3R rebel group in the Central African Republic loses territory and control over the illicit cattle economy, damaging legitimacy and offering entry points for state intervention.

The death in March 2021 of Bi Sidi Souleymane, known as Sidiki Abbas, the former leader of the Retour, Réclamation and Réhabilitation (3R) Fulani rebel movement in the Central African Republic (CAR), led to disruption and upheaval within the group that continues today.

3R rose to prominence in 2015, illegally taxing Fulani cattle herders in western CAR in exchange for protection. Two and a half years on from Abbas’ death, defeats at the hands of Central African armed forces aided by Wagner mercenaries have caused the group to lose control of swathes of its former territory in northern and western CAR. This loss of territory, combined with the flight of many ethnic Fulani herders to the north and east of Cameroon to escape the fighting between 3R and government forces,1 has led to a significant drop in 3R’s income.

Today, this damage to their system of criminal governance has resulted in the group taking more extortionist, predatory approaches towards local populations in order to shore up their financial base. Support from Fulani herders has consequently fallen. Similar dynamics have been tracked across West and Central Africa, where decreases in non-state armed group income streams drive spikes in violence and extortion, eroding the legitimacy of such groups.

The evolution of 3R’s extra-legal control over the cattle market shows how a change in a key income stream can impact an armed group, affecting its tactics and altering its relationships with supporters and communities in the areas under its control. Crucially, such changes offer entry points for states seeking to rebuild their legitimacy in the eyes of communities previously close to alternative governance providers; they hold promise for eroding the support base of non-state armed groups and weakening their access to resources and support.

The emergence of 3R and its role in the cattle economy

3R has its roots in the ethnic conflict that followed the 2013 crisis in CAR. In March of that year, former president François Bozizé was ousted from power by the Séléka, a coalition of rebel factions with Muslim leanings who felt oppressed under Bozizé’s regime.2 In the wake of this, the anti-balaka – a militia comprised of Christian ethnic groups – targeted Muslim groups, particularly the Fulani, in reprisal attacks. As Fulani cattle herders fled into exile in Cameroon and Chad, many were killed by anti-balaka groups.3

In this context, Sidiki Abbas and 3R emerged, mobilizing the Fulani community from November 2015 onwards with promises that the group would protect herders.4 The militia’s name, Retour, Réclamation et Réhabilitation (Return, Reclamation and Rehabilitation), refers to the Fulani goal of returning to CAR after having been dispersed throughout the region by the anti-balaka.

Providing security to herders was the credo behind the 3R movement. ‘Although its leader, Sidiki Abbas, made the return of the hunted Fulani his main demand, the militia’s action has above all a pastoral objective: to reopen access to the pastoral areas on the Central African­–Cameroonian border and to combat cattle rustlers, and hence all types of crime that undermine this pastoral society,’ explained a Central African journalist.5

Sidiki Abbas emerged at the head of this organization in part due to his criminal past as a zaraguina – a term used to describe rural bandits whose activities include cattle rustling,6 kidnapping and attacks on highways.7 Abbas’ role as a zaraguina allowed him to emerge as a warlord among the young outlaws, who turned their experience in criminality and violence towards forming 3R as a Fulani self-defence group.8

The tchoffal taxation system under Sidiki Abbas: 2015–2021

Under the cattle taxation system instigated by 3R and Sidiki Abbas, which is known as tchoffal, any herder with cattle in the area controlled by 3R must pay taxes in exchange for protection against cattle rustlers and hostage-takers who attack herders’ camps.9 The funds derived from this system support 3R’s activities and enable the purchase of weapons.10

This tchoffal was inspired by the system of taxes paid by livestock farmers to traditional chiefs and communes (local authorities) in CAR and northern Cameroon for access to land and grazing.11 Due to the security crisis and widespread violence, these levels of government were no longer functioning in many territories. The 3R took up the mantle of these traditional governance and security providers and signed a deal with the livestock farmers who had fled the conflict.

Tchoffal taxation payments are calculated based on the size of the herd. Each herd of around 30–50 animals would be taxed one bull, estimated at a value of 400 000–500 000 CFA francs (FCFA), around €600.12 For a large herd of more than 100 animals, two bulls would be levied. This tax applies to resident herders as well as those crossing into 3R territory from neighbouring countries. Any herder who evades this tax may be levied twice the standard amount: one bull as a fine for evasion and another as a tchoffal payment.13

During the dry season, when herders are on the move, the 3R movement adapts its tactics. Mobile units with motorbikes are tasked to follow herders who may try to evade paying the taxes by taking different migration routes than those where 3R has permanent tax collection points.14 To collect these taxes, the movement also works within the pre-existing institutional fabric, forcing the lamibé and arbé (traditional chiefs among the sedentary and nomadic Fulani, respectively) to maintain and provide a list of all herders present in their areas of jurisdiction.15

This, in return, buys protection for one six-month pastoral season from 3R for the herders, their livestock and their families. In the event of an attack, a herder may alert a 3R lieutenant, who sends a task force to pursue the bandits and recover stolen livestock or kidnapped family members.16

Notably, the taxes imposed by 3R are far higher than the taxes local authorities levied prior to the security crisis, which amounted to FCFA100 (€0.15) per head for a six-month breeding season – 80–100 times lower than the 3R tchoffal. The increased tax is reflective of the armed group taking advantage of being the only available security providers in a dangerous area.

