Among the sprawling shantytowns and crumbling colonial façades of Bangui, armed UN peacekeepers patrol the streets. This is the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), one of the poorest countries in the world. A small, landlocked nation, it has been blighted by a succession of vicious conflicts since gaining independence from France in 1960.
The 13,000 or so peacekeepers—many of whom come from elsewhere in Africa—are tasked with protecting civilians, who have endured anarchy, autocracy and ethnic cleansing in their lifetimes. But there is another man, one from just over the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who has an even more demanding job than keeping the peace. In this tinderbox, Toussaint Muntazini Mukimapa believes that he can deliver justice.
Muntazini is the chief prosecutor of a unique court, tasked with holding to account those who have committed crimes against humanity in the CAR since 2003, when a coup unleashed a fresh wave of hostilities. The daring project—known as the Special Criminal Court (SCC)—is the first UN-backed tribunal to be set up in a country where hostilities are raging, with war criminals judged by their compatriots. It is an audacious attempt to disprove the old presumption that a society must have order before it can attempt justice.
The hope is that the landmark court can finally bring some accountability to a fractured nation, and perhaps ease the conflict in the process by deterring fighters from carrying out further violations. But the ramifications could be much wider, too. If it succeeds, it could become an international exemplar, changing the way that justice works in war zones around the world.
Global efforts to attach rules and responsibilities to the conduct of war go back a long way. In 1899, the Hague Conventions enshrined a series of pre-existing international treaties and declarations to regulate warfare, while war crimes trials in 1940s Nuremberg and Tokyo blazed a trail for post-conflict tribunals. More recently, in the 1990s and 2000s, the line of tribunals founded to judge war crimes includes the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which eventually put Serb leader Slobodan Miloševic´ in the dock in the Hague, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which addressed the genocide. Since the turn of the century, UN-backed courts have dealt with the civil war in Sierra Leone, the assassination of Rafic Hariri, the former Lebanese PM, and crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
In one sense, the SCC in Bangui is the latest in the line of tribunals—but with the twist that the new court is dealing with atrocities in an unfinished war. A peace deal was signed between CAR’s government and 14 rebel groups in February—but it’s the eighth in six years. CAR’s government has recently handed apparent backroom amnesties to rebel commanders, bestowing suspected war criminals with official positions—a snub to efforts at tackling longstanding impunity. And with armed groups still in control of a great bulk of the country, the peace could shatter at any moment, as it did in May in the northwest when a rebel splinter group massacred dozens of villagers in a horrific reprisal attack.
Muntazini is the former attorney general of DRC’s armed forces. That posting imbued the 64-year-old with a military bearing and understated authority, softened by a bookish civility. When I meet him, he is wearing a natty pair of large-framed glasses and a high-collared jacket, chequered in black and white. His hair is cropped close to his scalp; a faint moustache is clipped tightly around his top lip. Comments are delivered with similar precision—measured, yet frank.
Muntazini spends most days working in his small and steamy office, surrounded by stacks of legal papers in brown envelopes. Apart from a single map of CAR, the walls are bare and curtains are drawn across barred windows. His office lies in a fortified white-washed compound, one of many that dot the dusty, volatile city. Soldiers and G4S guards mill around. Outside the walls, which are topped with razor wire, tensions persist and occasionally explode into fierce fighting.
“If you believe in an ideal, you have to give yourself the means to reach that ideal,” says Muntazini. “I want to do everything possible to fulfil my mission.”
A Tortured History
Until recently, Muntazini was based in a compound overlooking the wide, grey-brown waters of the Ubangi River, which has run through CAR’s long history of violence. It was from this river that a French expedition arrived in the 1880s, seeking to lay direct claims to the continent’s mineral-rich heart. They established a remote and fever-ridden outpost at Bangui, from which shipments of ivory, rubber and captured people could flow. (France had abolished the slave trade in its Caribbean colonies by then, but attitudes warped by it lingwestered).
According to the 19th-century French journalist, Hughes Le Roux, the new colonial master regarded these lands as “only a reservoir of slaves and a hunting ground for the purveyors of black flesh.” Imperial Paris doled out concessions to private companies, which stripped the land of its assets and forced locals to work in atrocious conditions, inspired by the notorious business model of King Leopold’s Congo Free State, which had privatised the colonial endeavour. Within 50 years of France’s arrival in central Africa, about half of the territory’s brutalised population would be killed by a combination of exploitation, violence, starvation and disease.
