The Republic That Never Was: Another Violent Takeover in Central Africa

Despite its name, the Central African Republic has been ruled by strongmen for decades. The latest upheaval will not change that

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SIA KAMBOU / AFP/ Getty Images

A picture taken on Jan. 10, 2013 shows Seleka rebels take up positions in a village 12 km from Damara. Rebels in the Central African Republic toppled President François Bozizé after seizing control of the capital Bangui on March 24, 2013

Victory came swiftly for rebels in the Central African Republic. It took just three days of fighting for them to capture the capital Bangui on March 24. The constitution was quickly suspended, parliament dissolved, and the new, self-declared leader Michel Djotodia insisted on ruling by decree. As he settled into the presidential palace (and ousted President François Bozizé found refuge in a Hilton in neighboring Cameroon), rebels and gunmen went on a rampage in Bangui, looting shops, churches and international organizations.

Residents say the rebels are now trying to stop the looting, but electricity and water are off, and many shops remain closed. Prices have shot up; and food shortages are leading to hunger. “Even if we were very poor under Bozizé, we are now living in fear,” says Armel Bangon, a local teacher. “Nobody knows what will happen next.”

What initially seemed like a contained and manageable conflict has quickly become internationalized. France has sent 250 troops to augment 350 already in the country in order to secure the airport. French President François Hollande declared that all parties should “remain calm and hold talks on a national unity government” but he added that France’s days as “Africa’s policeman” had passed. Adding to the drama, French troops shot and killed two Indian expatriates who appeared to have been driving toward the airport in search of refuge.

The other regional policeman, South Africa, has had worse luck. During the rebel advance, 13 South African military personnel were killed, leading to an uproar in that country directed at South African President Jacob Zuma’s decision to send them into harm’s way. The South African peacekeepers, numbering 400, were defending Bozizé up against thousands of rebels and say they were severely underequipped. In the weeks before the attack, South African commanders reportedly told their seniors that the mission amounted to “suicide.” On Wednesday, six more South African special-forces members were reportedly killed. The death toll is the worst for the nation’s army since apartheid.

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Despite the criticism, Zuma has said he will be looking for ways to reinforce the troops stationed there, as opposed to bringing them home as many of his countrymen are demanding. “South Africa definitely bet on the wrong horse,” says International Crisis Group’s Thierry Vircoulon. “They completely misunderstood the regional dynamics; that the African peacekeepers would not do anything, and that Bozizé effectively had no national army, making the South African peacekeepers his only safety net.”

A shaky peace agreement reached between the government and rebels in January may have made the South Africans believe the security situation would improve. However, a look at the recent history of the Central African Republic would not have inspired such confidence. The Seleka rebel alliance, which now consists of five rebel groups, emerged on Sept. 15, 2012 with an attack on three towns in the eastern part of the country. But some of the groups had been fighting the government since 2003, after Bozizé first seized power in a military coup — and among them, they have signed countless peace agreements, all of which have fallen apart.

The groups that now form the Seleka alliance were all signatories of the 2007–08 peace agreements, in which the government promised to offer financial support and additional help to insurgents who laid down their arms. The rebels said Bozizé failed to honor the agreements and, thus, they took up arms to pressure him to do so. When the rebels started taking towns across the north, Bozizé called in vain for help from the U.S. and France. Fearing a rebel victory, he began negotiations with the rebels to begin integrating their troops into state institutions.

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The resulting agreement stopped the offensive momentarily, after Bozizé promised to provide, among other things, financial support for former rebels. However, Seleka leaders said Bozizé was taking too long and did not seem to be genuinely dedicated to the agreement. They then gave him a three-day ultimatum, and were soon celebrating victory in the capital as rebel soldiers swept across the country.

Now that Bozizé has gone, many are asking whether life will get any better for the people of the Central African Republic. The country is rich with uranium, diamonds and gold and yet remains one of the world’s least developed nations. Under Bozizé, corruption was rampant, and state institutions deteriorated. The country has never really deserved the description “republic.” Military men have swept to power again and again. Indeed, in the 1970s, Jean-Bédel Bokassa did away with pretenses and renamed the country the Central African Empire and himself its Emperor — until the French deposed him. Having come to power by way of a coup, Bozizé chose to keep the military weak. No one expects the Seleka to improve conditions.

“It is hard to see much difference between Bozizé’s regime and the Seleka rebels considering they came to power in exactly the same way,” says Andreas Mehler, an expert on central Africa with the German Institute of Global and Area Studies. “If Djotodia was serious about reform he should just call for elections now,” says Mehler, rather than promising to hold them in 2016. “Nothing will change between then and now, apart from the fact he will have time to increase his support base through material means like Bozizé did”.

Djotodia is now facing opposition from within the Seleka alliance that he rode to power. Another rebel leader, Nelson N’Djadder has declared that he does not recognize Djotodia as the groups’ chief. In an apparent attempt to appease the U.S. and the international community, Djotodia said he will soon announce a power-sharing government, but as rebels and ministers fight for positions, many are concerned that further divisions could soon emerge. Djotodia has also said he will stick to the terms of the January peace deal, despite already having broken it by suspending the constitution. Said one local NGO worker: “For now, we wait and just hope that Djotodia will be more than just the lesser of two evils.”

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