By Ty McCormick, Africa editor at Foreign Policy
The highest-ranking anti-Balaka commander in Bambari is Gaitan Boade
A soft-spoken wisp of a man known around town as “Gen. Gaitan” or simply “The General.” He lives in a squat, tin-roofed abode some 200 yards off the main road leading to Bangui, on the west bank of the Ouaka River. The house is surrounded by a thatched bamboo fence of medium height and guarded by a small army of foot soldiers, one of whom appeared at the front gate wearing the anti-Balaka’s signature gris-gris, or good-luck charm, around his neck and cradling an AK-47. He greeted me with a nod and pealed back the worn tarp that doubled as Gaitan’s door. It was stamped “UNICEF” in faded blue letters.
The general was seated in a plastic chair in the courtyard, dressed in maroon chinos and an Arnold Palmer golf shirt with breathable mesh underarms. I had expected him to deliver a philippic against the ex-Seleka, which he did eventually, but the first words out of his mouth after a brusque salutation were directed at another target: “At the beginning, we thought the MINUSCA came here to protect everyone,” he said. “But now we can see that they are corrupt and support only one side.”
The general was deeply aggrieved by what he saw as the partisan peacekeeping of the Congolese contingent. “They can get away with things I cannot,” he said, referring to the ex-Seleka fighters, whose abuses against Christian civilians, Gaitan claimed, went mostly unpunished. He was particularly incensed by the uneven enforcement of the “arms-free zone” Zlatko had told me about. “When [MINUSCA peacekeepers] see a Christian with a simple knife, they will disarm him and make a lot of trouble,” he said. “But when people are killed on the other side, they do not react.”
The way Gaitan saw it, the conduct of the Congolese peacekeepers risked igniting a conflict beyond the scale of anything Bambari has yet experienced. The ex-Seleka had been allowed to loot the homes of Christians and occupy their villages, he told me. Now the mostly Muslim rebels, many of whom Gaitan claimed were foreign, were allowed to flaunt their weapons in plain sight of U.N. peacekeepers, while many Christians were banished to displacement camps on the west bank of the Ouaka. “We are very upset with the U.N.,” he told me. “They have the means to stop this problem, but they are doing nothing. If the U.N. keeps doing nothing, the population will be killed, bit by bit.”
The general paused to flick a large green insect off his chinos. It hurtled wildly toward the ground before reversing course in midair and alighting in a nearby tree.
“One day, we will start a big war,” he said.
I asked what would need to happen in order to avoid more bloodshed. Gaitan told me the ex-Seleka would need to go. “We want them to leave. They are foreigners. There are even some jihadists there,” he said, motioning across the river. “Their intention is to control the whole province and take taxes from all the mines and the coffee.” If it weren’t for the anti-Balaka, he said, “all of the Christian civilians would have fled to the bush.”
Like Hamat on the other side of the Ouaka, Gaitan insisted that the anti-Balaka were fighting for the security of all Central Africans. “Once the foreigners leave, we will be able to live in harmony with the Central African Muslims,” he said.
In addition to ridding Bambari of foreign fighters, the general said it was imperative to proceed with disarmament, especially before Central Africans vote to replace the current transitional government, which has been in place since the Seleka coalition was eased out of power in 2014. (The current U.N.-backed transition plan calls for elections before the end of the year.) If the vote is held before the various militias are disarmed, he said, “there will be contestation and some fighting could take place. There are not many Muslims, so the country will vote for a Christian. Maybe the Muslims will start fighting again.”
This is a concern shared by many in the international community. The 464,000 Central Africans living as refugees in neighboring countries are disproportionately Muslim — as high as 93 percent in Cameroon. The transitional parliament initially voted to bar refugees from casting ballots on the grounds that registering them could invite electoral fraud. “You have many foreigners among the refugee populations,” Gina Michèle Sanzé, a member of the transitional parliament, told me. “It is impossible to tell who is Central African and who is not.” But CAR’s highest court struck down the parliament’s decision, and efforts are underway to register eligible voters in most refugee camps. Still, there is a risk that the country’s already marginalized Muslim minority may feel further disenfranchised in a vote that proceeds even as new traumas unfold. This, in turn, could feed into the same sense of alienation that fueled the rise of the Seleka and other rebel groups before it. “Exclusionary and botched elections are likely to trigger additional waves of sectarian violence,” E.J. Hogendoorn, the deputy Africa director at the International Crisis Group, said in a recent statement calling for the postponement of elections.
This is not an idle fear. When I spoke with Dhaffane, the former Seleka second vice president, he told me it was likely his former coalition partners, including UPC leader Ali Darassa, would refuse to lay down their weapons in the absence of a fair vote. “If they keep feeling persecuted, there is a risk they will keep on fighting,” he said. “If the refugees are not included in the vote, it will be one more exclusion, one more reason not to trust the government, one more reason not to put down your arms.”
