Known variously as coupeurs de routes (highwaymen), Zaraguina or simply bandits, criminal gangs who kill, kidnap for ransom, loot and set fire to homes now pose the greatest threat to civilians in the north of the Central African Republic (CAR).
Their attacks have prompted tens of thousands of people to flee their villages to a precarious life in the nearby bush, hindered access to fields and markets, reduced imports along key trade routes, especially from Cameroon, and delayed the return of CAR refugees living in neighbouring Chad.
“The main threat to security in the country lies with these criminals,” Jean-Sebastian Munie, the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in CAR told IRIN.
The gangs are well-organised, well-connected and in large part foreign, travelling across the porous borders with Chad and Cameroon and even from as far away as Nigeria and Niger.
Little stands in their way. FACA, as the armed forces are known in CAR, a country roughly the size of France where state infrastructure barely exists outside the capital, comprise just 5,000 troops. But only half of these are thought to be on active duty.
For years, CAR and neighbouring Chad have been ravaged by numerous civil wars, rebellions and mutinies that have led to a proliferation of weapons and to a blurring of the lines between bandits and rebels. Although this article focuses mainly on CAR, highway banditry and kidnapping have long be a trans-national problem in this region, unfettered by weak state borders and fuelled by chronic and endemic under-development and unemployment.
A military coup that brought General François Bozize to power in 2003 deepened a security vacuum in northern CAR. Many of those who helped the former army chief to Bangui, including Chadian mercenaries, have also since turned to banditry, feeling that Bozize failed to deliver on alleged promises of recompense.
This worsening of security in the northwest was one of the purported reasons for the formation of the People’s Army for the Restoration of Democracy/Armée Populaire pour la Restauration de la Démocratie, (APRD) a rebel group made up in part of self-defence units set up to protect villages from the Zaraguinas. Yet the ARPD itself has been widely accused of committing human rights abuses, including kidnapping and looting.
According to the International Crisis Group, among other sources, there are Zaraguina within the APRD.
“There are lots of cases of rebel-by-day, Zaraguina-by-night,” said one humanitarian official in Bangui.
But in recent months Zaraguina attacks in CAR have “been more organised, more vicious, more violent and carried out by larger groups of 10 to 15 people”, according to Annie Raykov, spokeswoman for the UN Refugee Agency.
“They affect almost the entire country now,” said Olivier Bercault, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, after travelling around CAR.
He added: “The APRD chain of command is diluting and some of the rebels may make extra money on the side; there are certainly retreating Chadian rebels making money before going back to Chad and Chadian army defectors doing the same; and an aggressive anti-Zarguina policy in Cameroon that certainly pushed many of the bandits to operate in CAR.”
No law, no justice
According to several reports on CAR and interviews conducted by IRIN, the lack of effective governance has made the country attractive to armed criminals for decades.
The bandits thrive in “an extremely poor environment, where there is no law, no justice and impunity prevails,” said OCHA’s Munie.
At first, they consisted mainly of poachers. While clashes took place with security forces, civilians were usually spared, even paid off for their silence with food, household goods and hunting rifles.
Later, the prized booty evolved from wild animals to merchandise trucked into landlocked CAR from neighbouring states. Well-armed highwaymen would stage dawn ambushes on goods convoys or attack market towns in border areas. The killing of the occasional civilian served to deter resistance.
The government reacted by providing armed escorts for the convoys, leading to frequent violent clashes with Zaraguina gangs. The resulting climate of fear and insecurity in northern CAR caused a major reduction in the flow of commercial goods convoys and led the bandits to revive the practice of cattle theft - which had first become common in the entire region when colonial powers put a stop to endemic local slavery.
The M’bororo ethnic group, for whom cattle are central to status and identity, have been particularly targeted, leading many to abandon their traditional nomadic lifestyle.
If a cattle herder failed to hand over enough animals to satisfy the Zaraguinas, it was common for one of his children, or his wife, to be kidnapped until he produced more.
Now, cash ransoms, often the equivalent of several thousands US dollars, are the norm. Faced with the prospect of labouring for years to rebuild their herds, many such destitute cattle-raisers have reportedly taken to banditry themselves.
