In 2013, a largely Muslim coalition of rebel movements known as Séléka, supported by mercenaries from Chad and Sudan, took the town of Bossangoa. In response, the Anti-balaka emerged as a movement of mostly armed civilians. As the conflict evolved, the Anti-balaka grew and in turn committed widespread attacks and abuses against CAR’s Muslim population. As a result, most of the Muslim population of Bossangoa were forced to leave the town and surrounding areas.
In recent years, Bossangoa and its immediate surroundings have been relatively peaceful, but the Muslim population remains displaced and trust between the two communities is low. Former combatants remain present – and connected – within and around Bossangoa, and any perceived threat to the community could result in renewed mobilisation.
Alongside our partners Association pour l’Action Humanitaire en Centrafrique (AAHC), we conducted a Listening Exercise with young people from Bossangoa about their reasons for joining Anti-balaka and their experience since leaving the group.
Breaking a cycle of violence
The potential for re-recruitment into Anti-balaka is ever present. Our conversations with young people have shown that what drove the formation of the Anti-balaka were the abuses committed by the Séléka armed groups. Nearly all of the young people we spoke to said they joined the group, not for political or financial motivations, but to defend their community against Séléka attacks or to avenge the death of a family member.
This was largely with the support, or even at the insistence, of other family members, with community protection often being expected of young people. There seemed to be a commonly understood cycle in Bossangoa of moving from peaceful family life into violence in response to threats to the community. This is, by implication a cycle that could be repeated.
To break this cycle of remobilisation and re-recruitment there is a need to work in parallel with young people and those who may encourage them to rejoin the armed fight, such as local Anti-balaka commanders, local community leaders, religious leaders and individual family members.
There also needs to be community-wide conversations which demonstrates how young people can use dialogue and mediation to promote security in their community, rather than violence. Such strategies would need to be informed by an in-depth understanding of the role that social and gendered perceptions and expectations play in incentivising young people to join armed groups and in justifying violence as part of the Anti-balaka group.
Rebuilding divided communities
‘Peace’ in Bossangoa has become synonymous with the absence of Muslim communities from the region. There is a real risk of remobilisation and re-recruitment in the event of a poorly managed or accelerated return of displaced Muslim refugees. The current inhabitants of Bossangoa, as well as displaced and refugee communities, need space to recognise and address the legacies of past violence, and opportunities for these divided communities to come together.
The Comités de mise en oeuvre préféctoral (CMOP) are part of the infrastructure put in place to implement the peace agreement between the government of CAR and 14 armed groups in 2019. It includes Muslim armed group commanders, and is a unique space in Ouham prefecture, in which representatives of both communities already come together. If managed sensitively it could provide an entry point through which future inter-community dialogue and reconciliation initiatives could be explored.
The CMOP could also be an important platform for linking the experiences of young people associated with Anti-balaka to the national peace process. The Listening Exercise showed that the motives for young people to join Anti-balaka groups were overwhelmingly local, as opposed to the national political ambitions or grievances that some leaders of the group claim. Bridging this gap between the national peace process and the experience of young people is critical, as national-level settlements will have little traction if local drivers of violence are not addressed in parallel. If supported adequately, the CMOP has the potential to become a platform which can listen to young people and support community-based peace structures to address local drivers of mobilisation and violence, while also linking these experiences to the national peace process.
A sustainable peace is possible in Bossangoa, but the region’s divided communities need the space to explore what happened in the past, and reflect on how they can prepare for the future together.
Read more in our new report Young people and armed groups in the Central African Republic: Voices from Bossangoa.
Image: Young Anti-balaka fighters on the road. © Marcus Bleasdale