By Anastasia Voronkova, Editor, Armed Conflict Survey; Research Fellow for Armed Conflict and Armed Conflict Database
Fighting between diverse militia groups in the Central African Republic (CAR) has dramatically increased in the past few months, leading to severe civilian victimisation. In August, it was reported that fierce fighting involving tens of militias had displaced at least an estimated 160,000 people since April, with the UN aid chief warning of early signs of genocide. In addition to displaying extremely worrying characteristics such as the deliberate targeting of individuals based on their ethnic and religious affiliations, this situation is also indicative of several wider trends typical of militia activity in Africa and beyond. The proliferation of various militias has been a constant feature of this conflict since at least 2009, and of other fragile and conflict-affected environments including the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, Nigeria and Afghanistan.
The type of militias currently operating in the CAR emerge most frequently in areas where state presence is limited and official mechanisms for controlling and restraining armed actors are absent. Such units are frequently formed to deal with local security concerns, improve order, and provide protection to the local communities in security vacuums in which formal security agents such as the police are poorly trained or inefficient. In such circumstances, the emergence of self-defence forces is a response to a real or perceived threat to the status quo. In the CAR, the mostly Christian anti-Balaka militias – originally established in 2009 by then-president François Bozizé to complement security provision and help combat local criminality, particularly in rural areas – expanded substantially when demobilised former national army members joined following the 2013 coup in which Bozizé was ousted. They started to target not only criminals but also ethnic and religious groups perceived as alien and threatening to their survival.
While joining militia groupings could be seen as a relatively isolated, locally driven and at least initially voluntary primarily a response to social and economic marginalisation, particularly among disaffected youth, such activities tend to grow progressively more opportunistic and widespread. According to recent data published by Clionadh Raleigh (2014), the average number of militia groups trebles during active armed conflicts. But their growing practice of violence against civilians does little to augment their legitimacy and boost popularity among the local community. This is particularly apparent as the boundary between militias and rebels becomes fuzzier. For example, in the DRC the Mai-Mai militias originally formed to defend territory from Rwandan armed groups have since become part of the conflict landscape and engaged in the same activities as the rebels. Fighting between loosely organised and poorly disciplined bands increases rivalries and lowers barriers to switching sides. At the same time, the brutality of militias, including towards civilians, tends to become both more expansive and frequent as a result of three interrelated and sometimes concurrent processes.
Firstly, militias generally widely use violence and intimidation as a mechanism of control and to establish dominance in a given region. In this context, reports of individuals being confined to a particular geographical area and forcefully prevented from moving are common. Local Shia militias in areas of Iraq have reportedly engaged in forced displacement and prevented locals from returning. Secondly, violence is a way to ensure profit-making and secure access to lucrative natural resources. Monopolising illegal economic activities, such as smuggling, drug trafficking and illegal mining, requires consolidation and getting rid of rivals. Militia groups in South Sudan, the DRC, CAR and Myanmar have been reported to have engaged in battles for resource control. Thirdly, militia violence can be a tool of counter-insurgency in the face of attacks by rebels. In Nigeria, for example, members of the Civilian Joint Task Force have allegedly engaged in extrajudicial killings of Boko Haram insurgents. In the Philippines, the Citizen Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU) plays an active part in the fight against communist forces.
The existence of militias continues to be a major impediment to implementing large-scale disarmament plans. Even though ideological principles do not generally run deep and alliances shift, the recruitment of members from specific geographical areas in some cases facilitates the endurance of these groupings and the maintenance of communal bonds between participants. Furthermore, the continuous availability of cheap weapons tends to create ample opportunities for the regeneration of small-scale armed factions by incentivising the handing back of old weapons while simultaneously receiving monetary compensation to buy new ones. This cyclical pattern of militarisation can impede subsequent security-sector reform and the implementation of transitional justice mechanisms in conflict-affected areas. As the example of Los Urabeños (Clan Usuga) in Colombia demonstrates, faulty and incomplete demobilisation of militias in the context of a long-standing fusion of profit-seeking networks and counter-insurgency gives rise to the reorganisation of such entities that continue to selectively employ violence and regulate social life in a post-demobilisation environment. While de-escalation of tensions in the short term can be achievable, dismantling and renegotiating control of economic and security structures is a much more tortuous process.