The capital Bangui is sinking back into violence. The government wants to disband Muslim self-defense militias in the city.
"Bandits are taking the population hostage," President Touadera said Wednesday (archive photo) Photo: Imago/Pacific Press Agency
It’s the worst crisis in the Central African Republic since President-elect Faustin Touadera took office two years ago, and it could bring down the entire fragile edifice of international military intervention and state-building in the capital, Bangui, again. Since last weekend, the government, along with UN blue helmets, has been trying to crush Muslim militias in Bangui’s last remaining Muslim-inhabited neighborhood. Several dozen deaths and several days of fighting have resulted.
"Bandits are taking the population hostage," President Touadera said Wednesday after angry residents of the PK5 (Kilometer Five) district dumped at least 15 bodies outside the headquarters of the country’s U.N. mission – victims, the 1,500 protesters said, of U.N. gunfire on civilians. "During the election campaign, President Touadera promised us that no Muslim would be harmed if we voted for him. We did, and here is the result," one of the protesters declared.
The background to the new tensions is the bloody massacres and mass expulsions of Muslims in the Central African Republic in the first half of 2014. In March 2013, a Muslim rebel alliance called Seleka, which had advanced from the northeast of the country, had conquered Bangui and established a regime of terror there; supporters of the ousted Christian president Francois Bozize organized themselves in militias with the collective name "Anti-Balaka" against the Muslims. As the violence escalated, the old colonial power, France, intervened militarily and ensured the resignation of the Seleka government in favor of a transitional regime protected by African intervention troops. Meanwhile, several thousand Muslims were killed by anti-Balaka militias and tens of thousands were driven out, often in targeted pogroms. In Bangui, only the PK5 neighborhood, dominated by Muslim traders and with a population of about 15,000, remained. The traders there organized self-defense militias.
The newly elected Touadera government has been trying for two years to get militias to disband, at least in Bangui-the rest of the country remains largely a civil war zone. In PK5, there were several of these militias, which over the years increasingly functioned as mafia-like racketeers.
Nimery Matar Djamous
"If they want war, we will fight".
The largest group was and is that of warlord Nimery Matar Djamous, aka "Force," who sees himself as fighting street crime and claims to hold in check two warlords considered more radical with the war names "Big Man" and "50/50." "50/50" represents Muslim displaced persons from other neighborhoods who demand to return; "Force" represents more long-established residents of PK5. A report from early 2017 described how "Force" had turned its residence in PK5 into a fortress, with a five-meter-high watchtower and a French flag on a pole.
For several months, PK5 traders have not wanted to pay the self-defense groups, and the UN Mission in the Central African Republic (Minusca) set an ultimatum until the end of March for them to disband. Since its expiration, U.N. blue helmets have twice tried to occupy PK5 and the militias’ camps, to no avail. "If they want war, we will fight," "Force" had said, addressing the UN.
Crisis threatens to spread
Fighting Sunday cost the life of one U.N. soldier from Rwanda, plus 15 to 21 civilian casualties. Muslim armed groups have lost confidence in the government and accuse it of being in cahoots with armed Christian groups. Their mistrust is directed above all against the fact that the government army, which is still in the process of being formed, has recently been trained to a large extent by Russia. Russian advisors were reportedly seen alongside government soldiers in the recent fighting in PK5.
The new crisis threatens to spread. In several towns in the east of the country controlled by former Seleka rebels, their respective rulers declared a state of alert Wednesday and set up barricades. The UN had to cancel numerous flights from Bangui to the interior for security reasons.