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Amid a rebel offensive, a push for justice in Central African Republic

‘If justice is not served, it might encourage others to take weapons, to earn power and money.’

The photo shows a scattered crowd of people sitting in chairs watching the screening, which is out of view.
A screening of the opening of the ICC trial of two Central African Republic militia leaders took place in Bangui on 16 February. Community leaders and victims associations were among those in attendance. (Adrienne Surprenant/TNH)

A trial of two militia leaders accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Central African Republic at the International Criminal Court is prompting hope of justice for victims of past conflicts, even as a new wave of violence sweeps the country.

Alfred Yekatom, known as “Rambo”, and Patrice-Édouard Ngaïssona are accused of directing attacks on civilians by the anti-Balaka, a largely Christian and animist militia that emerged in CAR in 2013 to counter the Séléka, a mainly Muslim alliance of northern rebels who had ousted former president François Bozizé.

The trial at The Hague of the anti-Balaka leaders – whose fighters indiscriminately targeted Muslims they considered complicit with the Séléka – is the first before the ICC involving crimes committed during this past phase of CAR’s ongoing conflict.

Watching the opening of the trial on Tuesday on a screen in CAR’s capital, Bangui, Étienne Oumba, from the Central African United Victims Association, told The New Humanitarian: “We were waiting, discouraged, for this moment to happen. Today, it is Rambo and Ngaïssona, but tomorrow it will be more tormentors that will be arrested and brought to justice.”

Euphrasie Yandoka, a rape survivor, victim of the anti-Balaka, and founder of the National Association to Support Women, told TNH it hadn’t been easy for victims of sexual violence, but these proceedings would now show perpetrators they can no longer get away with it. “Today healed my heart,” she said. “I felt as if being at sea, freshened by the waves. Tonight, I will finally sleep without a headache.”

A former commander of the Séléka, Mahamat Saïd Abdel Kani, was also taken into custody by the ICC last month following an arrest warrant issued by the court in January 2019. Accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2013, he will be the first Séléka leader to face trial at the ICC.

The opening of the Yekatom/Ngaïssona trial – and the arrest of Saïd – come as armed groups that once made up the Séléka and anti-Balaka have joined forces to topple the current president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who won a second term in office following contested elections in December 2020.

More than 200,000 people have been displaced by the latest outbreak of violence, which UN officials, rights groups, and local residents say is partly fuelled by a culture of impunity in the country.

Read more → In Central African Republic, disputed polls spark a rebel offensive

Rather than face criminal prosecution, several rebel leaders received positions in government following a peace deal they signed with CAR’s authorities in February 2019, although some have since been dismissed due to their involvement in the latest rebellion.

“People need to be held accountable for their actions,” Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the archbishop of Bangui, told TNH. “If justice is not served, it might encourage others to take weapons, to earn power and money.”

Who is standing trial and what are they accused of?

Alfred Yekatom is alleged to have commanded approximately 3,000 anti-Balaka fighters operating in Bangui and in the neighbouring Lobaye region. He was arrested by local authorities in October 2018 for firing a gun in parliament – where he served as a lawmaker – and was surrendered to the ICC a month later.

Ngaïssona was a national coordinator of the anti-Balaka and was later elected to the top post of the Central African Football Federation. The former militia leader was arrested in France in December 2018 and taken into custody by the ICC.

The two men, who are being tried together, face multiple charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including directing attacks against civilians, forcible transfer of populations, and enlisting children under the age of 15 to fight. Both say they are innocent.

“The anti-Balaka was formed by people fed up with the Séléka,” said Nathalia Dukhan, a senior investigator at The Sentry, a Washington-based NGO that investigates corruption. “Some wanted the return of [ex-president] Bozizé, others just wished for the Séléka to leave. All used the Muslim community as scapegoats.”


Voices of the victims


Who is the arrested Séléka leader?

Some Central Africans initially saw the ICC as biased against anti-Balaka leaders. Samson Ngaïbona, Ngaïssona’s representative in CAR, told TNH he had faced “hard and tedious moments” convincing the militia leader’s supporters not to stir trouble in the country.

But the first arrest of a Séléka leader – Saïd, last month – now offers an “important first step towards recognising the responsibility of all sides for the crimes committed”, according to the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights.

