The Central African Republic (CAR) descended into conflict in 2013 when Seleka rebels deposed then President François Bozizé.
Seleka rebels claimed to stand for the grievances that communities in the north-east of the country raised for years, namely a desire for development and inclusion in the national polity.
In the months following the coup, vigilante groups formed, some with links to the deposed president, Bozizé. They claimed they wanted to defend the “true central Africans”
During my field research trip in 2017, I conducted interviews with several anti-Balaka leaders and fighters in Bangui and Yaloké. I wanted to understand their motivations as well as their use of the “true Central African” narrative.
I found the phrase was commonly used across both rural and urban areas, and among elite and ordinary people. Anyone not deemed to fit this description was viewed as a “foreigner”, a word used to target Muslims and other ethnicities.
Maxime Mokom was one of the anti-Balaka leaders I was able to meet. In mid-March 2022, he was arrested in Chad and transferred to the International Criminal Court. He is facing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed between 2013 and 2014.
I lived a few houses away from him in a neighbourhood where he was well known. He is a married man 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 also popularly known as the nephew of former president Bozizé.
But who is he really? Answering that question, and 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
First, the political context.
The anti-Balaka concentrated around the leadership of Patrice Nagaïssona and Mokom and others such as Alfred Yekatom.
Between 2014 and 2016 fighters from anti-balaka fought with Seleka groups for control over roads and villages in Nana-Grebizi province. The anti-Balaka also sought to retaliate against Seleka rule and Central African Muslims. Civilians were caught in the middle. Over time, anti-Balaka fighters attacked anyone they came across. Many were killed and raped. Mokom was one of their leaders.
Ngaïssona 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 being asked is if 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 Touadera 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 as well as 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 totally defeated.
Mokom’s rise and fall
The name anti-Balaka has two popular meanings: 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.
When he granted me the interviews, Mokom was quick to claim that 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 (Central African Armed Forces-FACA) disintegrated when the Séléka rebels seized power in 2013, and he sought refuge in a neighbouring country.
There are indeed reports of several human rights abuses by the rebels when they seized power and the population lived in fear.
From there, he started organising resistance with a few group of friends, marking the beginning of his involvement as an armed group leader.
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 United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) to “oust foreign mercenaries” from the country.
According to him, the UN was failing in its protection of civilian mandate and population were 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.
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, namely defending the Central Africans rather than trying to take advantage of the grievances as other members of the elite had done.
In 2019, following the signature of the Accord politique pour la paix et la réconciliation en République centrafricaine (APPR-RCA), the current peace accord between the government and armed groups, Mokom joined the government of Touadera 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 (CPC), that Bozizé led, in an attempt to remove Touadéra from power. The coalition’s attempt to seize power was unsuccessful.
What comes next
Beyond his position as a security officer during the Bozizé era, Mokom was an ordinary man 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. A lot of young people joined the anti-Balaka for several different reasons such as protecting their neighbourhoods in a face of an army that abandoned them and 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.