SOUTH AFRICAN MILITARY DISASTER IN THE CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: PART ONE – THE REBEL OFFENSIVE
While international attention focused on efforts to deal with the fallout from Mali’s military collapse and subsequent coup, a rebellion and coup in the Central African Republic (CAR) involving some of the main actors in the Mali crisis (including France and Chad) has garnered less attention, but may have equally important implications for the future of African security efforts, particularly those relying on the declining capabilities of the South African military (for the current state of the South African military, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, January 25).
In a series of skirmishes and battles from March 22 to 24 with a large force of Seleka rebels in the CAR capital of Bangui, a force of roughly 250 South African paratroopers and Special Forces personnel suffered 13 killed and 27 wounded, putting an effective end to the South African military presence in the CAR. The number of prisoners in Seleka hands has not been confirmed, but is rumored to be as high as 40 (SAPA, March 26). In a development similar to one of the grievances that led to last year’s military coup in Mali, South African troops complained of being provided with insufficient ammunition, contributing to their losses in the fighting with rebels (SAPA, April 1). The South Africans’ heaviest weapons appear to have been rocket launchers and 107mm mortars.
The rebel attacks followed the overthrow of President François Bozize and it is believed the rebels were angered by what they perceived as the South Africans’ role in helping Bozize escape the capital. Bozize is reported to have fled to neighboring Cameroon with some members of the Presidential Guard, where he is awaiting news on which African country is prepared to shelter him. One of Seleka’s main demands prior to their capture of Bangui was for the withdrawal of the South African troops, whom they regarded as “mercenaries” preserving the rule of a corrupt ruler.
A group of some 25 South African soldiers were present in Bangui under the terms of a 2007 Memorandum of Understanding in which the SA soldiers would engage in a capacity-building mission to help the CAR with the implementation of a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process designed to absorb former rebels into the Forces armées centrafricaines (FACA) (Sowetan [Johannesburg], March 26). Some of the South African troops in Bangui were deployed to protect what the South African National Defense Union (SANDU), which represents South Africa’s troops, described as South African commercial interests in Bangui (Johannesburg Times, March 27).
Referring to reports that South African president Jacob Zuma ordered the deployment against the advice of Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and senior military staff who were instead urging the withdrawal of the small training mission in Bangui, Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko noted that the CAR was one of the most corrupt states in the world: “The key question that needs to be asked is: why did South Africa need to lose lives to defend this president?” (SAPA, March 27; Business Day Online [Johannesburg], March 26). The opposition has called for a “comprehensive investigation” into the debacle in Bangui, but the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has retorted that this is not the time to score “cheap political points” and has promised that South Africa “will not turn our backs when our neighboring countries need our assistance” (AFP, March 26; link2media [Johannesburg], March 27).
As the rebels made their final advance on Bangui, France sent an additional 350 troops to the CAR to strengthen the existing force of 250 soldiers (mostly Legionnaires) and protect the roughly 1200 French citizens in Bangui (AFP, March 26; RFI, March 24). The rebel offensive met little resistance from FACA forces and Chadian troops based north of the capital at Damara. Bozize called on Chad for military assistance in early December, but the Chadian troops sent to the CAR did not make a stand against the southwards advance of the Seleka rebels, which was only halted when a peace agreement (the Libreville Accords) was reached in January.
It was Bozize’s failure to implement the accords, particularly the clause relating to integration of former rebels into the CAR military, which led to Seleka’s final march on Bangui. A Seleka spokesman, Colonel Christian Djouma Narkovo, said military resistance collapsed quickly after the rebels entered the capital. The Colonel added that the rebels had clashed three times with the South Africans: “We took their arms and even took prisoners. They laid down their arms and are now in their barracks.” Colonel Narkovo also asked the French and Chadian forces in the capital to assist in bringing a halt to four days of looting and related chaos in Bangui that was fuelled by a power blackout and radio silence that began on March 23 (RFI, March 24). Three Chadian soldiers were reported to have been killed in the confused fighting in the capital (RFI, March 24). Two Indian nationals were killed by French troops guarding the Bangui airport when three cars approaching at high speed ignored warning shots (AFP, March 26). The fall of the Bozize government has also forced the suspension of the CAR-based hunt for Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony by the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) and U.S. Special Forces teams (Daily Monitor [Kampala], April 3; AFP, April 3)
Zuma’s decision to send a force of 400 men to ostensibly guard a group of 25 military trainers who could have easily been otherwise withdrawn can only be interpreted as an effort to bolster the CAR regime. In the end, only 200 troops were actually sent, though they were not provided with air support, medical services, armored personnel carriers, logistical support or an evacuation plan. Since the mission was mounted on a unilateral basis, the South Africans had no-one else to call on if things went bad. Two days after the battle in Bangui the South African Air Force put its Saab Gripen fighter-jets on standby, but the warplanes were reported to lack the weapons needed to carry out an attack (SAPA, March 26). The remaining South African contingent in Bangui remains under French protection in a barracks near the Bangui Airport, where they await an extraction mission by the South African Air Force.
