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When a Government Falls in the CAR, Do Analysts Hear a Sound?: A Narrative of Current Events

This piece, written by Danny Hirschel-Burns, from Swarthmore College STAND, originally appeared on his blog The Widening Lens.

As I sarcastically noted in the above tweet yesterday, the reaction from the foreign policy community to the news of rebels entering Bangui last night was quite underwhelming.  Though I’m about the furthest thing from a CAR expert, I’d like to do my part to fill the information gap about the collapse of Bozize’s regime by aggregating various news reports and producing a more coherent narrative.

Bozize’s (whose ascendancy to power seems to have started when he beat up a French officer) downfall began back in December, when a coalition of four rebel groups, Seleka (meaning “Alliance” in Sango) took up arms against CAR’s government.  The two most powerful groups that form Seleka, the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR) and the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP) , both started as loosely-organized self-defense militias in northeastern CAR (and of the two, the UFDR is the most powerful).   While Bozize’s neglect of rural areas is surely a cause of the rebellion, in the New York Times, Louisa Lombard argues that a United Nations D.D.R. program that failed to understand how the CAR actually works (and seems to have even encouraged some rebels to take up arms) also shares some of the blame.

As Seleka advanced and looked as if they might well overthrow Bozize, the government took to the negotiating table.  Though the “talks”, held in the Gabonese capital of Libreville, were conducted with plenty of pomp by the four regional leaders present, they did not produce any strong comprises.  The hastily signed peace document simply rehashed previous talks from 2007 and 2008 which Bozize had failed to uphold.  Seleka itself, though present at the negotiations, was internally divided on whether or not to engage with the government, considering its then position of strength.

By mid-March, Bozize had still failed to uphold the peace agreement.  Seleka accused Bozize of not fulfilling the four main demands by the rebels that had appeared in the January talks: the release of political prisoners, an end to the curfew and road blocks, the withdrawal of foreign (primarily South African) troops from the country, and finally the integration of at least 2,000 rebel soldiers into the country’s security forces.  The accusation caused Bozize to appear on radio on March 15th and decree that his government respect the first and second demands.  However, his actions only partially placated dissenting voices.  Though Prime Minister  Nicolas Tiangaye (a Seleka representative who had been inducted in the newly formed unity government) had repeatedly encouraged Seleka to lay down its weapons and engage in dialogue with the government, on March 18th, Minister of Defense Michel Djotodia (also a newly inducted government member from Seleka) threatened to overthrow Bozize if the rebels demands were not met within 72 hours and fled Bangui to join with Seleka armed forces.  Bozize failed to meet the demands, Seleka advanced, taking Bangui and causing Bozize to flee across the river to the DRC on the 23rd.

Before I move into the nitty-gritty of what’s happened in the last three days, I’d like to ruminate on two reasons why Seleka was able to overthrow Bozize.  First, there seems to have been a strategic miscalculation on Bozize’s part.  While he had been able to maintain control after sham peace process in ’07 and ’08, it clearly didn’t work this time.  Surely, it should have been pretty clear that the rebels were both militarily strong enough to take Bangui (perhaps he was counting on international support that never materialized?) and that individuals like Djotodia could not be co-opted, even as members of the government.  One possibility is that Bozize himself was not the final power broker here.  Perhaps decision making power in his government was diffuse, meaning hardliners ultimately overruled and paralyzed Bozize, but considering the perfunctory nature of January’s peace talks, the first explanation, a pure political miscalculation, seems more likely.  Second, Bozize fell into a classic trap for dictators in weak states, “Observers say Mr Bozize kept the army weak because he was afraid of a military coup” (via BBC).  James Fearson wrote about this dilemma in the Monkey Cage, and indeed, it seems that dictators (ok, so Bozize won elections, but still had dictatorial tendencies) in weak states, even without ample resources, are unable to build strong security forces to safeguard their rule because of the threat of mutiny.

So what’s happening right now?  It sounds as if, at the time of writing, the skirmishes between Seleka and government forces have ended.  Despite the end of formal fighting, there seems to be widespread looting in Bangui, which may be being directed or prevented by Seleka, depending on the article you read.  Reports indicate that nine South African soldiers died defending Bozize’s governments.  Though it’s still unclear exactly why there were there in the first, the theories I’ve seen have postulated it was an attempt to extend SA’s continental influence and curry good favor with Bozize in order to access CAR’s mineral wealth.  France, which already has 250 soldiers stationed around Bangui’s airport, has deployed another 300 ostensibly to protect French citizens, and Francois Hollande has stated that he does not intend to interfere in internal CAR affairs.   This surge in fighting seems to have involved many child soldiers, and there are also unconfirmed reports of rape and torture perpetrated by the rebels.  While Djotodia has declared himself interim President (he surely has the shortest Wikipedia page of any world leader), Tiangaye was named Prime Minister, and elections are to be held in three year’s time.

The situation on the ground will inevitably change rapidly within the next few days, and in all likelihood, the full picture will become more clear with time.  Finally, I hope that this conflict will start to receive the attention it deserves.

Update 1 (12:15 am EST, 3/26/13)

News is still slow to make it’s way out of CAR.  Ban Ki-Moon has condemned Seleka’s seizure of power and expressed concern regarding reports of atrocities and the deteriorating humanitarian situation (especially in areas of the CAR where the LRA has had a presence).  Looting continues, but several regional armed forces are working with Seleka to restore order.  Seleka has pledged to name a power-sharing government, and has also suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament.  Finally, the death toll for South African soldiers has been raised to 13.

Update 2 (12:30 pm EST, 3/26/13)

Djotodia issued the following statement, “I consider it necessary to suspend the November 27, 2004 constitution, to dissolve parliament as well as the government.  During this transition period which will lead us to free, credible and transparent elections, I will legislate by decree.  We will lead the people of Central African Republic during a three-year transition period, in accordance with the Libreville Accord.”  This statement cites a recognition of the Libreville Accord, despite the fact that Seleka’s rejection of the legitimacy of this process was the main cause for taking up arms.  In light of the rebellion, The African Union has suspended the CAR and placed personal sanctions on Seleka leaders.  Water is in short supply throughout the CAR, and large parts of the country, including Bangui, are without electricity.  Ex-President Bozize, after a few days of unknown whereabouts, has popped up in Cameroon.  The US has weighed in on the issue, condemning Bozize’s ouster, but also failed to call for his re-instatement.  Finally, the BBC (surely responding to my statement on the short length of Michel Djotodia’s Wikipedia page) has published a profile of the world’s newest leader.

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