Crimes: Anti-Balaka combatants on patrol on 16 August 2017. A day later, the fighters stormed the city of Bangassou, killing Muslim civilians. (Alexis Huguet/AFP)
The Central African Republic (CAR) descended into conflict in 2013 when so-called Séléka rebels deposed the then-president François Bozizé.
The rebels claimed to stand for the grievances that people in the north-east of the country raised for years — a desire for development and inclusion in the national polity.
In the months after the coup, vigilante groups formed, some with links to the deposed Bozizé. They said they wanted to defend the “true Central Africans”.
In 2017, I interviewed anti-Balaka leaders and fighters in Bangui and Yaloké to understand their use of the “true Central African” narrative. Who exactly are they? The phrase was commonly used in rural and urban areas, among the elite and lower-income people. Anyone not deemed to fit this description was a “foreigner”, a word used to target Muslims and other ethnicities.
Maxime Mokom was one of the anti-Balaka leaders I met. In mid-March this year, Maxime Mokom was arrested in Chad and transferred to the International Criminal Court (ICC). He is facing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed between 2013 and 2014.
I lived a few houses away from him for some years in a neighbourhood where he was well known. He is married with children. We met a few times to discuss the anti-Balaka movement, his actions and his views on politics.
Mokom held an important position in the CAR. He is said to be Bozizé’s nephew. But who is he really?
Reflecting on the context of the movement he came to coordinate will shed light on the context of his trial in the months to come.
The political context
After losing power in 2014, the Séléka splintered into armed groups with various military capabilities.
The anti-Balaka concentrated around the leadership of Patrice-Edouard Nagaïssona and Mokom and others such as Alfred Yekatom.
Between 2014 and 2016 fighters from anti-Balaka fought with Séléka groups for control over roads and villages in Nana-Grebizi province. The anti-Balaka also sought to retaliate against Séléka rule and Central African Muslims. Civilians were caught in the middle. Anti-Balaka fighters attacked anyone they came across. Many were killed and raped. Mokom was one of their leaders.
Yekatom was arrested in October 2018 in the CAR and is on trial at the ICC. He is facing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity between 2013 and 2014.
Nagaïssona was arrested in December 2018 in France. He, too, is on trial at the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Mokom is the most recent arrest. The news of his arrest was surprising because the warrant was kept secret and because of the parallel negotiations with armed groups that are still underway under the leadership of Angola. One question is whether the move will complicate a stalled peace process.
But his arrest means that another important coordinator of the anti-Balaka will face justice. Given the long run of impunity in the CAR, that several armed group leaders face trials is a welcome development. This is a strong signal that justice might be possible.
In the past couple of years, current President Faustin-Archange Touadéra has sent a consistent message to his fellow Central Africans as a promoter of peace and justice. That these armed group leaders face trials certainly benefits Touadéra in the sense that he can claim to be against impunity and show evidence of this position.
At the same time he has, through various means, reinforced his military positioning as a solution to the conflict. He has, for example, invited the involvement of Russian private military companies and Rwandan battalions. He is also supporting former rebels he found useful.
In many ways the armed conflict that started in 2013 remains in flux, with the government and its supporters holding the upper hand. Broadly speaking, the armed groups are under tremendous pressure. But they are not defeated.
Mokom’s rise and fall
The name anti-Balaka has two popular meanings, derived from the terms anti-Balaka and anti-Balle-AK (47). Balaka means machete in Sango, hence the fighters’ claim to be able to resist a machete blow. At the same time, there is the meaning as anti-Balle-AK-47 in the sense that they are also able to resist bullets that Séléka fighters use. They are bulletproof.
Mokom was a former security officer in Bozizé’s regime and, at the time we met, he was involved in pastoral activities. He had a church built in the compound of his house where followers would come.Mokom told me he was not a direct nephew of Bozizé. It is a claim I have not been able to verify.
He said he became involved in anti-Balaka because the state was absent. By his account, the official army, the Central African Armed Forces (Faca), disintegrated when the Séléka rebels seized power in 2013, and he sought refuge in a neighbouring country.
From there, he started organising resistance with friends, marking the beginning of his involvement as an armed group leader.
There are reports of several human rights abuses by the rebels when they seized power, and that the population lived in fear.
In 2017 when we met, Mokom was still known as one of the hardliners of the anti-Balaka movement. He was still vocal, asking the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in the Central African Republic, or Minusca, to “oust foreign mercenaries” from the country.
According to him, the UN was failing in its protection of civilian mandate and the population was still being killed by armed groups.
Mokom was still supported by other anti-Balaka fighters I had met outside Bangui.
In their reasoning, unlike other factions of the anti-Balaka, Mokom had not tried to turn the anti-Balaka into a political party.
Early on, Nagaïssona had tried to turn his anti-Balaka faction into a political party, as did another, lesser-known leader, Sébastien Wénézoui.
At the time, these leaders were getting ready for elections and tried to take advantage of their role in the anti-Balaka movement. But Mokom did not seek electoral gains. For his supporters, this was proof that he was committed to the anti-Balaka cause — defending the Central Africans rather than trying to take advantage of the grievances as other members of the elite had done.
In 2019, after the signature of the Accord politique pour la paix et la réconciliation en République Centrafricaine, the current peace accord between the government and armed groups, Mokom joined the government of Touadéra as the minister in charge of disarmament, demobilisation and reinsertion. But the relationship between the two men was tense.
In December 2020, Mokom joined the Coalition des patriotes pour le changement, that Bozizé led, in an attempt to remove Touadéra from power. It was unsuccessful.
What comes next?
Beyond his position as a security officer during the Bozizé era, Mokom was civilian who came to reflect a specific vision of the Central African society, one that could exclude other fellow citizens in the name of being a “true Central African”. Behind this lay a search for an unattainable purity.
As some Central Africans would say, the anti-Balaka is a movement. Many young people joined the anti-Balaka for reasons such as protecting their neighbourhoods in the face of an army that abandoned them, and there being no security institutions to protect civilians.
The narrative of “true Central African” united them.
This underscores the fact that the anti-Balaka vigilante groups are larger than the leaders on trial at the ICC. That the anti-Balaka was a broad movement will form part of the challenge of this trial. — The Conversation
Gino Vlavonou is a peace and security specialist at the University of Ottawa.