Last week, former Central African Republic president Francois Bozizé returned to the country after more than six years in exile. Earlier this month, his party’s spokesman said Bozizé would stand for presidential elections in December 2020.
Bozizé fled the Central African Republic in March 2013 as the Seleka, a mostly Muslim rebel coalition from the northeast, took control of the country amid widespread abuse. The Seleka gave rise to local militias, called anti-balaka, who in turn targeted Muslim civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Bozizé returns under United Nations Security Council sanctions for supporting and encouraging anti-balaka attacks. An international arrest warrant issued by Central African authorities in 2013 accuses Bozizé of “crimes against humanity and incitement of genocide.” A Special Criminal Court, established by law in June 2015, has a mandate to cover crimes committed while Bozizé was president.
Bozizé returns to a country wracked with conflict, partly due to the corruption, nepotism, and abuse of his presidency. Over 75 percent of the country remains under the control of armed groups.
Bozizé’s presidential guard is accused of killing at least hundreds of civilians and burning thousands of homes during unrest in the mid-2000s. Some of the starkest crimes committed during his presidency occurred at the Bossembélé military training center, commonly called “Guantanamo.” In April 2013, I interviewed 10 former detainees at Guantanamo who described near starvation, constant beatings, torture, and extrajudicial executions.
That June, I went to Guantanamo and was shown two cells – concrete shafts in the ground – only two meters from Bozizé’s villa. Cement enclosures on the top had air holes for prisoners to breathe but allowed no space for them to move. Former prisoners indicated that individuals were left in these cells until they died.
Bozizé’s return will have political ramifications whether or not he runs for president. But it also presents the Central African Republic’s new government and its international partners an important opportunity to prosecute alleged crimes committed by Bozizé and his supporters and end the widespread impunity that marks the country’s current crisis.