— A power vacuum and the total absence of law and order in the vast, sparsely populated Central African Republic could be luring terror groups from across Africa. A senior United Nations official says there are indications that Nigeria’s Boko Haram is on the ground.
Carved out by colonialism and marred by coups since independence in 1960, the broken heart of Africa has received little attention from the outside except from former ruler France, diamond dealers, big game hunters and cross-border rebel groups.
Experts say all the elements exist to attract militants who are looking to set up shop, hide, or hijack the country's increasingly sectarian conflict that has seen Muslims and Christians turn against one another for the first time.
CAR's de facto President Michel Djotodia enlisted bands of Muslim rebels -- including mercenaries from Chad and Sudan and bandits calling themselves “Seleka”, or alliance -- to help him seize power eight months ago.
According to CAR Justice Minister Arcene Sende, they were joined by 1,500 prisoners, a third of whom were convicted of murder.
Analysts say the initial “Seleka” forces of a few thousand -- who took power in March -- have multiplied in the wake of mass impunity for looting, rape and killing. Analysts suggest the number could now be as large as 25,000. The United Nations Children's Fund estimates that 3,500 children have been co-opted into the ranks.
CAR’s home-grown terror combined with its diamond, gold and ivory riches are a draw for armed groups chased from elsewhere in Africa by regional and international forces.
Edmond Mulet, assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping operations at the United Nations in New York, said the complete absence of a working government in CAR is similar to northern Mali in 2012 -- where Islamist groups affiliated with al-Qaida stepped into the political vacuum and took over.
Mulet told VOA he thinks the first ones to arrive in the CAR in may be the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram - who are already present in neighboring northern Cameroon.
“I don't think about al-Shabab, but certainly Boko Haram we have some indications that there is some kind of a presence here," said Mulet. "In different places, different elements are really already trying to get hold of some presence in the country.”
CAR Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye did not want to talk to VOA directly on the issue of Boko Haram - but said concern would not be unfounded.
“I can't talk to you about it. It's just because you brought it up … but it's not enough to confirm it yet," said Tiangaye. "In any case, for the jihadists yes, we have some elements, we have some elements. For now, we don't have all the elements to confirm their effective presence.”
This month the United States officially designated Boko Haram as a terrorist organization. The group seeks to impose strict Islamic law across Nigeria’s Muslim-majority north and has killed thousands in attacks going back to 2009.
The Nigerian government has the northeast under a state of emergency and the military is waging an intense offensive - which may be forcing militants to consider new bases outside its borders.
CAR has long been a favorite hideout of brutal warlord Joseph Kony, whose Lord's Resistance Army has terrorized communities in nearby Uganda, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo for decades.
U.S. special forces have been assisting thousands of African soldiers in hunting for Kony - who has a $5 million bounty on his head.
With the growing international involvement against terrorism in Africa, the question arises whether alluding to Boko Haram’s presence in the CAR isn’t a tactic to elicit more foreign funds and soldiers on the ground.
General Babacar Gaye, who heads the U.N. peacekeeping mission in CAR, said fears over global terror groups is secondary to the massive humanitarian, security and human rights problems that has forced hundreds of thousands from their homes and left a third of the population in need.
“For the time being, we don't need to have the presence of any terrorists groups to be mobilized and concerned by the situation," said Gaye. "I can assure you that the people of the ground, their suffering is worth mobilizing the international community to stabilize this country and alleviate the suffering. We don't need to have Boko Haram to mobilize people.”
The U.N. has warned that “the seeds of genocide” are being sown in CAR. But with so few watching the forest-covered country, it will be hard to know when, or if, terror groups take root, or mass violence begins.
Photo Gallery: Crisis in CAR
The bishop of Bossangoa fears a growing sectarian divide following gross human rights violations on civilians, Nov. 10, 2013. (Hanna McNeish for VOA)
A girl stares out the window at Bossangoa chuch's Sunday prayers. Over 36,000 people are living at the site. (Hanna McNeish for VOA)
Regional peacekeepers at an abandoned village on the road south of Bossangoa, Nov. 13, 2013. (Hanna McNeish for VOA)
A regional peacekeeper surveys an abandoned village on the road south from bossangoa, surrounded by untouched fallen fruit, Nov. 13, 2013. (Hanna McNeish for VOA)
A ragged child cries out for food at Bossangoa's packed Catholic mission, where over 36,000 people have sought refuge from violence, Nov. 10, 2013. (Hanna McNeish for VOA)
A malnourished child being fed at a clinic in Bossangoa, Nov. 9, 2013. (Hanna McNeish for VOA)
Khadija Umani was on a truck attacked by self-defence groups, who separated Muslims from Christians and executed 7 men. She and around 2000 other Muslims are seeking safety in a school, Nov. 11, 2013. (Hanna McNeish for VOA)
A girl waits at Bossangoa hospital, where medics are treating a high number of children for malaria, malnutrition, anaemia and violence-related injuries inlcuding gunshot wounds, Nov. 9, 2013. (Hanna McNeish for VOA)
A family squatting at Bossangoa hospital, where over 1000 people have sought refuge from widespread killing, rape and extortion by de facto state forces, Nov. 9, 2013. (Hanna McNeish for VOA)