After the Séléka took power in Bangui in 2013, Saïd was appointed commander of the Central African Office for the Repression of Banditry – a police unit accused of numerous human rights violations, particularly in the capital. 

In 2014, the rebel coalition was driven out of Bangui and Saïd joined the FPRC, a large armed group composed of ex-Séléka fighters. More recently, he was considered an influential member of the CPC – the rebel alliance trying to topple Touadéra.

Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said Saïd’s arrest was “significant, but not sufficient”. Séléka commanders “still control large swathes of territory”, Mudge said. “We know where they are, and they operate with impunity.”

Among those watching the screening in Bangui on Tuesday were victims of the Séléka. Landry Makokpala, from the Association for the Defence of Victims Rights, said three of his brothers were killed by members of the armed group between 2013 and 2015, leaving him the primary carer for 17 children.

“Reconciliation can only come after fair justice,” Makokpala said. “Everyone has to find healing for what they lived [through].”

What progress has the Special Criminal Court made?

The ICC, which can only deal with a handful of cases, is not the only institution prosecuting international crimes in CAR: A Special Criminal Court (SCC), composed of national and international staff and which applies a blend of national and international law, was founded in 2015 but is yet to hold its first trial.

The court has a mandate to prosecute genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity dating back to 2003, and it is hoped its hybrid structure will mean justice can be served closer to the communities affected by violence.

However, funding challenges and continued staffing shortages have hampered the court's progress over the years, and the latest conflict has created additional challenges.

“It’s a bit difficult and in some ways tragic that it has to work in the current context where Bangui is threatened by the CPC, heightening the risks for the people who testify,” said Mudge.

Alain Tolmo, a Central African prosecutor at the SCC, said the court has 21 files in preparatory inquiry – roughly 10 of which have been transmitted to the investigating judge, with the first trials expected to commence this year.

“As soon as we will hold the first trials, it will be a strong signal that the hour of justice has dawned,” Tolmo said. “Those who want to attend the university of war crimes might think twice before undertaking their criminal activities.”

What about CAR’s ordinary courts?

A national criminal court in Bangui handed down its first ever conviction for crimes against humanity following the trial last year of several anti-Balaka militiamen. 

Five individuals received life sentences of forced labour for their roles in deadly attacks on UN peacekeepers and a Muslim neighbourhood in the southeastern border town of Bangassou.

Some analysts criticised the trial – which saw sentences handed to 23 other militiamen – for only prosecuting local leaders rather than the politicians in Bangui who allegedly supported them.

“The vast majority of known criminal cases which have [been] brought against members of anti-Balaka or ex-Séléka since 2015 appear to deal with low-ranking individuals,” a recent report from Amnesty International stated.

Jean-Christophe Guinza, the interim minister of justice in CAR, told TNH the current crisis in the country has not slowed down “justice’s work”, but has “instead intensified it”.

Guinza said the government needs more international support to fulfil various national and international arrest warrants. He added that lifting an ongoing UN arms embargo on CAR would help security forces keep law and order and bring criminals to justice.

A long-awaited Truth, Justice, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission is also being put in place, albeit slowly. The commission has no judicial power, but is planning to find points of conciliation and common ground between victims and perpetrators. 

What else is the ICC doing in CAR?

The ICC has been investigating post-2012 crimes committed in CAR since 2014, when then-interim president Catherine Samba-Panza made a formal request to the ICC’s prosecutor.

A separate ICC investigation into crimes committed in CAR in 2002 and 2003 produced a case against Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former vice-president of the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bemba was acquitted last year, having previously been convicted by the court for failing to prevent his militia – deployed in CAR to help former president Ange-Félix Patassé stave off a coup – from committing crimes including rape and pillage.

Establishing criminal culpability is only one aspect of the ICC’s work in CAR, according to the court’s representative in the country, Mike Cole. “It is more about transitional justice from violent times to peaceful times,” Cole told TNH.

Cole said the court has invested in outreach campaigns – such as the screening in Bangui on Tuesday – to make sure their mission in the country is well understood, and affected communities are informed about developments in different trials.

Similar kinds of community engagement efforts have been complicated, however, by the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing insecurity in different parts of CAR.

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