UN peacekeepers.
The local mayor, Saboun says proudly, comes to the FPRC if there is a problem or message to transmit.
“It’s us who has the people’s ear … People here don’t respect the mayor,” he said, breaking into belly-shaking giggles. “He doesn’t have a prison. People are scared of the prison.”
As he spoke, two of his “military police” dozed outside under a tree. One had his gun across his chest, rising slightly with each breath.
“The town is calm,” Saboun says, an explanation for the inactivity. “It’s good.”
‘We had to restore order’
Ndele’s current calm comes after years of turmoil and rebellions.
It was one of the first towns to fall when the Seleka – a predominantly Muslim rebel coalition – toppled the government in Bangui in 2013, killing and looting its way through the country.
Mostly Christian local defence groups – the Anti-balaka – rose up to fight them.
Thousands died in sectarian violence and a 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission was deployed to restore stability.
The Seleka were driven from power and splintered into factions, including what came to be the FPRC. Many have been fighting since.
“We needed to organise to fight the violence and drive it far from Ndele,” explained Dhafar Adoum, the FPRC’s coordinator in Ndele. “It was very, very, very hard work … With only the means that we had, we had to restore order.”
While the FPRC credits its security approach and community ties for their success, experts see additional factors at play.
Since gaining independence from France in 1960, CAR has been largely centralised with resources in and around the capital. That forced locals and armed groups to fill the void.
“Over the years [armed] groups got more organised and they became more and more structured,” CAR researcher Enrica Picco said. “It’s very striking – the very same state that they criticise and say they haven’t seen in their area, they imitate and copy.”
Despite a democratic election last year, the CAR government wields little to no control beyond Bangui. Some 80 percent of the country is controlled by armed groups – including the FPRC.
Geography is also a factor. Ndele is more than 600km from Bangui and is effectively cut off during the rainy season when routes are made impassable.
It helps that Ndele’s FPRC is largely local and thus has an interest in securing the home front.
Still, Ndele’s overall stability is striking amid a recent upsurge in violence across much of CAR.
A peaceful town amid conflict?
In recent months, attacks on civilians have reached levels not seen since conflict erupted in 2013.
The UN has expressed alarm over “early warning signs” of genocide, and more than 600,000 civilians have fled their homes.
News of the escalating crisis has reached Ndele, but here the same phrase is repeated almost as a mantra: The town is calm. This is a town of peace.
“Muslims and Christians live together here,” said Issene Mamout, an Arabic scholar who grew up in Ndele. “It’s rare … There are no problems.”
Pakistani peacekeepers deployed in Ndele frequently sport baseball caps instead of the typical blue helmets – a testament to the town’s relative security.
Once a week, FPRC representatives meet the UN peacekeeping mission and Tebefra, the local administrator, to discuss conflict prevention.
While the example of Ndele offers a glimpse of what happens when the state is absent, it also speaks to the challenges CAR’s government faces in reclaiming control of the country and pacifying armed conflict.
An FPRC official was recently named to a government cabinet position – and there’s much talk in Ndele about what that means. Some hope it will be the first step towards re-establishing central government’s authority in Ndele. Others dismiss the move as a sign that armed occupation and violence pays off.
“There is no state here. There is no state authority. It exists only in name,” one government employee told Al Jazeera, calling Ndele the “fief” of the FPRC.
He noted that CAR’s rebels are typically lawless “but here, it’s different,” he explained. “They observe the law here to the letter.”
Still, he had doubts.
“They have a parallel administration – it’s not normal,” he said.
Beyond the security realm, the FPRC is making inroads on other services in a country that ranks last on the human development index and where more than half the population needs assistance.
Even in Bangui, pot-holed roads turn to rivers in rainy-season showers, rubbish piles up on streets and most medical services are supported by NGOs.
In Ndele, FPRC members proudly point to the armed group’s support of the local hospital for proof of their civic-mindedness.
When one international NGO withdrew from the hospital, the FPRC said it stepped in – providing fuel, food and medicine. They encouraged locals to give blood when stocks ran low, offering donors Coke and sardines.
FPRC coordinator Adoum called it “humanitarian work” to “keep the hospital functioning”, but bristled at the idea of running the facility.
“That’s the state’s work – it’s not our job,” Adoum insisted. “We’re not trying to take the state’s place – just to try to respond to the immediate needs of the people.”
Signs of discontent
Ndele’s bustling market is filled with merchants selling manioc, onions and herbs. The smell of roasting beef and dried fish fills the air.
“Things are good here,” said Mahamat Amat, a 28-year-old bagging sugar. “Things are good.”
At the end of the month, FPRC members go stall to stall, collecting money from vendors in exchange for assuring security.
“They have a notebook and take a payment from everyone,” one coffee-seller told Al Jazeera.
Beneath all the talk of peace and security, there are signs of discontent.
Not everyone appreciates the FPRC’s presence. Locals whisper about the rebels stealing and levying illegal taxes.
“Sometimes, they climb the hill and wait for women coming back from the market and take their things,” one woman said in a low voice. “We are at peace but we’re not at ease because of the armed groups living among us … We can’t be free.”
Her friend jumped in with a rough whisper: “We hope they get disarmed. Then, we can finally be at ease.”
Their comments highlight an undercurrent running throughout Ndele, that peace isn’t everything.
“The problem is these are not people who are accountable to the citizens in any way,” explained Louisa Lombard, an assistant professor of anthropology at Yale who has authored a book on CAR. “They came into these roles by force.”
“There’s a real risk of abuse of power,” she added. “And do we really want to set the precedent that if you come in by force you can take things over?”
Does that mean the FPRC’s parallel state in Ndele should be discounted, especially in the context of CAR’s future?
“If you look at historical state-making processes and how states come into existence … in many cases it starts on a relatively localised level and then builds from there,” Lombard said.
‘We want government help’
On a sweltering September morning, Ndele celebrated the International Day of Peace with a parade and speeches from Tebefra and UN officials.
No FPRC members took to the platform, situated about a half-mile from their military base.
One young man in attendance expressed dismay over the current state of affairs – poverty, underdevelopment.
“We want the government to come to help us,” he said quietly. “For the moment, we are stuck between the armed men.”
At the FPRC base – two crumbling buildings with no windows, covered in rough drawings of AK-47s and helicopters – about a dozen FPRC soldiers in various states of camouflage lazed on a mat playing cards. One teased a rat tied to a stick.
When their commander arrived they jumped up, slapping arms by their sides in salute.
Commander Abdel Kani Mahamat Sallet said they’re taught discipline and human rights. Once a week, they do sports drills to stay fit for patrols.
“If there are enemies on the ground we need to chase them out,” he said. “Ndele is a model city because we want peace. We won’t allow anyone to come in and bring insecurity.”
His men – armed rebels – are not the threat.
“If the FPRC were dangerous, could you come here? Could you?”
Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.