The territory was described by one early travelogue as “an archipelago of scattered ethnic groups.” Until the French arrived, it didn’t matter much: most people lived in dispersed communities without centralised leadership. But imperial administrators enforced their rule along disparate lines of identity, generally opting to work with non-Muslim groups of the south. After independence, the southern groups emerged as the Christian elite and, with tacit approval from their former colonial rulers, continued to polarise the population to the detriment of the northern Muslims. The upshot has been that CAR has, for as long as anyone can remember, been hopelessly divided.
CAR is not unusual among African countries in having its borders established by European powers. But CAR’s very name—one can hardly imagine a country called the Central European Republic—underlines its origins as an afterthought, filling a space in somebody else’s map. It was created in line with European needs and whims, rather than local realities, and the ghosts of the inheritance have never been vanquished.
The joy of independence from France in 1960 soon dissipated as the country slid into chronic dysfunction. CAR’s post-colonial president turned it into a one-party state before being ousted in 1966 by his army chief, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, a megalomaniac who made himself emperor in a ludicrously extravagant coronation (for part of the 1970s, the titular republic was actually called the Central African Empire). More coups followed, often with the help of a guiding French hand, before elections in 1993 brought in Ange-Félix Patassé, the nearest thing that CAR had known to a democratically-elected leader.
Before long, however, the country would backslide: after a series of mutinies, civil strikes and riots Patassé was eventually ousted in a coup in 2003, whose brutal authoritarian leader, Francois Bozizé, sought to extinguish smouldering insurgencies in the Muslim provinces. Finally, by late 2012, these rebels, backed by mercenaries and foreign fighters, united into an unruly coalition known as the “Seleka,” which attacked the capital and forced Bozizé to flee.
The last great rebellion unleashed waves of devastating sectarian violence. Militias known as the “-Anti-Balaka,” consisting of Christians and animists loyal to Bozizé, carried out vicious reprisals against Muslim communities. The deployment of international troops, followed by elections in late 2015 and early 2016, appeared to be quelling chaos, which had displaced half a million and left thousands shot, injured or killed. But since then, ahead of this year’s latest ceasefire, violence returned and intensified nationwide. In a harrowing report last year, Unicef highlighted how frequently displaced persons camps, health facilities, religious sites and schools are targeted. Some 2.4m people—half the population—are now in need of humanitarian assistance.
Amid the chaos, killers and rapists live openly and continue their reign of terror. According to Human Rights Watch, only one court in the country has ever sentenced anyone for rape. Some violent criminals actually win promotion or influence on the back of their crimes—the so-called “impunity bonus.”
A Colonel From The Congo
The SCC must somehow tackle the cycle of bloodshed. Funding is hopelessly inadequate, courts are instinctively distrusted and—in a place where mob justice has ruled—no one is sure how suspected war criminals can be apprehended. “The Special Criminal Court faces serious obstacles—there are no two ways about it,” Elise Keppler, of Human Rights Watch, says with understatement. “But this court comes out of such a strong and unequivocal demand for justice by the local population and a recognition that the impunity and amnesties of the past have fuelled further crimes and are no longer an option. This court has to succeed. It has to move ahead.”
Muntazini believes that his new court is an answer to the shortfalls many Africans see in the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has been dismissed as neo-colonial—all 45 of its currently listed defendants are African. Muntazini believes that his new court can avoid the same charge. Although the SCC in Bangui is backed by the West and employs European consultants, it uses national judges and a local site. “African states hold a hostile stance towards the ICC, saying that it only prosecutes African people,” says Muntazini. “But if the CAR special court succeeds, it will show that there are alternatives… and that Africans can build their own court and still prosecute with the same norms as the ICC.”
Muntazini’s independence, nationality and back story will undoubtedly help the new court’s standing, even if it could raise a few issues of its own. Hailing from the western provinces of what is now the DRC, Muntazini was the son of a schoolteacher, was raised among six other siblings in a small village on the banks of the River Kwilu, which winds through the flat, forested Congo Basin some eight hours’ drive from the capital, Kinshasa. At the time, the country was known as Zaire—ruled by the brutal Mobutu regime—and young Muntazini read law at its National University in the 1970s. He planned to go into academia until a tutor steered him towards a legal career within the armed forces. Before he could get there, he had to submit to a boot camp that trained him as a paratrooper, after which he began to rise up through the ranks. He traces his passion for justice to the case of an army officer accused of embezzlement and sentenced to death by firing squad, despite proclaiming his innocence until the end. Muntazini, however, did not become a defence lawyer; it was as a prosecutor in Mobutu’s army that his star began to rise.
