On Sunday, 5,000 rebel fighters, calling themselves Seleka, or “alliance” in a local language, took control of the Central African Republic (CAR) after storming the capital Bangui and seizing the presidential palace, killing thirteen South African soldiers along the way. President Francois Bozize, who kept his army weak for fear of a coup, fled to Cameroon, ending ten years of corrupt rule, as longtime rebel Michel Djotodia declared himself CAR’s new head of state. Refugees are now headed for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Cameroon, and looters roam Bangui’s anarchic streets.
Various rebel groups have agitated against Bozize for years, but it took Djotodia, a former civil servant who lived for a decade in Russia, to unite them and pose a serious military threat. When Seleka fighters neared Bangui last year, Bozize’s government agreed to share power. Things fell apart this month when Bozize did not implement his terms, prompting the rebels to take up their arms last week and march on the capital. But Djotodia may not prove so different from the strongman he deposed. After taking the palace, the new president announced he will dissolve the parliament and rule by decree for at least the next three years.
Unfortunately, such a messy transfer of power is not new in CAR where Central Africans have lived through a cycle of rebellions, coups, and dictators since independence from France in 1960 (Bozize himself gained control in 2003 through a military coup). But none of these regimes provided even basic services to the people. Historically supported by foreign militaries and financial aid, a series of ineffective governments presided over little more than a “phantom state,” existing only in border and name. Meaning that despite its mineral wealth, CAR remains one of the world’s poorest countries in a tough geopolitical neighborhood, making the country a breeding ground for armed rebellions as guns flow from neighboring Darfur, Chad, and DRC.
The Central African people may expect occasional coups, but what’s novel this time is the international response. France, the former colonial master, was involved politically and militarily in CAR since independence, but refused to intervene to defend Bozize. Instead, as rebels took Bangui, French reinforcements arrived to secure the airport, while a contingent of soldiers in the city looked after French citizens living there. It doesn’t seem like these troops will do much else, for as one commentator noted, “France is just fed up, exhausted by CAR.” Likewise, the African Union suspended CAR’s membership and will soon freeze assets and enact travel bans on Seleka leaders.
In contrast, South Africa’s CAR adventures may have just begun. The deaths of thirteen South African National Defense Force (SANDF) troops are the worst military loss for South Africa since apartheid. There is outrage in Pretoria as allegations fly of SANDF protecting mineral interests and helping Bozize escape to Cameroon, and some senior military chiefs called South Africa’s troop deployment a “suicide mission.” It’s unclear exactly why South African troops were in CAR to begin with, and neither South African president Jacob Zuma nor the SANDF have given an adequate explanation. South African opposition parties have called on Zuma to bring the troops home, and the South African National Defense Force Union has demanded answers. Whatever the official reason for South Africa’s military presence may end up being, it is clear that South Africa had little legitimate cause to defend the likes of Bozize. The whole episode is a potential political disaster for Zuma, whose hosting of the BRICS summit is now stained by a national tragedy. Zuma has made no indication of pulling SANDF out just yet, though it seems hard to justify continued deployment. Especially given that in CAR, foreign military interventions, much like foreign aid, can do little to stabilize a state that hardly exists.