Yet the international community, led by France, has proceeded with the farce that elections must take place by the end of the year
— before any meaningful disarmament can be accomplished. Funding from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund will dry up at the end of the year, U.N. officials warn, and an extension of the transitional government would precipitate a constitutional crisis. “We cannot wait. The elections will take place still this year in good time and will be correct,” Ladsous, the head of U.N. peacekeeping operations, said in September. He added that there will be no extension of the transitional government. “Transition is exactly what it means. It ends — and everybody agrees on that — on the 31st of December.”
It is true that postponing the election would generate a host of logistical problems. But just as important, analysts say, is that there is little appetite for additional investment in CAR. The world champion of peacekeeping missions has worn out its welcome with international donors, who did their best to avoid upgrading the African Union force to a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the first place. (The United States, which funds a quarter of the total U.N. peacekeeping budget, initially resisted the authorization of blue helmets for budgetary reasons.) France, meanwhile, has been humiliated by the allegations of sexual abuse and is desperate to wind down a mission that has already dragged on much longer than intended. The French “never really wanted to be there, and they don’t think they can afford it,” said Wohlers, the former U.S. ambassador to CAR. He added that the international community
“always pushes for elections because that’s a clear marker that we’ve accomplished something, and it allows us to start saying we can withdraw our troops and normalize.”
The result is that disarmament — known in U.N. parlance as “DDR,” for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration — almost certainly won’t happen before the elections. And given existing budgetary constraints, it probably won’t ever happen on anything approaching the scale that is needed. Yet Gen. Gaitan was holding out hope that some funding for DDR would eventually come through. As a result, he seemed eager to show me how many of his fighters had been cantoned in a nearby military facility. “They are all ready for disarmament,” he told me. “We have already removed the weapons from the arms-free zone, but the next step is that the MINUSCA must assume responsibility for the fighters.”
The following day, I went with Gaitan to see the cantoned fighters myself. We arrived at the anti-Balaka base, an old cement barracks that once belonged to government gendarmes, just as the morning mist was beginning to melt off the overhanging foliage. A few bleary-eyed rebels appeared at the shutterless windows, but nobody came to the door. It seemed that most of the fighters had already left for the day. Perhaps they had never been there at all.
As I stood surveying the scene, the general began shouting furiously in Sango. He seized a length of bamboo and beat it forcefully into the earth. At first, I had no idea what was happening. The fighters at the window snapped to attention. Then they scurried off into the bush. It was only when they returned a few moments later with more young men in tow that I started to catch on.
Gaitan was angry that his men had abandoned their post, not least because a reporter was there to document their readiness to disarm. On our way over, he claimed to have more than 1,500 fighters, spread out over close to a dozen bases. Even after his men had returned with reinforcements, however, we were looking at less than 30 troops. They stood awkwardly in rows, one fighter in a camouflage overcoat and the rest in civilian garb. To a man, they wore plastic sandals on their feet. Gaitan proceeded to give a long-winded speech about discipline, the gist of which was that ex-Seleka fighters had bested them on this front.
“How can we face the UPC when they are a real army and we are not even maintaining an orderly base?” he said to the assembled men at one point.
The general was still fuming on the way back to his home. We exchanged a few words about the accessibility of weapons — Gaitan said his men could be ready for combat “within minutes,” even though their arsenal had been moved outside the arms-free zone — but otherwise we walked in silence. The same guard with the gris-gris pulled back the UNICEF tarp when we arrived. He seemed surprised to see me, shooting a blanched look at the general as we entered. On the ground at his feet, a young man lay writhing in agony. His elbows and ankles were bound behind his back with a single length of rope, his spine arched dangerously in the wrong direction. It was a form of torture known as arbatasher, and done long enough, it can lead to paralysis and death.
I glanced up at Gaitan to see if he shared the guard’s unease at my presence. If he was concerned about being observed in the commission of a war crime, he did not show it. “Discipline is very important,” he said, motioning to the prostrate fighter. “This man stole my pistol, so he must be punished.”
I asked if the fighter could please be untied. The general laughed, and some of his men joined in. I was suddenly very aware of the potential for things to go wrong. My translator stopped relaying my pleas on behalf of the bound fighter, and I sensed that he was concerned that I might anger Gaitan. On the scale of abuses committed by the anti-Balaka, after all, this was relatively mild.
It was at that point that I remembered the camera that hung around my neck. I unscrewed the lens cap and began snapping photographs. Perhaps the general would not want the scene documented and order the man’s release. But I took dozens of photographs before one of the other fighters ambled over and began to grapple with the knot. Several times he yanked cruelly on the rope, causing the bound fighter to cry out in pain.
When he was finally freed, Gaitan ordered the young man to beat the trunk of a tree with both hands. His arms were dislocated from the arbatasher and swung uselessly against its girth. Tears poured down his cheeks as I clicked away with my Nikon.