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In the Central African Republic, herders caught in a pincer movement between militias and soldiers

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In the Central African Republic, herders caught in a pincer movement between militias and soldiers

The slender silhouette of Lamine Bina emerges in the middle of his herd in this plain in the northwest of the Central African Republic. In the midst of the transhumance period, the breeder rests his gaze nervously on his herd and then on the horizon. Both armed militias and pro-government forces frequently target nomads.

This 37-year-old Fulani, whose name has been changed for his safety, for two decades used the same transhumance corridors, between October and June, leaving the arid plateaus of Chad and Sudan to reach the plains of the Central African Republic and the great cattle markets. But the resurgence of violence in this country has changed the situation for these nomads.

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After having fallen sharply in intensity for three years, the civil war, which began in 2013 between a nearly bankrupt state and a multitude of armed groups and militias who still controlled or scoured more than two-thirds of the territory at the end of 2020, experienced a sudden resurgence. intensity when the rebels launched an offensive a year ago to overthrow the head of state Faustin-Archange Touadéra.

They were quickly repulsed by a dazzling army counter-offensive thanks to the support of hundreds of Russian paramilitaries, mercenaries from the private security company Wagner according to the UN. They returned to most of the country, pushing the rebels out of the towns. But the latter have changed tactics and are now carrying out guerrilla actions in the countryside.

Taxed, looted or killed

And they ransom nomadic herders, especially during transhumance. A windfall for the militias, livestock representing in the Central African Republic about 13% of GDP, according to the UN. « I lost a lot of oxen », laments Lamine in her long beige boubou, stroking the nostrils of one of her animals. “The rebels regularly ask me for money, but I cannot pay. They take ten or fifteen oxen and the situation can quickly degenerate if I refuse « , he blurted out.

A drama for this man who owns some seventy animals. So, for fear of attacks, he stayed near Paoua, a town 500 kilometers northwest of the capital Bangui. « This situation forces me to sell on the spot, cheaper », he explains, his voice covered with the sound of hooves and mooing: “Here, I can earn between 200,000 and 300,000 CFA francs [entre 300 à 450 euros] per head, while in Bangui the price climbs to 400,000. « 

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« And we also need to graze our animals in the bush and to travel, but the rebels are there », breathes Mahamat. The rebels around Paoua are the 3Rs (Retour, Réclamation et Réhabilitation), one of the most powerful armed groups, presenting itself as a Fulani self-defense militia and which had extended, before the Russian counter-offensive. Central African Republic, its hold over the entire north-west, pocketing significant income from transhumance.

For fear of being taxed, looted or killed, many pastoralists had joined this group or relied on the 3Rs to support them in their recurring clashes with sedentary farmers.

Assimilated to militiamen

In all the countries of the Sahelian strip or bordering this desert zone, bloody clashes between nomadic herders and sedentary farmers have been a recurring scourge since ancient times. Some of them migrate their animals from the Sahel to graze them in less arid areas, in this case from Chad and Sudan to the Central African Republic, frequently triggering land conflicts and deadly fights.

But today, these nomads also claim to be the targets of pro-government forces, in particular Russian paramilitaries, recently accused by the UN of crimes and abuses against civilians in the Central African Republic.

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« The soldiers accuse us of being in cahoots with the rebels », moved a breeder met in the Paoua area and who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. « It is not uncommon for them to shoot us and our animals », he assures.

For Thierry Vircoulon, specialist in the region at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), Fulani breeders are « Targeted by pro-government forces », because assimilated to the militiamen of the 3R.

« The Russians make a very simple ethnic identification » and do not seek to differentiate a breeder from a militiaman, adds Roland Marchal, researcher at the International Research Center (CERI) of Sciences Po Paris.

Pushed out of the transhumance corridors, the herders take other roads and sometimes encroach with their animals on farmers’ fields. In June 2021, at least fourteen people were killed in fighting between the two communities in the northwest, near the border with Chad.

« The passage of cattle through farmers’ fields sometimes leads to house fires, attacks and killings », confirms Amadou Traoré, head of the office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Paoua.

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