The military dictatorship began to fracture and collapsed in the 1990s. The country was renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo and—almost from the off—was embroiled in one of the world’s most brutal civil wars. Under the new regime, Muntazini held the rank of colonel and was eventually attorney general of the armed forces. The role required him to work with the UN agencies and NGOs which were involved in supporting courts during these years of conflict. He was often the ICC’s chief point of contact in the country, and was instrumental in building up its capacity to try crimes—particularly sexual violence.
He insists that it is precisely his experience at home that makes him the right man for the current job in a land that he rates as even more lawless than his home country: “In the DRC, despite the recurring military conflict, we made some effort to fight against impunity and to prosecute criminals who raped and murdered,” he says. “But, when reading about CAR, I was stunned to learn that similar crimes were being committed, but without prosecution. There is a culture of impunity.”
In 2006, he helped secure the transfer to The Hague of the notorious Congolese warlord, Thomas Lubanga, who became the first person to be convicted by the ICC after being found guilty of recruiting and using child soldiers. That and other achievements are, for his UN employers, enough to dispel any doubts about his having risen up the military ranks under a notorious dictatorship. Nelly Mandengue, from the UN Development Programme, which is overseeing the Special Criminal Court, told me that his ICC cases “are testimony to his seriousness and commitment to the fight against impunity.”
In this part of the world, mere survival, never mind attaining seniority, often involves making an accommodation with harsh authorities, as Muntazini knows better than most. But legal experts back Muntazini’s appointment. Keppler of Human Rights Watch highlighted the prosecutor’s “willingness to follow up and pursue cases involving grave crimes.” Ladislas de Coster, a former UN legal advisor in DRC, described Muntazini as a “true progressive” and “master tactician.” “There are prosecutors who talk a lot and do little,” said de Coster. “For him, it’s the opposite.”
Nothing is more important than avoiding being seen as a western imposition, which makes a prosecutor from the region indispensable. UN staff have launched a vigorous media campaign across local radio stations to promote the SCC to the population. They have undertaken trips to rebel-held towns in CAR’s lawless provinces to advertise the court’s presence and potential, employing a comic book artist to help explain the SCC to illiterate people and younger generations. “We leave out the international element of this hybrid court and try to convince them it’s an independent institution,” said one UN employee involved in the charm offensive.
But whatever spin, there is no escaping the international nature of the venture. Muntazini will be supported by 13 national judges and 12 others from overseas, including Canada and France, as well as African Francophone nations like Benin, Burkina Faso and Togo. But by integrating the court into the domestic judicial system, its creators hope to give the people of CAR a sense of “ownership” when its magistrates dispense justice. And there is an awful lot of justice to be done in a country where village-burners, gang-rapists and recruiters of child soldiers are walking free.
The risk of failure is stark, but for Muntazini there are personal dangers, too. The threat of assassination confines him mostly to the compound. “I cannot expose myself without any security measure. I cannot go for a run along the river. I live pretty much in seclusion,” he says. “I am careful about where I go, with whom I eat, what I eat.”
As for the court, the unrest that ravages the country profoundly complicates witness protection, evidence procurement and the execution of arrest warrants. “The first challenge is insecurity,” says Muntazini. “The SCC has been established in a country that is still at war and does not have control over its entire territory.” He would rather use CAR’s own security forces when apprehending suspects, though the low standards of those troops mean that the job would probably go to UN peacekeepers.
The great, undermining uncertainty in international law is always the question of who is going to enforce it. Another pressing problem that dogs the SCC is who will pay its bills. In what the UN rates as the world’s least developed country, where ministers are acclimatised to reliance on international patrons, the CAR government itself is unable to contribute much financially. A patchwork of donors include the country’s UN peacekeeping force, the EU and governments in France, Holland and the US. But the flow of money is precarious: they have only provided enough to keep the court afloat for a year, long before investigations are due to end and trials to commence.
Muntazini worries that the money could simply dry up: “Donors demand to see results. And when results don’t materialise, donors don’t give money.” So depleted are the coffers that Muntazini has had to personally lobby the court’s sponsors. “I have spent all this time advocating and meeting with donors,” he says. “This is very different from my original job as a prosecutor.”