Other armed groups in CAR have made use of similar tchoffal systems, although they may function differently. The Unité Pour la Paix en Centrafrique, created in October 2014 and led by Ali Darassa, reportedly takes tax in cash rather than in kind – FCFA100 (€0.15) per head of oxen, in return for protection.17

Under the leadership of Abbas, the 3R created a protection system that supported some herders, who chose to graze their cattle in CAR rather than in neighbouring Cameroon or Chad. The mass displacement of the Fulani came to a halt in 2016, and many of those who had already fled to northern Cameroon and Chad returned. From the beginning of 2016 onwards, the 3R movement positioned itself as a source of protection in the cattle-raising communes of western CAR.18

‘It’s a simple contract: freedom to graze and a measure of protection in exchange for exclusive recognition of 3R as an authority,’ explained a group of Fulani herders, speaking in Mbaimboum on the Cameroon–CAR–Chad border in 2020.19 Due to good grazing land in western CAR, the cattle can breed more successfully. ‘We don’t complain about rebel taxes. A farmer who has four herds of 100 to 250 head will have no fewer than 250 to 300 births a year, so even if he pays 30 to 50 head of cattle in taxes, he loses nothing,’ the herders explained. ‘That’s the advantage of the Central African Republic, despite the war.’20

According to the herders’ statistics, the 3R system reduced attacks on herders by both bandits and anti-balaka militias. The president of the livestock farmers in Ouham-Pendé province noted that, from 2017 to 2020, no hostage-taking of the families of livestock farmers was recorded, and this was attributed to 3R’s punishments for kidnappers.21 Local officials found that the number of conflicts between herders and farmers – widespread before the 2013 crisis – was also significantly reduced between 2015 and 2022 in areas under the control of 3R.22

The 3R movement following the 2021 death of Sidiki Abbas: Spike in taxation rates and eroded legitimacy

Although during his lifetime Sidiki Abbas succeeded in rallying the Fulani community to the 3R cause and establishing a functioning tchoffal protection system, his death in March 2021 threw the 3R movement into disarray. Disputes over leadership between two founding members, Bobbo Sembé and Siwo Tchirgou, split and weakened the movement.23 Taking advantage of this internal dissension, the Central African armed forces, supported by the Wagner Group, launched an assault on 3R positions. The movement suffered a major loss of territory, and the intensity of the conflict caused many livestock farmers who had previously settled in the areas controlled by 3R to flee.24

This cost 3R dearly, both in terms of territory and income. As a result, the movement – now in disarray – has resorted to more desperate tactics. 3R has been accused of raiding villages and conducting ambushes on roads, recalling the criminal zaraguina past of many of its combatants.25 The group has also imposed additional monthly taxes of two cattle per herd, sometimes referring to this as a tax for the ‘war effort’. In other cases, the tchoffal tax has been imposed at random, with 3R fighters returning soon after a tax has been paid and using the group’s lack of financial resources as an explanation for their new demands. 26

Cattle taxation is not 3R’s only form of income, however. A UN Panel of Experts’ report from 2021 reported that 3R was taxing the gold sector, as well. The panel said that 3R controlled gold production centres in Nana-Mambéré and Mambéré-Kadéï prefectures and was ‘often’ involved in gold mining in Ombella-Mpoko prefecture, taxing artisanal miners weekly and collecting a percentage of their gold production. The panel reported that extortion of industrial mining companies by 3R had become ‘more commonplace’ leading up to 2021.27 However, with the significant reduction in 3R’s territorial control, it has lost control over many of these gold-producing areas. The new sporadic, desperate tactics used to tax cattle herders suggest that the group has experienced a major loss of overall income.

These tactics have discredited the 3R movement in the eyes of many herders. Over the past two years, the allegiance to 3R shown by Fulani chiefs has given way to criticism as the line between protection and extortion has become increasingly blurred. ‘The armed groups’ stranglehold on the livestock sector is now being denounced as a racket against herders. Forced to deliver several animals a month to the armed groups, livestock farmers say they are fed up with these abusive charges,’ said a traditional leader in Niem-Yelwa, western CAR, in late 2022.28

3R’s main strength used to lie in the support they had from Fulani herders and chiefs.29 Yet where they used to seek protection, several sources say that herders now pursue a strategy of avoiding the armed groups.30

Today, the future of the 3R taxation system looks less certain. Although some herders who fled have returned to CAR, many are now more acceptant of the legitimacy of the Central African state, which has made significant progress over the past two years in reclaiming its territory from rebel groups such as 3R.31

