Less than four months ago, Ali Darassa's militia, the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC), had been battling government forces and the United Nations. Today, though, their representatives are singing a different tune as they stood alongside him in the key city of Bambari - the next phase in a rather controversial bid to bring peace in the country.
Darassa, a self-appointed four-star general, was joined on the town hall steps by Prime Minister Firmin Ngrebada, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, UN under-secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, and Smail Chergui, African Union commissioner for peace and security.
After seven failed peace deals since 2013, the government has decided to explore a controversial move that incorporates rebel fighters and members of the armed forces. The move which has been reduced to an accord reached in Khartoum in February has allotted government roles to 14 militia chiefs who control most of the country's territory and have been frequently fighting over resources and clashing over ethnic or religious affiliation.
Following the execution of the accord, three warlords were formally appointed as special military advisers to the prime minister. Two of them are Mahamat Al Khatim, leader of the Central African Patriotic Movement (MPC), and Sidiki Abass, commander of a group that refers to itself as 3R -Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation.
The third is Ali Darassa, who took up the post in Bambari, a crossroads town in the centre of the country. An anonymous UN source stated that the appointment "means that he [Darassa] is taking charge of Bambari with the approval of Bangui". While there are some who support the unorthodox move, a vast section of the population continues to remain quite apprehensive.
The idea behind the government's approach is to encourage the warlords to work together with them in beefing up security and shoring up governance. Critics, however, fear that the concessions could be a get-out-of-jail pass to men who should be prosecuted for extrajudicial killing, rape, looting, murder, and other heinous crimes. Mayor Abel Matchipata stated:
The conflict has led to many victims and many abuses. We have a lot of trouble with the armed groups[but] we have no alternative but to accept the Khartoum accords. We have to make concessions, that is the only way if we want peace."
According to specialist observer Thierry Vircoulon, the new posts risk a "sacrifice of the need for justice" especially after previous peace deals were undermined by the prospect of trials for war crimes.
Zero tolerance for impunity'," referring to a UN watchword, "has become 'zero tolerance for justice'", said Vircoulon.
In 2017, the UN mission in CAR (MINUSCA) drove the UPC out of town and Darassa was declared persona non grata there. That did not deter Darassa's operations as his men simply adopted a low profile and continued to impose "taxes" on cattle and minerals. According to a UN report, Darassa and his men continued with their covert operations up until May 2018 when they returned to their full-blown open hostilities and attacked police headquarters, church premises, and several non-governmental organisations.
Ali Darassa's appointment as a military adviser for the area where his men may have committed war crimes should not be used to give him immunity from investigation into the UPC's abuses," said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
In a bid to assuage fears and stem mounting criticism from the population, the government issued a joint statement with the UN and MINUSCA earlier this week. The UN and MINUSCA insisted that Darassa "has not been entrusted with an official security role" for Bambari.
"The security of the town of Bambari remains and will remain the responsibility of the national authorities, with the support of MINUSCA," stressed the communique, which noted that the mixed brigades "are not yet operational".
And on Thursday, the President said the peace agreement "does not grant amnesty" and was "subject to the constitution." The deal also "attaches importance to the fight against impunity," he insisted. Despite the charm offensive from the government, UN and MINUSCA, many are still unconvinced by the controversial cohabitation of armed forces and rebel leaders and wonder how long it will last.
According to Nathalia Dukhan of the US think tank Enough Project, there is a distinct possibility that the rebel leaders could be exploiting the situation and that is something that cannot be ignored. To simply ignore it would be tantamount to handing over the reins of power to war-lords.
There is a real risk that these new advisors or ministers will work to increase their military power and finance their armed groups," said Nathalia.
Header Image Credit: Florent Vergnes