The Central African Experiment
The SCC will be housed in Bangui’s defunct Tribunal de Grande Instance, which is undergoing a renovation. Flanked by palm trees, the rectangular, concrete structure is derelict and decaying, with an architectural style best described as tropical brutalist. Its neglected insides and flaking yellow walls hint at the rot that has set in throughout the country’s judiciary.
Upholstered with faux tiger-stripe covers, magistrates’ seats are positioned beneath the blindfolded figure of Lady Justice and the Central African maxim, Zo Kwe Zo—which means “All people are people” in Sango, the country’s primary and official language. In the words of Louisa Lombard, an anthropologist at Yale University, the saying is meant to endorse equality but today “carries at best an aspirational connotation, and more often an ironic or even cruel one, given how limited people’s life chances are in this part of the world.”
While visiting, I noticed a sorry-looking signpost nearby, pointing towards the Palais de Justice. It was rusty and crooked, which struck me as a fair metaphor, so I decided to photograph it. As if on cue, a skinny policeman in an oversized uniform sidled up to me and demanded a bribe.
The corruption that infects all strata of society in CAR adds fuel to the fighting. Backhanders move between businessmen. Graft pervades government. Warlords claim to protect the people while persecuting dissenters and profiting from gold, diamond and cattle markets. Far from being immune to toxic practices, CAR’s justice system is defined most by its absence of justice. It is where bribery, cronyism, extortion, political interference and sexual coercion flourish. These systemic problems are perpetuated by low pay, inferior training, poor safeguards and intense pressure to comply with the status quo. As one senior UN contractor involved in the SCC’s creation told me: “Everyone can be bought. Everyone is being bought.”
CAR’s fate has often been decided externally—whether by UN peacekeeping officials in New York, by insurgent-backing kingmakers in neighbouring Chad and Sudan, or by EU bureaucrats in Brussels who hold the purse-strings of aid. The “wholesale outsourcing of the country’s sovereignty,” to use Lombard’s phrase, has created numerous layers and locations of authority, making it hard to attribute blame when scandal or mismanagement occur, allowing the same mistakes to repeat.
For now, Muntazini is at the start of his journey. We say goodbye and I leave his compound above the waters of the Ubangi that have borne 19th-century slave ships and 21st-century dictators on the run. At dusk, silhouettes of ferrymen creep across the darkening tributary of the Congo River, wary of powerful currents below. In a country where “witchcraft” remains a criminal offence and causes the wrongful imprisonment of the most vulnerable, dark rumours circulate of mysterious drownings in the river and attacks by predatory, shapeshifting crocodile-men known as –talimbi. Others hold that spirits of the unburied dead inhabit the waterway. Fall in and their hands will grasp your ankles to pull you down.
For Muntazini, the forces that imperil the nation are not occult and fantastical. Rather, they include impunity, obsolete legislation and the punishment of the innocent over the powerful. Despite the odds stacked against the SCC’s success, as well as recent, disheartening deals between CAR’s rulers and their rebel adversaries, Muntazini is determined to bring a change, instigating an unprecedented push at accountability in wartime and fostering peace without the use of amnesties. These, he says, only perpetuate violence. “In the past 10 years, there has been at least four amnesty laws in CAR,” he says. “Despite these laws, war hasn’t stopped. If the purpose of these laws was to bring back peace in CAR, they’re a failure.”
Others, though, fear that more dubious deals will occur. “The SCC does not recognise immunity—this is what the SCC says on paper,” said a senior UN source, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “The reality of politics may change this.” Muntazini’s court faces an uncertain future. It will fail without sustained financial and political support; its architects and donors must commit to the long term. And given the vast scale of crimes committed over the years in CAR, prosecutors should prioritise their targets realistically.
Well aware of his limitations, Muntazini makes a candid admission: most of the country’s war criminals will continue to walk free. “There is an unfathomable number of victims in CAR. Now all these victims hear about a court that could deliver justice for them,” he says. “Unfortunately, the court will not be able to satisfy all the victims. It is illusory to think that this can all be worked out through the justice system.” For redress to reach the masses, he argues, the SCC must be complemented by a truth and reconciliation commission. But, “as long as justice is not served,” he says, “it is not possible for a country to recover.”