A Google search for his name before last weekend turns up next to nothing. There are no pictures of him circulating on the Internet yet. But those hoping that the crisis in the Central African Republic had finally reached its peak had reason to be disappointed with the news out of the country over the weekend that the rebel group that launched the strife is preparing to regroup and had named a new commander to lead them.
Just over a year ago, a band of rebels known as the Seleka — a word that means ‘alliance’ in the Sango language — marched into the capital of the Central African Republic, Bangui, and watched as longtime leader Francois Bozize fled. The leaders of the movement, a loosely organized group of Central Africans who wanted change, mercenaries from Sudan and Chad, and marauders, took control of the country, but had no money to pay those who had put them in power. Instead, the Seleka was officially disbanded in September and turned loose on the population, where they began to loot and pillage the countryside, killing scores upon scores.
Since then, the former Seleka rebels, who are mostly but not all Muslim, began to face opposition when the local militias known as the anti-balaka — or anti-machete — started launching counter-attacks against the militia. The tide turned and the Christian anti-balaka soon became perpetrators of atrocities of their own, leading to a spiraling communal violence that has been called “ethnic cleansing” of the country’s Muslims. This Saturday, several hundred members of the Seleka movement met in the north of the country and named Gen. Joseph Zindeko as their new military commander, a choice that could spell disaster for a country already almost inextricably mired in conflict.
Zindeko, prior to his new role, was a commander among the Seleka and appointed head of the Ouham-Pende military region by former rebel leader Michael Djotodia last year. Djotodia served briefly as the president of the Central African Republic and was the one to decide to formally disband the Seleka in order to relieve international pressure against him — he resigned under that same pressure earlier this year. Now, though, the Seleka is regrouping and Zindeko has words of warning for the members of the anti-balaka. “We have restructured our forces, we have goals,” Zindeko said in an interview with with Turkish newswire Anadolu Agency. “If anti-Balaka are trying to cross areas that we control, we will not hesitate to subdue them.”
Oddly enough for a meeting of former rebels, the meeting in the town of Ndélé was organized with the full support of the international forces attempting to keep some semblance of peace in the Central African Republic, particularly the French, according to Thierry Vircoulon, International Crisis Group’s project director for central Africa. “The idea behind such a gathering was to have a moderate and restructured Seleka as a reliable interlocutor instead of a group of autonomous and out of control warlords,” Vircoulon explained in an email to ThinkProgress.
Backing that narrative, the U.N. mission on the ground in the CAR issued a release on Monday saying that it had “followed with interest the ex-Séléka discussions” and “notes with interest the organizational efforts of the ex-combatants and commends the discussions on the ex-Séléka’s participation in a disarmament process and the implementation of a political coordination.”
ThinkProgress also spoke with the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect’s Evan Cinq-Mars — recently returned from the Central African Republic — about the reports of Zindeko’s appointment. Cinq-Mars agreed that it seems Gen. Zindeko was apparently appointed, although which rebel leaders had been chosen as what and the strategy moving forward for the Seleka remains murky. “Initial reports were that they wanted to reconstitute themselves and march on Bangui to claim their right to be reintegrated into the armed forces,” Cinq-Mars said, a possibility that was both interesting given their previous lack of interest in disarmament in support of the national government and worrying.
It’s entirely possible though that the reported choice of Zindeko may not be the catalyst needed to mark a comeback for Seleka forces. Enough Project analyst Kasper Aggar joined Cinq-Mars in saying that he had never heard of Zindeko during his time in the country. In contrast to the unity Zindeko’s choice seems to represent, Aggar explained, Seleka has for the most part split up in different smaller groups without a central command. “This is not the first time that someone is trying to claim that they are taking leadership of the group,” Aggar told ThinkProgress in an email. “Its unclear what real leverage Gen. Joseph really have. We will have to see if he is really able to gather forces around him, before I would give it much credibility.”
Vircoulon said that it is still “too early to say if this ‘new Seleka’ is cohesive and moderate or not” but pointed to some of the troubling rhetoric that has been heard from the group in recent weeks. In particular, calls for full-on partition of the Central African Republic into two states, one Muslim and one Christian, have begun to grow louder as the formerly diverse neighborhoods of the country become more and more homogeneous. “This does not bode well for the future,” Vircoulon said. “The Seleka has officially made the partition of the country part of its very thin political agenda.”
Interim president Catherine Samba-Panza and her government remain firmly opposed to breaking up the country along religious lines, however, and has the backing of the international community behind her on this matter. In a speech on Saturday to mark her first 100 days in office, Samba-Panza announced that her government will be reshuffled to be more inclusive and representative,” responding to former Seleka complaints that they are no longer represented. “Voices are being raised to demand the urgent organisation of an inclusive political dialogue,” Samba-Panza said, though she did not give a timeframe for when these changes would be made.
Zindeko, on the other hand, was less shy about offering up his own timeline for when change needs to occur. He told Andalou that he would be travelling to the town of Bambari, in the prefecture of Ouaka, east of Bangui, where Muslims have taken refuge from the anti-balaka and the Seleka leaders say they want to establish their base. From there it will be seen after the end of a one-week ultimatum to the Government, “whether the recommendations have been followed and respected,” Zindeko told Andalou’s correspondent.
A renewed Seleka offensive against the government, which remains practically non-existent following last year’s coup, would be devastating for the country of 4.6 million that has already seen nearly a million forced to flee their homes in the face of violence. The United Nations recently approved a peacekeeping mission to absorb the African Union, French, and European Union forces currently deployed, but that boost in resources and manpower isn’t set to deploy until September. In the meantime, it remains to be seen whether the newly reinvigorated Seleka will be the moderate way forward for the country — or the next round in the cycle of violence.
Louisa Lombard, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley with a focus on the Central African Republic, has more backstory on Zindeko and his time before the Seleka.