The threat of Boko Haram and the Islamic State in the African continent is on the rise. Previously limited to a few select countries, it is now expanding into parts of the east, west and centre of the continent. Poor governance, alienation and marginalisation are among the well-known drivers, while a sense of belonging and relevance are amongst the pull factors.

An incident between a law enforcement agent or soldier and a random citizen often serves as a spark to take the wrong turn and joining a violent extremist group can be the next move. Many young people from all over Africa have followed this path. Somehow the Central African Republic (CAR) has escaped this recipe, but it is not because the ingredients for radicalisation are absent. On the contrary – all of the drivers are there! So how long can CAR keep this threat out?

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) conducted a study to assess the possibility of violent extremism emerging in CAR. Interviews were held with 35 stakeholders in and outside Bangui and revealed an ever growing feeling of marginalisation among the Muslim population, with disturbing allegations of exclusion and stigmatisation.

This is a phenomenon that has the potential to spurn renewed fighting, similar to the conflict witnessed several years ago. More worryingly, all the other driving factors of violent extremism can increasingly be seen in CAR. All it takes is a strategic interest from organisations that seek to advance global jihad to make the CAR the next battlefield.

Conflict dynamics are evolving in the country, including the emergence of new actors, a growing use of explosive devices, and a shifting of battle lines. During the December 2020 elections, a loose alliance of armed groups, known as the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), advanced on Bangui after the decision to exclude former president Francois Bozizé from the polls. Some of the coalition members included groups disenchanted with the government’s alleged targeting of Muslim communities, such as the Return, Reclamation and Rehabilitation (3R) movement.

The attack was repelled by UN peacekeepers, supported by Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group and Rwandan soldiers and Faustin-Archange Touadera assumed power in January 2021. Since then, the government has continued with its offensives against militia, amid worrying UN reports of human rights abuses committed by Russian instructors. Further allegations by the UN panel of experts claim indiscriminate killings by the Wagner Group, which is said to conflate all Muslims, especially ethnic Fulani, with insurgents. As research by the UN has shown, the tipping point for radicalisation is often a result of heavy-handed state responses.

Tensions in CAR have remained high since violence erupted in 2012 between the Séléka, a mainly Muslim armed militia coalition, and the predominantly Christian anti-balaka self-defence militias. By 2015, many Central African Muslims had fled the country as a result of anti-balaka assaults. Strong religious narratives have continued throughout the years, with depictions of the Fulani, a nomadic pastoralist community, as “foreigners”, contrasted with protection narratives by groups such as the 3R and Union pour la Centrafrique (UPC).

The conflict is often understood by researchers as the result of a culture of predation, with armed groups stepping in to fill gaps left by the state but, as in many other environments, religion can easily be manipulated by actors that have professionalised the narrating during these processes of recruitment.

In CAR, about 71% of the population live under the poverty line, with high youth unemployment. Resources have been manipulated by the elite, in an environment rich with corruption (CAR ranks 146 out of 180 of the Corruption Perceptions Index). Outside of the capital insecurity is rife.

CAR’s geographic location, next to countries such as Cameroon and Chad, who face challenges from terrorism, makes it vulnerable to exploitation from terrorist groups looking for safe havens. In the past, extremist individuals have attempted to internationalise CAR’s conflict.

Despite the fact that all these factors are well known, CAR is ill-prepared to address the emergence of terrorism and violent extremism. There is a strong official narrative that denies the tendency to instrumentalise religion, and some stakeholders have expressed concern that a focus on violent extremism could be used to further stigmatise certain communities and to infringe on their rights. The country has a national action plan against radicalisation and violent extremism as well as a national committee to implement this plan, but it has not yet been put into action, and lacks funding and technical support.

Supported by the IJR, local peace and reconciliation committees (LPRCs) recently sampled 1 448 people across the 10 districts of Bangui. Out of these participants, 46% believed that there is a high risk of extremism, 32% said the risk was medium and 21% said the risk was low. The participants indicate that social tensions are predominantly political (40%), ethnic (29%), related to land issues (20%) and related to religious tensions (11%).

They also suggested there is a potential for other factors to be used to radicalise the population. As one LPRC member stated “The fact of having lost everything leads to having thoughts that can radicalise us. This is what happens to many displaced people in our borough. These people no longer have any means of survival, they are young, and they know that society cannot help them, so they will put themselves in groups with the same mentality and commit violence that they can justify by the fact that society has destroyed their lives.”

There is also a widening divide between those that see themselves as “pan-African” and “pro-Russian”. Moreover, 65% of respondents felt that there were no opportunities for regular dialogue with groups who held different beliefs, but 74% felt that dialogue and awareness raising was critical. Here, the youth could play an important role.

The findings of the research point to the dire need for early warning sensitivity to signals and early prevention. Unlike the cases of Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), there is still a chance to act early with preventative measures, rather than wait for a series of attacks.

This will require that the government, as well as local peace actors, have a better understanding of the risk involved, including the tactics and operational tactics of terrorist organisations. It is important to alert actors to the negative consequences of stigmatisation and human rights abuses. A greater focus is needed on building societal resilience and promoting reconciliation.

In this regard, the Truth, Justice, Reparations and Reconciliation Commission (Commission Vérité, Justice, Réparations et Réconciliation, CVJRR), which was appointed in 2021, could play an important role in acknowledging a history of marginalisation along religious lines, but this too remains under-equipped and ill capacitated. Much more could also be done to promote intra and interreligious dialogue and to denounce hate speech.

The international community can play an important role in supporting these efforts. For example, it could post experts in diplomatic missions or provide experts in preventing violent radicalism to the country as support, and build the capacity of the national committee, as well as strengthen community responses. A zero-tolerance approach to human rights abuses by the CAR and Russian military must also be taken.

Addressing extremism requires a preventative and proactive approach that addresses the root causes of feelings of marginalisation and alienation, recognises divisions along religious lines and identifies recruiters and brokers of violence that incite and use tensions for their own agenda. As the spread of violent extremism in Mozambique, MaliBurkina FasoNigerNigeria, Cameroon and Chad has shown, when it takes root, it is hard to eradicate and much more costly.

It is therefore time to stop talking about conflict prevention, to stop only directing money to counter-terrorism operations, and to instead support real preventative action like community dialogue, reconciliation, tolerance and most of all, acknowledgement of past injustices. To be able to do all this, knowledge about the drivers, the indicators, early signals and most of all the modus operandi of terrorist organisations is of the utmost importance and must be made available.

Peter Knoope

Peter Knoope is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and founder of the International Centre for Counter Terrorism in the Hague.

Amanda Lucey

Amanda Lucey is the senior project leader for preventing violent extremism at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. Lucey holds a master’s degree from the University of Cape Town.
This article was first published on the Mail & Guardian