More recently, the criminals have increasingly targeted sedentary farmers, notably in the prefectures of Ouaham and Ouaham-Pende, historically among the country’s most important producers of cotton, manioc, groundnuts and sorghum. Such attacks grow more frequent in the dry season, which runs from October to May, and often involve the looting of a village’s entire food stores as well as all farming tools.
Responding to such critical needs poses a dilemma for humanitarian actors. “Food distribution can pose additional risks as it might attract rebels or highwaymen to distribution zones to extort the food [aid] from the beneficiaries,” said a joint World Food Programme/UNICEF report published in October 2007.
The Zaraguinas “do as they like because they know that our forces aren’t strong enough to provide security across the country,” conceded General Antoine Gambi, who heads a committee laying the groundwork for an extensive overhaul of CAR’s security sector.
“They enjoy the complicity of local officials in some areas who are in their pay. They include deserters from the armies of neighbouring countries,” he added.
Thomas Orungai, the head of CAR Red Cross in the northern town of Bossangoa, told IRIN: “Bandits are really damaging the economy in many areas. They loot food so people don’t have anything to eat and cannot always go in to the bush to their farms.”
Orungai added that Bossangoa’s population had swelled by more than 1,000 since January 2008 as a result of people fleeing outlying villages.
Zaraguinas twice raided Boudigui-Boyange, about 25km west of Bossangoa, in Ouaham prefecture. On the first occasion, in July 2007, they looted everything they could carry. All the villagers fled into the nearby bush.
When another group of bandits turned up in October, they killed two villagers and systematically burnt all the houses and their contents, promising to return and do the same should the village be rebuilt.
Despite this threat, most of the residents have now returned from the bush to reconstruct their homes. “We know the authorities can’t do anything to protect us,” said one, Noel. “The government sent three soldiers to a town up the road, but they left after a few days.”
On the advice of local officials, 22 young men in Boudigui-Boyange have formed a self-defence unit. But their arsenal of 16 crude, slow-to-reload hunting rifles, a single box of ammunition and a variety of traditional weapons are no match for the AK-47s commonly carried by the Zaraguinas.
“They are everywhere, near our fields, our hunting grounds so we are scared to go there,” explained one villager.
Along a road about 200km northeast of Bossangoa, close to the Chadian border, the threat of banditry is so great that even the bush is considered too dangerous.
Well over 1,000 people who fled villages in this area now live in a site for displaced people (IDPs) - the only one in the country – set up with assistance from French NGO Solidarités in the town of Kabo. The site consists of a few hundred flimsy dwellings built by the residents themselves. Some are covered in plastic sheeting, others roofed in straw. None seem up to withstanding the heavy rains due in just a few weeks.
“I can’t go back to my village,” Hubert, a 42-year-old father of eight told IRIN. “The Zaraguinas killed 13 people when around 30 of them, mostly Chadians, attacked us in November….They are still targeting the road where we live. If there is no security, how can we return?”
When the site was established in late 2007, it was designed as a temporary transit facility for those displaced by intermittent violence linked to rebel activity. Now, with no end to banditry in sight, and not long to go before the rains, it seems likely that a more permanent camp is needed for those cut off from their homes.
This is a sensitive area of humanitarian policy. By upgrading the Kabo site into a camp there is a risk of unduly prolonging farmers’ absence from their fields and also of creating tension with the town’s permanent residents who may end up feeling worse off than the IDPs.
“Banditry is very difficult to deal with,” Toby Lanzer, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in CAR, told IRIN. “What you need to do is empower the police, the gendarmerie and army as well as the justice system so that the country can be controlled within the letter of the law.”
Such empowerment – and ending impunity - is precisely the aim of the reform of the entire security sector. But this process has barely got off the ground and will take years to complete, and its success will depend in part on reaching comprehensive peace accords with two rebel groups and on progress made in a process of national political dialogue.
In the meantime, FACA, perhaps stung by accusations of doing nothing to tackle the banditry, and by the relatively low level of banditry in some areas held by rebels, has swung into action. Troops raided numerous Zaraguina bases in early 2008. But for the most part such raids simply scattered the criminals. On the one occasion where soldiers took prisoners, according to a well-placed source, 10 were executed.
General Gambi, the head of the security reform preparatory committee, told IRIN that FACA could do a better job if it had helicopters to drop troops into zones where the Zaraguina were active. “But we don’t have the means for this. We need the helicopters.”