Nation: "M. Touadera, the armed groups have no reason to disarm. They take advantage of the conflt, "says Lewis Mudge of HRW!

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Last year, the election of President Faustin-Archange Touadera gave rise to hope for a real change in the Central African Republic (CAR). However, 12 months later, the new head of state has still not managed to extend its authority beyond the capital, Bangui, and the rest of the country remains plunged in chaos. Last month, Fatimatou Issa and his relatives were directly witnesses of this violence. Even if they had heard rumors of disturbances for several days, they did not have time to react when the ex-Seleka rebels arrived.
At first they thought they had come to fight other rebels. Then, seeing the bullets whistling all over Mbourchou, a village in the prefecture of Ouaka mainly inhabited by members of the Fulani ethnic group, they understood who they were targeting. « They arrived in vehicles and started shooting everywhere, » said Issa, 26. « My husband wanted to react to protect the community, but he was shot in the head. Mrs. Issa told us her story, standing in front of a fragile hut of straw and bamboo, sweating in the dusty heat. After the attack, she took refuge in the Bishop’s camp for displaced persons in Bambari, a small neighboring commercial town made of streets of red earth and houses of bricks and mud and located 400 kilometers from Bangui. « Many families have not received anything, » said community leader Mohammadou Saibou, who fled the same attack. « When we arrived, the Red Cross gave us food, but there was not enough for everyone.  »
Aggravation of the crisis
One year after a democratic election that had given hope to the opening of a new era in CAR, the situation deteriorates. Armed groups control the vast majority of the country and civilians such as Ms. Issa and Mr. Saibou are the main victims. The resurgence of hostilities between rebel groups in the Ouaka and Upper Kotto prefectures in central and eastern DRC is now threatening Bambari, the second largest city in the CAR.
These clashes, as well as those in Kaga-Bandoro in the north and Ouham-Pendé in the north-west, have caused more than 411,000 people to leave their homes – a record since the onset of the crisis . In 2013, the conflict between Seleka, a coalition of rebel groups from the north, mostly Muslim, that overthrew former President François Bozizé in a coup, and the anti-balaka, a network of militias, Christian self-defense appeared to resist him. The dynamics are not the same today. After a de facto partition between the Christians in the south and the Muslims in the north, the hostilities between the two groups decreased. They were replaced by an explosion of fratricidal clashes between different Seleka factions, which were dissolved and expelled from Bangui in 2014. « Instead of the so-called Christian-Muslim logic that prevailed at the beginning of the conflict, we now see Muslim groups fighting against other Muslim groups. The community is divided along ethnic lines and the various groups compete for control over the territory, « said Richard Moncrieff, director of the Central Africa project of the International Crisis Group (ICG).
In the prefectures of Ouaka and Upper Kotto, the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC), dominated by Muslims from the Fulani ethnic group, and a coalition of rebels led by the Popular Front for the Revival of the Central African Republic (FPRC), mainly composed of Muslims from the Gula and Runga communities, compete for control. The UPC and the FPRC split up in 2014, after the leader of the FPRC Noureddine Adam claimed independence from the north of the CAR, a region with a Muslim majority, an initiative disapproved by the leader of UPC Ali Darassa. Tensions escalated when Darassa opposed the FPRC’s attempts to unify the ex-Seleka factions in October and became critical one month later as a result of clashes in the vicinity of A gold mine in Ndassima.
An ethnic conflict
Since then, the conflict has acquired an ethnic character: both groups have indeed targeted the civilians associated with their opponents. The attack by the FPRC against the village of Mrs. Issa and Mr. Saibou occurred after an even more brutal assault in Bria, 100 kilometers to the east. Between 21 and 23 November, the group segregated and massacred the Fulani, a traditionally nomadic group whose members are falsely considered « foreigners » or « Chadians ». According to Mr. Saibou, who worked as a trader before fleeing the FPRC, this argument makes no sense. « Our community has always been there, even before independence, » he said, as a group of men prayed beside him. « Why do they say we are not from here? » The Fulani who remained in Bria are now trapped in enclaves. It is increasingly feared that the city of Bambari will face a similar or worse situation.
RPF forces are now approaching the city from Ippy in the northeast and Bakala in the north-west. They want to dislodge the UPC, « free the country from foreign armed groups » and make Bambari the capital of an independent state called the Republic of Logone, or Dar al-Kuti. The UPC is trying to prevent their advance, but in doing so, the group itself commits atrocities. According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, its members reportedly executed 32 civilians and captured several fighters in December in Bakala. About 10,000 civilians fled to neighboring cities of Mbrés, Grimali and Bambari. Several thousand others camp in the bush. « They arrived on a Sunday afternoon. They also attacked the Christian community and the Gula, « said Christine Passio, a 45-year-old Christian who fled Bakala last December. She lives today in a straw hut near the Bambari airstrip. She survives thanks to the meager rations that she keeps preciously in a canvas bag. « We did not have time to take our things. We walked for three weeks in the bush carrying our children. We had nothing to eat, « she said.
