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Africa Policy Journal

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

Radical Islam Finding Ground in the Central African Republic

Chad’s withdrawal from the international mission opens door for regional terrorist groups.

As sectarian violence in the Central African Republic continues to spiral out of control, militant jihadist groups such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have taken notice. They have issued condemnations on several occasions, blaming France for the plight of Muslims in the country and vowing to attack their interests. Moreover, in light of past actions in failed states, it is likely that these militant groups see the chaos as an opportunity to gain access to the country and create a forward operating base for the region. According the United Nations, there are indications that Boko Haram militants, who are established in neighboring Cameroon’s northeastern region, may already be hiding in the Central African Republic’s vast terrain of unpopulated land. Consequently, the situation may evolve to something akin to the crisis in northern Mali, where in 2011 al Qaeda-linked Islamic militant groups took advantage of the political vacuum in the capital to conquer more than half of the country.

The recent creation of the Organization of Muslim Resistance of the Central African Republic (ORMC), a 5,000-man Muslim self-defense militia, is a troubling development. The stated intentions of the group are to protect the remaining Muslims and to march on the capital – the latter a potential disaster waiting to happen. Additionally, the recently ousted Muslim Seleka president, Michel Djotodia, has proposed dividing the Central African Republic into two separate countries along sectarian lines, something that radicals would no doubt want to realize. While European and African policymakers were quick to dismiss the partition plan, it has begun to gain traction within elements of the marginalized Muslim Central African community.

The potential for radical Islamist groups to use this new Muslim ORMC militia as a conduit to turning sections of the country into a new base is real. This is because of the sizeable population of grief-stricken Muslim Central Africans, the vastly dense and sparsely populated terrain, porous borders, and the immense resources that could fund terror operations.

This is why the recent decision on April 3 by the Republic of Chad – the CAR’s neighbor to the north – to pull its troops out of the African-led International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (MISCA) is a massive setback for progress. The decision followed repeated accusations of heavy-handed measures and partiality towards the Muslim Seleka rebels. Any hopes for a resolution to the crisis in the CAR have been dashed due to this latest development.

Chad’s Role Pivotal in the Struggle Against Radical Islam

While the elites of the Central African Republic may be seduced by the charms of Paris, it is Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, that is the decisive setting in determining the CAR’s future. This is because of Chad’s almost inescapable role in the fight against growing Islamic Jihad in Africa, given its location at the crossroads between the Sahel region of West Africa and Central Africa. This geographical destiny along with Chadian President Idriss Deby’s longstanding role as kingmaker in the CAR provide perhaps the only real possibility of rescuing the country from further destruction and the rise of radical Islam.

Chad’s involvement in the Central African Republic predates the present crisis by decades and is centered on both resources and security. The Central African Republic contains uranium, gold, and diamonds – resources that fueled French, Libyan, and Chadian interest in the country for decades.  While France retains influence as the former colonial power and Libya bankrolled Emperor Bokassa in exchange for a brief military presence, Chad emerged as the key powerbroker by consistently backing the right leader. This influence increased dramatically following the destruction of the Qaddafi regime in 2011.

Despite cordial relations between then-President François Bozize (whose coup was sanctioned by Deby) and the Chadian strongman for years, Chad still preserved relations with Muslim militia groups hiding in the north of the country as an alternative plan. Consequently, when the two leaders had a falling out in 2013, Deby made the full weight of his authority felt. Chad swiftly cut support for the Bozize government in Bangui and precipitated today’s crisis, staking his claim that any Central African government cannot stand without President Deby’s backing.

It was at this moment that Deby mistakenly aligned with the Muslim Seleka rebel forces. However, after sectarian violence and an exploding humanitarian crisis rendered Djotodia’s Seleka government untenable, President Deby was forced to rescind support for his protégé. Since then, the rules of the game have changed as France has announced its decision to prolong its troop presence and the European Union begins to deploy its support mission to the country. In light of this, President Deby presented himself as a team player in the international mission in spite of continuous accusations of Chadian complicity with remnants of the Muslim Seleka movement.

Chadian troops are some of the best trained in Africa and have helped France in its mission in northern Mali. Unlike European militaries and publics, Chadian troops are not casualty averse. Nevertheless, Chad’s role in the international mission was not properly articulated. Following a March 29 incident in the PK12 neighborhood of Bangui in which Chadian soldiers returned fire allegedly after having grenades thrown at them, more than 24 people were killed.  The outcry against Chadian soldiers even included calls for the resignation of the commander of the MISCA forces. A subsequent United Nations inquiry into the event has declared that the Chadian forces targeted civilians without prior provocation.

President Deby, in Brussels at the time for meetings between European Union and African leaders, no doubt felt that Chad was subject to a “media lynching” given the tirade of negative press after yet another deadly incident involving Chadian troops. In the aftermath of the attacks, European leaders, and most notably French President François Hollande, were unable to convince President Deby that remaining in the international mission was in Chad’s best interests.

The withdrawal of Chad’s 850 troops will further burden the mission. France and the African Union-led MISCA forces have already struggled to contain the violence throughout the country and the loss of 850 trained soldiers will be acutely felt.  Moreover, the deployment of the European Union forces around the airport and other strategic areas will not make up the vacuum left by the Chadian troops.

There may a short-term benefit to the withdrawal of Chadian forces in the capital, as Christian anti-balaka militants considered them to be complicit with the Muslim Seleka remnants, and thus justifiable targets. However, any short-term benefits will be offset by the troop shortage and the newly ambiguous role of Chad. Most critically, while Chadian troops have withdrawn from the international mission, it is likely that they will remain in northern areas that they have been unilaterally deployed to, thus complicating the chain of command between the missions.

President Deby has a history of supporting various militias in CAR’s vast, unpopulated north. Deby’s support for the Muslim Seleka movement is only the most recent example. It can be assumed that President Deby will continue to work loosely with the French and African-led international mission, but will also cultivate ties to militias deemed viable alternatives to the current government in Bangui.

The upcoming presidential elections in the Central African Republic, slated for 2015, will be a test of Chad’s ability to maintain influence. As it stands now, public opinion in the Central African Republic is extremely negative vis-à-vis Chad, especially as Muslim refugees continue to flee the country and Chadian troops remain. It is therefore possible that the presidential elections will see anti-Chadian sentiment at the forefront of political discourse. This anger may further exacerbate tensions between Chad and the Central African Republic, leading President Deby to perceive his interests in the country to be threatened. If realized, new commitments of Chadian troops to engage in drastic measures in a bid to maintain influence are not a distant possibility in light of President Deby’s past actions. This dangerous game will become ever more likely should international attention fade considerably in the months ahead.

Therefore, it is essential for the international community acknowledges Chadian influence in the country, given that any conceivable solution to the crisis must meet the satisfaction of President Deby. In addition, world leaders must successfully convince the Chadian president that his interests in the Central African Republic would be best served by greater stabilization and the eventual elimination of militias in the country. If the international community fails to accomplish this, governments in Bangui will continue to collapse. If this vulnerability remains the case, the danger of Islamic terrorist groups creating a new front in Central Africa may soon be realized.