Two Central African Republic militia groups said on Friday, December 14 they were withdrawing from a disarmament programme following the arrest of one of their leaders.
The decision to pull out was triggered by the arrest in France on Wednesday on war crimes charges of Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona, a former minister and current member of the executive board of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), Africa’s top footballing body.
Both groups belong to the anti-Balaka movement, a group of nominally Christian vigilante units set up in 2013 to counter the Seleka coalition of Muslim-majority rebel groups following their ousting of President Francois Bozize. Seleka was officially disbanded within months, but many fighters refused to disarm, becoming known as ex-Seleka.
Since then, a spiral of violence between rival groups along both religious and ethnic lines has left thousands dead, and CAR is de facto partitioned – anti-Balaka in the southwest and ex-Seleka in the northeast.
Nearly 700,000 people are displaced, 570,000 have fled the country and 2.5 million are in need of humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations.
President Faustin-Archange Touadera’s weak government only controls around a fifth of the country and relies heavily on the Minusca peacekeeping mission for support.
Anti-Balaka militants have been blamed for some recent attacks on United Nations peacekeepers. In August, a Burundian peacekeeper was killed in an ambush, and in May, a Mauritanian peacekeeper was killed and eight others injured.
As part of efforts to end the bloodshed, President Faustin-Archange Touadera’s government began a pilot disarmament programme in August 2017, with the U.N. saying in October that six groups had so far committed to it.
But the two anti-Balaka groups said they were withdrawing their support for the national plan for Disarmament, Demobilisation, Reintegration and Repatriation (DDRR) after the arrest of Ngaissona for acting as a coordinator for the militias.
Ngaissona was the “most senior leader and the ‘National General Coordinator’ of the Anti-Balaka” and therefore responsible for crimes, the International Criminal Court said.
The ICC warrant refers to “alleged criminal responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the west of Central African Republic” between September 2013 and December 2014.
The crimes include murder, torture, mutilation, intentionally targeting and displacing civilians, pillaging and enlisting child soldiers, the ICC said.
Ngaissona has described himself as the “political coordinator” of the anti-Balaka groups.
In 2015, he was barred from running in CAR’s presidential elections over concerns about his role in the violence, but has previously said that “everything I’ve done has been for the good of my country.”
War crimes arrests denounced as ‘witch-hunt’
“We see that only the anti-Balaka are tried and sentenced,” said the militia group which is headed by Ngaissona in announcing its withdrawal from the DDRR process.
A second group, led by Maxime Mokom, denounced Ngaissona’s arrest as a “witch-hunt” and also said it was pulling out of the programme.
“We have shown good faith, we have initiated dialogue, we do not understand,” anti-Balaka coordinator Dieudonne Ndomate told AFP. “People in the [Bangui] neighbourhoods are furious.”
But another anti-Balaka leader, Sebastien Wenezoui – who is also Ngaissona’s spokesperson – called for restraint.
“We will stick to the African Union’s peace process,” he said, saying that the anti-Balaka emerged “in response to the Seleka atrocities.”
He said Ngaissona’s arrest amounted to “incitement to rebel against the current regime” which was why he was called on “all the anti-Balaka militia groups to show restraint”.
Despite his call, groups of angry anti-Balaka supporters could be seen gathering on the streets in two districts of Bangui, several sources said.
Ngaissona’s arrest came just weeks after another former anti-Balaka leader – Alfred Yekatom, known as Rambo – was arrested and extradited to the ICC in The Hague, creating a growing sense of resentment among the militia groups.
Despite being under U.N. sanctions, Yekatom was elected as an MP in 2016. He was arrested in September after he fired a gun in parliament during an altercation with another MP. His extradition was the first to the ICC from CAR.
He faces 14 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, mutilation, torture, cruel treatment and recruiting child soldiers into his anti-Balaka militia group.
The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) recently welcomed the arrests.
“Ngaissona is a major anti-Balaka leader. After the arrests of Rambo and Ngaissona, the ICC must now also deal with the ex-Seleka leaders,” said Pierre Brunisso, FIDH coordinator in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic.
With reporting from AFP