Once again France is involved in a major military intervention in Africa … this time in the Central African Republic (CAR) ostensibly to prevent growing growing muslim/christian violence amidst talk of genocide. But what exactly is going on in the CAR and will this intervention do any more to enhance stability and economic development than any of France’s numerous interventions in Africa over recent decades?
The CAR is a huge country with a very small population. It is about the size of France and has around 4.5 million inhabitants.
The population is comprised of some 80 different ethnic groups. The religious breakdown seems to be 50% christian, 35% adhering to traditional beliefs, and only about 15% Islam.
It is a former French colony. In fact, the most significant anti-colonial struggle in Africa between the two world wars, the Kongo-Wara rebellion (brutally crushed by the French and covered up) took place in this area.
The country is rich in natural resources: oil, uranium, gold, diamonds, lumber, etc.
CAR ostensibly gained independence in 1958 but the French never really left. They have involved themselves in it’s affairs ever since .. helping install and overthrow despots as it suited them. As far as I can make out they have maintained a permanent military presence. The “father of CAR independence”, Barthélemy Boganda, who was due to become the first prime minister after independence is believed to have been murdered by the French secret service.
So what exactly has happened recently? How is it that people of different religions who have coexisted for centuries have suddenly started killing each other? The answer to these questions is not easy to come by.
What we do know is that in 2003 General François Bozizé seized power in a coup. This was followed by many years of low intensity conflict with a disparate collection of rebel groups in the north. At this stage he was supported by the French who, amongst other things, carried out mirage jet attacks on rebel positions in 2006.
A peace agreement was signed between the government and rebel groups but this fell apart in December 2012 as the rebels (now united under the banner of Seleka) accused the government of breaking promises and immediately began to seize territory. Bozizé appealed for international support but France now stated that it would not assist him. French troops were dispatched however to seize and hold the airport. Several African countries (Chad, Gabon, Cameroon, Angola,South Africa and Republic of Congo) did decide to sent troops to stop the rebels advance on the capital. The South African commitment in particular was significant and some observers viewed this as an attempt to counter French influence in the CAR. By March 24, however, Seleka was able to seize the Capital and install Michel Djotodia as president.
How was it, I wondered, that rebel groups who had not been able to seize power in many years of low intensity conflict were able to sweep to the capital and seize it in a matter of months? Also, I furthered wondered, how was this possible when the rebels apparently represented the Islamic population of CAR which makes up at most 15%. The short answer to this is that Seleka seems to have been substantially stiffened with mercenaries from Chad and Sudan. Who has organised and funded this is an open question. Also, who exactly are these mercenaries?
One interesting thing in the Seleka march to the capital was that one night a substantial group of their fighters (several hundred if not more) came from the direction of the French held airport (where they had no problem with the French)to attack a contingent of South African troops. In the ensuing 19 hour firefight about 14 South Africans were killed. (The South Africans say they killed 500)
Another interesting thing is the the President installed by Seleka, Michel Djotodia, was resolutely pro west. The first thing he did on assuming power was to tear up all the mining and oil contracts the previous government had signed with China. Djotida stated that he would be seeking the help of France and the USA to retrain the CAR Army defeated by Seleka. ““We will rely on the European Union to help us develop this country,” he asserted. “When we have been sick, the European Union was at our bedside. It will not abandon us now.”
Now, while Djotida was tearing up contracts the Selekaa forces were running amuck. Widespread looting, pillaging, rape and murder of Christians commenced. What was this about one wondered? In response Christian communities began to form their own militias to fight the Seleka know as the “anti-balaka” (anti-machete) Unfortunately, they also began to take revenge on ordinary Muslims who had nothing to do with Seleka.
In September 2013, Michel Djotodia announced that Seleka had been dissolved but the militias comprising Seleka did not go along with this. So roaming the country since have been heavily armed bands of men, often speaking no CAR language and answerable to God knows who. On the anti-balaka side as well there are now numerous local militas under no centralised command.
It will be interesting to see who France puts into power to sort all this out. One cannot help but feel, however, that at the end of the day the people of the CAR will continue to be the losers.
And the BRICS countries have not done well while the EU is in the driving seat. China has been stripped of its oil and mineral concessions and South Africa has been given a bloody nose.
There are, by the way, about 100 members of the US Special Forces in the CAR ostensibly seeking Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Sam Lord 10 December 2013