Militia leaders trade rhetoric in Central African Republic
Much of state has been laid waste and a fifth of population ethnically cleansed
Members of the mainly Christian “anti-balaka” militia stand guard in the Boeing neighbourhood of Bangui, Central African Republic. Photograph: Getty Images
Members of the ex-Seleka rebels pose with wooden weapons in front of late Centrafrican emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa’s palace in Beringo last month. Photograph: Getty Images
Edouard Ngaissouna and Abdel Kader Khaled boast grand titles – “national co-ordinator,” “vice-president,” “general”. The letterhead on Ngaissouna’s missives to foreign embassies is even embellished with the dove of peace, with a rose in its beak.
Don’t be fooled by their airs and graces. Ngaissouna and Khaled are among the leaders of the Christian anti-balaka and Muslim Seleka militias, which have over the past year and a half laid waste to much of the Central African Republic and ethnically cleansed a fifth of its population.
Years ago, Ngaissouna, now “national co-ordinator” for the anti-balaka, used his position in the tax administration to land government contracts for his construction and import company. The popularity he built by giving sports matches and equipment to the desperate youth of Bangui secured his position in the anti-balaka.
Ngaissouna’s house and giant warehouse in the anti-balaka stronghold of Boy-Rabe were sacked by the Seleka. I meet him in his father’s house, next to an Evangelical church. Ngaissouna has the physique of a mastiff. When he is angered by a question, his voice rises in speed and volume to an unintelligible torrent.
I meet Gen Abdel Kader Khaled on the terrace of the Libyan-owned Ledger Hotel, a centre of Central African Republic intrigue, frequented by diplomats, military brass, aid agencies, journalists. He is tall and thin, wears a tailored blue suit and white satin shirt with jewelled cufflinks. The scent of his eau de cologne is overpowering.
Khaled is vice-president of the UFDR, one of several northern parties and the principal armed group in the Seleka alliance. He was minister-councillor in the cabinet of Michel Djotodia, the Seleka leader who seized power in March 2013 and was overthrown by anti-balaka forces in January 2014.
The Seleka have been partially disarmed by French peacekeepers and scattered to the east and north of the country. “I still have 2,293 men,” Khaled says proudly. “They are my fighters.”
Anti-balaka have assassinated many Seleka leaders. Alleged Seleka members have been lynched on the streets of Bangui. The home of Khaled’s close ally, the former Seleka minister for youth and sports, was attacked by anti-balaka on Saturday night. Yet Khaled lives openly in the Ledger Hotel. It’s a mystery that no one has gone after him.
The militiamen who hover around Ngaissouna address him as “excellency” and “your honour”. He was twice a deputy in the national assembly, and minister for sports and youth in the government of François Bozizé, who was overthrown by Djotodia.
Ngaissouna is widely viewed as a frontman for Bozizé, who waits in exile to return to power. He fulminates against the French for putting Bozizé – but not Djotodia – on a list of Central Africans whose assets should be frozen and travel restricted.
The conflict between anti-balaka and Seleka is a continuation of the power struggle between Bozizé and Djotodia. Civilians pay the price, as militias attack communities associated with their enemies.
The anti-balaka are growing in power, and the failure of international peacekeepers to disarm them is a burning issue. Asked if he would accept disarmament, Ngaissouna replies, “Let’s start by disarming all the Seleka”.
Khaled complains that “the French disarmed the Seleka and left them unprotected, so the anti-balaka could catch them and kill them”.
Ngaissouna objects to the anti-balaka being called a “militia”. “We’re a self-defence group, a popular emanation,” he huffs.
I ask Khaled if it’s true he’s of Chadian origin. “Why do you ask me that?” he snaps back defensively. Yes, he admits. “And Barack Obama is of Kenyan origin. But you don’t identify him that way. One shouldn’t talk of these things right now. It creates hatred.”
The official position of the anti-balaka, as related by Ngaissouna, is that Muslims who hold CAR citizenship, real Central Africans, can stay. All “foreign mercenaries” – Chadians and Sudanese – must go. In practice, the anti-balaka have been efficient ethnic cleansers, killing or driving out Muslims without distinction.
Anti-balaka militiamen carry Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders and grenades in their pockets. At checkpoints, they wear an ersatz combination of army uniforms and civilian clothing. Their arms, wrists and necks are wrapped in “gris-gris”, amulets on leather cords.
“They come from the village,” Ngaissouna says of the “gris- gris”. “It’s protection against the enemy, against the mercenaries.”
Does Ngaissouna wear gris- gris? “I am spiritually protected by God,” he says, adding in the same breath: “I am secular.” He objects to the anti-balaka being called Christian. “We have Peuhls among us,” he says, referring to a mostly Muslim ethnic group of cattle farmers. “All the people of CAR are anti-balaka. The hearts of Central Africans are anti-balaka. We have between 60,000 and 70,000 fighters.”
Khaled claims the Seleka can count on between 50,000 and 60,000 men. His enemies in the anti-balaka are weakened, he says, by divisions among leaders – often former CAR army officers – as well as the excesses of “riff-raff” who joined for loot and thrills.
“We were not more than 5,000 when we left northern CAR [in December 2012],” Khaled says. “By the time we reached Bangui, we were 28,000. Djotodia could not control them. Now the same delinquents have joined the anti-balaka. That’s very dangerous.”
Against all the evidence, Ngaissouna says there are no criminal elements in the anti-balaka.
Ngaissouna says the Seleka are preparing a counter-offensive to overthrow CAR’s interim government. Khaled is believed to be negotiating for a powersharing arrangement. If it doesn’t work out, he tells me, the Seleka will keep fighting.
The CAR has been in a continuous downward spiral for the past 36 years, says a long-time French resident, who interprets the violence of recent days as an attempt to destabilise President Catherine Samba Panza’s interim government and destroy the credibility of international peacekeepers.
It’s alarming, he says, that fighting is no longer restricted to Muslim enclaves.
“There are people who want the country to continue falling apart, so they can take power,” the Frenchman continues. “They don’t mind breaking the country if they can be president.”