SOUTH AFRICAN MILITARY DISASTER IN THE CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: PART TWO – THE POLITICAL AND STRATEGIC FALLOUT
The motivation of South African president Jacob Zuma for the South African military deployment in Bangui is uncertain; as a South African business website points out, the Central African Republic (CAR) is outside South Africa’s economic sphere of influence as it belongs to the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS – chaired by Chadian president Idriss Déby) rather than the South African Development Community. Trade between the two nations is virtually non-existent though rumors of South African mining interests in the CAR persist (Business Day Online, March 26).
According to CAR opposition leader Martin Ziguele, the head of the Movement for the Liberation of Central African People (MLCAP):
President Jacob Zuma was dragged along into this wasp’s nest mostly by South African businessmen, who were naturally interested in mining activities in Central Africa. They truly dragged President Zuma into, it should be said, a trap. Because all countries in the sub-region had more intimate knowledge than South Africa on Central Africa’s political realities and the conditions for a real exit from the crisis (RFI, March 26).
On March 28, a Johannesburg daily published the detailed results of an investigation into South African business connections with the CAR that began at the same time as the signing of the 2007 Memorandum of Understanding regarding defense, minerals and energy that called, in part, for the establishment of a South African military mission in Bangui. The report identified the involvement of a number of high-ranking ANC security and intelligence figures and ANC investment front Chancellor House in an effort to dominate the CAR’s diamond-mining industry. The initiative was arranged by a well-known and controversial “fixer,” Didier Pereira, a business partner of senior ANC security figures Paul Langa and Billy Masetlha, a former head of the South African National Intelligence Agency (NIA) (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], March 28). An ANC statement denied the allegations, claiming the Mail & Guardian was “pissing on the graves of gallant fighters who put their lives on the line in service of our country and our continent" (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], April 1).
It is possible that Bozize’s growing ties with South Africa irritated Chadian president Idriss Déby, who had played a major role in installing Bozize as president and had provided his personal bodyguard force until they were withdrawn last December. Bozize has claimed that the attack on the South Africans was led by “Chadian special forces” (BBC, April 3). A force of roughly 400 Chadian troops forms part of the Mission de consolidation de la paix en République Centrafricaine (MICOPAX), an international force drawn from Chad, Gabon, Cameroon and the Congo (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, January 10, 2013). South African defense analyst Helmoed Römer Heitman has noted that “the attacking force was far different from the “rag tag” rebel force originally reported: Most of them in standardized uniforms with proper webbing and with flak jackets, new AK47s and heavy weapons up to 23mm cannons. It was also clear that many were not from the CAR, some speaking with Chad accents and others having distinctly Arabic features” (Sunday Independent, March 31).
Shortly before his overthrow, Bozize suggested the rebellion was an externally-fuelled attempt to control the CAR’s growing oil industry, alleging the involvement of maverick American oilman Jack Grynberg, who sued the CAR government after his exploration license in the northwestern CAR was revoked by Bozize (Jeune Afrique, October 14, 2011).
Seleka leader Michel Djotodia, a Russian trained economist who lived in the Soviet Union for 14 years, has denied rumors that Seleka was supported by Chad, Gabon or Congo-Brazzaville, saying that it was “simply misery that pushed us into taking up arms” (RFI, March 25). SANDU, the soldiers’ union, has insisted that the South African government has a legal duty to arrange for an ICC indictment of Djotodia after the bodies of child soldiers were discovered among the large numbers of dead rebels after the battle in Bangui (SAPA, April 1) There are signs that Djotodia is settling in for the long-term as the CAR’s ruler; though he has pledged to hold elections in 2016 (when Bozize’s term would have expired), he has also noted: “I did not say that I would hand over power. I said that in three years I will organize free and transparent elections with everyone’s support” (RFI, March 25).
Under heavy pressure from the media and political opposition, South African president Jacob Zuma reversed his intention to keep the battered South African force in the CAR and announced on April 4 that the South African military mission would be withdrawn (AFP, April 4). France may have played a role in the decision by preventing the deployment of a stronger South African force for fear it may lead to an attack on the Bangui airport or French interests in the city (Sunday Independent, March 31). The opposition had called for the withdrawal of a force that was “deployed to defend particular economic interests near the capital on behalf of a corrupt, authoritarian and unpopular government” (Business Day Online [Johannesburg], March 25).
South Africa has traditionally been one of the largest contributors to peacekeeping operations in Africa, with current SANDF deployments in Darfur and the Kivu region of the DRC. Though the South African military remains woefully underfunded, the ANC government continues to use it as an instrument of foreign policy and a means of establishing regional influence. While the South African opposition is demanding the recall of the badly damaged and still unsupported military mission in Bangui, there are rumors that the South African military may now be planning a retaliation in order to defend the reputation and future safety of SANDF troops, potentially expanding a conflict whose true motives are known only to the senior South African leadership. The struggle for control of the CAR is further evidence of the growing military and political influence of Chad in Africa, working at times (as in Mali) in partnership with France. The current decline of South Africa and Nigeria as Africa’s military powerhouses also suggests major shifts are ongoing in Africa’s regional balance of power.