For the moment, Bambari is spared the conflict. But the clashes between the two groups have poisoned relations within the Muslim community of the city. The UPC members target the Gula and the Runga, whom they consider to be sympathetic to the FPRC. « This is the first time we have seen this kind of division within the Muslim community, » said a humanitarian worker who asked to remain anonymous. « Whenever there is a convoy to Bria or Bangui, [the Gula and Runga] take advantage of the opportunity to leave. Others took refuge on the Christian side of Bambari.  »
The enemy of my enemy
Sitting at the back of the small Catholic Church of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, which also serves as a camp for displaced Christians, Zoyondonko Sogala Deya, a 32-year-old Gula, is remarkably calm. Until recently, this father of three children would not have dreamed of setting foot in this zone, located in the middle of the districts of the city controlled by the anti-balaka. But after his house was plundered by UPC fighters last month, Deya said he had no choice but to seek refuge with the Christian community. When asked if he was worried about living among anti-balaka, he shook his head. « I feel much better here with the Christians than there with the Muslims, » he said. « We are all afraid of the UPC. Mr. Deya’s confidence in the anti-balaka is not as strange as it seems, at least for now. In and around Bambari, anti-Balaka elements sealed an opportunistic alliance with the FPRC fighters in order to share with them the spoils of war or simply to expel the Fulani from the CAR. The two groups were sworn enemies only a few months ago.
Marcelin Orogbo, secretary-general of the anti-balaka in Ouaka, said that all he wants is to « hunt Ali Darassa », sitting in a restaurant near his house, west of Bambari. While descending bottles of Mokaf, a beer brewed in Bangui, he praised the FPRC fighters for their « discipline » and maintained that their goal in Bambari was simply to « expel the UPC. »
It remains to be seen how long this alliance will last. When IRIN spoke of the declared goal of the FPRC to divide the country, Orogbo quickly reacted by saying, « If they go beyond their goal of getting rid of Darassa, we will not accept it. We are strictly against the division of the country. The CAR must remain united. « 
The United Nations peacekeeping force in CAR, UNMISCA, is expected to carry out two separate offensives to stem the wave of violence in central and eastern CAR, with approximately 13,000 troops and police. This is one of the biggest challenges it has faced so far. The mission has been criticized for its inaction, although its mandate is essentially to protect civilians. MINUSCA traced « red lines » on the roads leading to Bambari to prevent the advance of the RPF. She also launched an ultimatum calling the UPC fighters who are in the city from. « We are ready, willing and able to take control of the city. And we will do it, « said the head of the UN office in Ouaka Alain Sitchet, in a confident tone. « Bambari will be a city without arms.  »
Not everyone is as optimistic. The FPRC has already crossed a « red line » and, according to a well-informed source, its fighters bypass the positions of MINUSCA on the main roads and advance towards Bambari through the bush.
Reports have suggested that Ali Darassa had left Bambari. The city still houses UPC fighters dressed in civilian clothes. Others continue to fight the FPRC in neighboring towns and villages. In an earlier interview with IRIN, Darassa – an imposing figure dressed in a white dress sitting on a plastic chair deliberately showed himself ambiguous about his future plans. « If the civilian population wants me to leave, I will leave, » he said, adding that the protection of the Fulani population of Bambari remained his priority.
The dilemma of Touadera
As for the central government, it seems virtually impotent. This shows that « a relatively well-accepted election allows the establishment of a legitimate government in Bangui, but it does not allow much more, » Moncrieff said. In order to contain the various armed groups, President Tuadera, a former mathematics professor, initiated a dialogue on disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR). But past DDR programs in the CAR have failed and few are optimistic about the current initiative. The FPRC, a new armed group based in Ouham-Pendé called Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation (better known as 3R) and anti-balaka under the command of Maxime Mokom all boycotted the process. All the measures taken by the groups of ex-Seka to disarm have been « purely symbolic, » said Lewis Mudge, researcher at Human Rights Watch. « Just think about it for a moment to understand that these groups have no reason to disarm, » he added. « They take advantage of the conflict. The UPC may be in a defensive position, but the FPRC and the Patriotic Movement for the Central African Republic (another group from the former Séléka) are taking advantage of the conflict.  »
The real grievances at the root of the conflict have not received the attention they deserve, according to Moncrieff. « The total lack of economic opportunities in the provinces and the issue of citizenship are the two main problems, » he said. « Many people feel that they are second-class citizens and that they are completely marginalized by the political classes in Bangui.  »
Although rich in minerals, the CAR has been underdeveloped for decades. Persistent violence is also aggravating poverty, with half of the 4.6 million people already dependent on humanitarian aid.

Philip Kleinfeld Freelance journalist

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