The pattern of non-state armed groups facing revenue shortfalls from loss of territory, hiking taxes on communities, becoming more predatory, and thus losing community legitimacy has repeated in different contexts across West and Central Africa. For example, as reported in a previous issue of this Bulletin, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in northern Cameroon increased illegal taxation of communities after it had been targeted by military operations. This increased taxation was met with resistance and led to a reported increase in ISWAP violence against civilians.32

3R and its cattle taxation system therefore illustrate how shifts in illicit economies can impact the modus operandi of armed groups. In this case, while 3R has become a smaller threat to the state in having lost territory, legitimacy among its support base and sources of income, it has at the same time transformed into a greater threat to the community within its remaining territory, becoming more violent, opportunistic and predatory. This behaviour, while increasing harm to communities, also offers an entry point for states to reclaim legitimacy, a key factor in determining the success of non-state armed group territorial control. Tracking shifts in illicit taxation patterns can therefore offer insights for timing state interventions seeking to rebuild social contracts with the communities they purportedly govern.


  1. Interview with an official from the Association pour l’Intégration et le Développement Social des Peuhls – Mbororo de Centrafrique (AIDSPC), Mbaimboum, 20 April 2020. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Human Rights Watch, Central African Republic: Muslims trapped in enclaves, authorities, peacekeepers should allow evacuations, improve security, 22 December 2014, https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/12/22/central-african-republic-muslims-trapped-enclaves

  4. Interview with an official from the office of the Ouham-Pende province livestock breeders’ association, Mbaimboum, 24 May 2020. 

  5. Interview with a local Central African journalist, Mpang, 18 April 2020. 

  6. For more on zaraguinas in Cameroon, see: Observatory of Illicit Economies in West Africa, Farmers and herders increasingly targeted as kidnapping for ransom reaches record levels in Cameroon’s Nord region, Risk Bulletin – Issue 8, GI-TOC, August 2023, https://riskbulletins.globalinitiative.net/wea-obs-008/02-farmers-and-herders-increasingly-targeted-as-kidnapping-for-ransom.html

  7. Interview with a local Central African journalist, Mpang, 18 April 2020. 

  8. Ibid. 

  9. Interview with an official from AIDSPC, Mbaimboum, 20 April 2020. 

  10. Interview with an official from the office of the Ouham-Pende province livestock breeders’ association, Mbaimboum, 24 May 2020. 

  11. Interview with an official of the Fédération Nationale des Éleveurs Centrafricains, Mbéré, 22 May 2020. 

  12. Ibid. 

  13. Ibid. 

  14. Interview with an official from the office of the Ouham-Pende province livestock breeders’ association, Mbaimboum, 24 May 2020. 

  15. Ibid. 

  16. Ibid. 

  17. Ibid. 

  18. Ibid. 

  19. Interview with a group of Fulani herders, Mbaimboum, 25 May 2020. 

  20. Ibid. 

  21. Telephone interview with an official from the commune of Koui, 10 June 2020. 

  22. Ibid. 

  23. Ndjoni Sango, RCA : guerre de succession au sein du mouvement 3R après la mort de Sidiki Abbas?, 7 April 2021, https://ndjonisango.com/2021/04/07/rca-guerre-de-succession-au-sein-du-mouvement-3r-apres-la-mort-desidiki-abbas/; Interview with an official from the office of the Ouham-Pende province livestock farmers’ association, Mbaimboum, 24 May 2020; Interview with a traditional chief from the Niem-Yelwa livestock farming commune, Touboro, 30 September 2022. 

  24. Interview with a traditional chief from the Niem-Yelwa livestock farming commune, Touboro, 30 September 2022. 

  25. Interview with a local Central African journalist, Mpang, 18 April 2020. 

  26. Interview with a traditional chief from the Niem-Yelwa livestock farming commune, Touboro, 30 September 2022. 

  27. United Nations, Final report of the Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic extended pursuant to Security Council resolution 2536 (2020) (S/2021/569), 2021, https://reliefweb.int/report/central-african-republic/final-report-panel-experts-central-african-republic-extended-4

  28. Interview with a traditional chief from the Niem-Yelwa livestock farming commune, Touboro, 30 September 2022. 

  29. Ibid. 

  30. Interview with a local breeder from the Central African Republic, Mbéré, 10 May 2023; Interview with a local Central African journalist, Mpang, 18 April 2020; Telephone interview with an official from the commune of Koui, 10 June 2020. 

  31. Interview with a traditional chief from the Niem-Yelwa livestock farming commune, Touboro, 30 September 2022. 

  32. Observatory of Illicit Economies in West Africa, ISWAP’s extortion racket in northern Cameroon experiences growing backlash from communities, Risk Bulletin – Issue 7, GI-TOC, April 2023, https://riskbulletins.globalinitiative.net/wea-obs-007/04-iswaps-extortion-racket-in-northern-cameroon.html