Is This the Most Dangerous Man in the Central African Republic?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Local warlord Ali Darassa has been given legitimacy by the government — but is still up to no good.
Shortly after signing a peace accord last year, the Central African Republic (CAR) issued a presidential decree naming leaders of the 14 armed groups that control most of the country — which is about the size of Texas — as government advisers.
The peace deal, signed in the Sudanese capital Khartoum in the presence of mediators from the African Union, was the sixth since late 2012, when a political crisis triggered a protracted humanitarian crisis that has left 2.9 million people (63 percent of the population) in need of aid, according to United Nations figures.
Some of the rebel leaders stayed in government while others have reneged. One of those in the latter category is Ali Darassa, head of the Union for Peace in the CAR (UPC), who is again being courted by a government keen to maintain peace at all costs. In its latest attempt in April, President Faustin-Archange Touadera reportedly brought Darassa to the capital Bangui in a state-sponsored chartered plane, gave him some money and fired a cabinet minister — recommended previously by the warlord — at his request.
[A] majority of the armed groups dislike President Touadera, but they dislike the opposition more.
HANS DE MARIE HEUNGOUP, INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP
Like most of his several hundred militiamen, Darassa is Fula, an ethnicity spread across West and Central Africa. He speaks neither French nor Sango, the primary languages of the CAR. A former herdsman, he grew up in neighboring Chad under the tutelage of his erstwhile mentor, Baba Laddé. Both men were part of the Seleka, the Muslim-majority rebel coalition that ousted Francois Bozizé, then president of the predominantly Christian CAR, in a crisis rooted in religion in 2013. Since then, the rebels — which were first engaged with the anti-balaka militia, as Christian self-defense groups were called — have frequently turned on each other.
Ethnic dimensions and secessionist ambitions have also crept in. Darassa’s UPC, which controls the center of the country, is now locked in bloody warfare against the Popular Front for the Renaissance in the Central African Republic (which goes by the French acronym FPRC), another group consisting primarily of Muslims from another ethnicity and keen to split from the CAR. The FPRC has teamed up with factions from its former anti-balaka foes to fight the UPC, which has also clashed with the U.N. peacekeeping force stationed in the capital.
As unrest worsens and a wave of fluid jihadism moves through the wider Sahel region, new power brokers like Darassa are blending into government to confer some legitimacy on themselves. There is a slim possibility that he will end up like Laddé, sentenced to eight years in prison in Chad before his unexpected release this spring, or another former CAR militia leader and parliamentarian Alfred “Rambo” Yekatom, currently awaiting trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Court. More likely, Darassa could engage in a show of strength in the coming elections.
Hans De Marie Heungoup, Central Africa senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, says the dissatisfaction of some rebel groups with the peace agreement may pose a problem as Touadera seeks reelection in December. “It remains unclear which type of threat,” he says. “[A] majority of the armed groups dislike President Touadera, but they dislike the opposition more. Even if armed groups wanted to directly disrupt the elections, right now I doubt they could. … [They] have been considerably weakened over the last nine months.”
Still, Darassa’s power is far from waning. He could be playing the long game to accrue hidden influence as a Central African kingmaker.