25 March 2013
Alex Vines

Dr Alex Vines OBE

Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; Head, Africa Programme


The African Union has suspended the Central African Republic and imposed a travel ban and assets freeze on leaders of the Séléka rebel group on 25 March. This follows their capture of the capital Bangui, which also forced President Bozizé to flee. The rebels had pulled out of a power sharing agreement and in several days moved the final 75 kilometres from their positions to capture Bangui. With world attention elsewhere, some observers were surprised although this rebel advance was predicted at a meeting at Chatham House last week.

Not long ago in Cairo, the African Union held its retreat of Special Envoys and Mediators to discuss predicted crises in Africa in 2013. Mali, Eastern Congo, Somalia, the Kenyan elections were all on the list: a crisis in the Central African Republic was not. The Central African Republic, known best for its history of coups, military revolts and brutal rule has always been fragile but predicting actual events can be difficult. Observers on the ground report, but getting the political will to act in such a marginalized remote country is always a low priority.

African problems and international solutions

Events in CAR over the last few days again are a reminder of the limits of international action. The collapse of the January peace agreement and the Séléka advance on Bangui were predictable. The former colonial power France, as in December 2012, refused to intervene, only sending additional forces to Bangui airport to support its redeployed troops from the Operation Boali force that had been temporarily assigned to protect French nationals and diplomatic assets in the capital. The Economic Community of Central African States has proved impotent. Its central African military force (FOMAC) could not stop the advance. Neighbouring Chad, which has acted as a regional power broker, did not rush in extra forces in support of Bozizé, and even suggested that Bozizé was finished. South Africa's 200-strong military deployment in Bangui lost 13 soldiers and another 27 were injured after Séléka's push into Bangui. Pretoria is bolstering its forces in the short term, which have been there since 2007 as part of a security agreement. This agreement had recently extended to 2018 and even in January 2013, the number of South African troops had been extended. This short term increase is to secure and repatriate their equipment.

Events in CAR show - as they did previously in Mali - that much of Africa's Peace and Security Architecture is not yet fit for purpose. Even the military of a regional power like South Africa, when deployed unilaterally is unable to provide a robust military response to a ragtag rebel group, such as Séléka. This is worrying but it also reflects the ambiguity over what the South Africans were doing in Bangui in the first place. I suspect that the original deployment was made by then South African president Thabo Mbeki, partly to try and end French military neo-colonial dominance, and under the change to a Zuma presidency in 2009 this policy continued and was never reviewed. South Africa, once again has blundered, as it did in 2010 and 2011 over Côte d’Ivoire when the post-election crisis there forced Pretoria to re-evaluate an Mbeki-era policy.

So what happens to the Central African Republic now it is under rebel control?

Popular frustration over the previous government's inclusiveness and over irregularities in the presidential and legislative elections from Bozizé's re-election in 2011 had galvanized the rebellion. But Séléka ('alliance'), has not shown that it can offer a better future and has over recent months committed human rights abuses and extracted tribute from those passing through or living in areas it controls. They are a ragtag coalition of insurgents formed by dissident factions of three former rebel groups - the Convention patriotique du salut du Kodro, the Convention des patriotes pour la justice et la paix (CPJP) and the Union des forces démocratiques pour le Rassemblement. Séléka claims that the Bozizé administration has failed to uphold the terms of peace deals signed in 2007, 2008, and 2011, under which former combatants were to be given economic opportunities, including jobs and compensation. In reality their only vision is to become a government and provide patronage to their supporters.

Séléka's capture of Bangui is the latest in a long history of chronic instability in the CAR since it obtained independence from France in 1960: at least three coup plots were foiled in 2012. It has suffered from interlinking insurgencies in neighbouring Chad, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Congo-Brazzaville. Despite some international efforts to disarm rebel groups – including a 400-strong Micopax stabilization mission and more than €100m of EU spending on peace consolidation missions in the country since 2004 – it has seen numerous incursions and has remained unstable. In October 2012, the French nuclear giant, Areva, suspended its operations at its uranium mining operation in Bakouma because of low global demand and poor security.

Now under AU sanctions and widely condemned, Séléka's leaders have limited options. They will come under pressure to step down and permit new elections. But there are dangers, especially if the United Nations does not now respond to this crisis and beef up its engagement. The regional body and South Africa have shown their limitations and a fragile CAR, ruled by warlords could overspill into already vulnerable neighbours, including Cameroon. At a time when much of Africa is enjoying increased stability and growth, instability in countries like CAR and Mali pose regional risks that we should not ignore.

Further resources

A Decade of African Peace and Security Architecture
Alex Vines, International Affairs, January 2013

Crisis in the Central African Republic
Alex Vines, Expert Comment, December 2012

Financial Times Video: Alex Vines on the Central African Republic