Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1141, 28 March - 3 April 2013
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1141, 28 March - 3 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

Blackout in Bangui

The Central African Republic is a nation without a compass, yet all its choices are explored by Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

One of the aspects of the Central African Republic, that most conventional journalistic accounts of the landlocked country in the heart of the continent — as its name indicates — hardly ever convey, is that not only is it one of the most inaccessible places on earth, but the sheer strangeness of the place is awe-inspiring, evoking hellish images of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
The Ubangi River’s sensuous undercurrents, the verdant tropical foliage of its banks, separates it from its much larger but equally war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. To its northwest are breathtaking mountainous terrain and savanna teaming with game that draw out into Darfur and the swampland that seeps into South Sudan. In short, the Central African Republic is surrounded by war-torn territories.
There are unpaved highways that wend through impenetrable equatorial jungle and lead to nowhere. The sorry state of the sprawling country’s road system and bush paths, sheltered by giant tropical hardwoods, explains how the armed opposition militias called SELEKA crept stealthily towards the capital under the cover of darkness, but it does not shed light on how Central African Republic President François Bozizé, who was forced to flee his battered capital Bangui, actually managed to do so. Perhaps he took a helicopter, since the impoverished country’s sole international airport is inoperable.
SELEKA promptly suspended the mineral-rich country’s constitution, dissolved the rubber stamp parliament and declared a state of emergency and transitional military rule. Fears of the eruption of bloodshed and political chaos grips the land, since SELEKA is a coalition of rival militia and mercenaries in the service of fierce warlords. “They fought a high-tempo battle for nine hours defending the South African base, until the bandits raised a white flag and asked for a ceasefire,” South African President Jacob Zuma said. “Our soldiers inflicted heavy casualties among the attacking bandit forces.”
Pretoria’s diplomatic heft could benefit Bangui in parallel. The pertinent question uppermost in people’s minds is why South African troops are in the Central African Republic in the first place. Yes, the African Union authorised Pretoria’s military intervention, and South Africa’s ambitions to broker solutions to the continent’s conflicts are widely accepted since it is Africa’s most influential political country and perhaps it has the continent’s most professional army.
The South African military presence in Bangui, however, has failed to stop sporadic artillery gunfire that continues to ring out across the Central African Republic’s capital. The South African National Defence Force Union, which represents soldiers in labour talks, criticised its government for leaving ill-equipped troops in a country after Central African Republic President Bozizé “jumped ship like a coward”.
Regional peacekeepers, Chadian and South African, said that leader of the SELEKA coalition of disgruntled tribal militias, self-proclaimed President Michel Djotodia, appealed for their help. The bloodshed in Central Africa raised questions about why South Africa intervened in a country where Pretoria didn’t appear to have vital interests and whose government was on the brink of collapse. South Africa had about 250 troops in the Central African Republic and it is not explicit whether they are in the country to protect President Bozizé, the ousted albeit still official head of state and internationally recognised as such by the African Union and the United Nations, or whether the South Africans are defending certain unidentified mines, and other economic and commercial interests. The South African casualties were the direct result of SELEKA militiamen storming the base where the South African troops had been housed since arriving in January in Bangui, officially, to help shore up Bozizé’s government.
There are conflicting and unconfirmed reports of South African troops successfully defending the base, but President Zuma of South Africa revealed that heavy fighting over the weekend resulted in the death of 13 soldiers and 27 injured South Africans with one soldier still missing.
An estimated 5,000 SELEKA staged a lightning offensive on Bangui in which they fought their way from the far north of the country where most of their supporters are based to the presidential palace in four days after the collapse of the power-sharing deal, the so-called Libreville Accord, signed in the Gabonese capital in January.
SELEKA’s ousting of President Bozizé on Sunday was strongly condemned by the United Nations and African Union. But in a sign of pragmatism, the United States, France and regional power-broker neighbouring Chad called on the insurgents to respect a January peace deal creating a unity government.
Neighbouring Cameroon confirmed on Monday that Bozizé had arrived there but said it was not giving him permanent refuge.
The forcible removal of Bozizé, who had himself seized power in a coup backed by neighbouring Chad in 2003, was just the latest of many military takeovers in a country which won independence from France in 1960.
Burying a bloody tribal conflict that has raged for decades between northerners and southerners in the Central African Republic and has taken thousands of lives alone would be a big enough prize for both Pretoria and Bangui. Indeed, if peace is brokered by regional powers it will buy rewards far beyond the peace dividends. It will contribute to regional security and political stability. The country is in an economic mess, a situation that aggravates ethnic tensions. “We will lead the people of Central African Republic during a three-year transition period, in accordance with the Libreville Accord,” Djotodia declared in a recorded statement. It was not broadcast due to power cuts.
The President of the Central African Republic Bozizé, fled the country for Cameroon in mysterious circumstances. Central African Republic’s new leadership appeared fragmented, with a split emerging in the rebel coalition that seized the capital.
The African Union on Monday imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on seven leaders of the SELEKA warlords. It urged African states to deny “any sanctuary and cooperation” to the SELEKA militiamen. The United States, too, declared that it is “deeply concerned about a serious deterioration in the security situation” in Central African Republic, according to the US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland’s statement announced on Sunday. “We urgently call on the SELEKA leadership which has taken control of Bangui to establish law and order in the city and to restore basic services of electricity and water,” Nuland’s statement stressed.
The most pertinent implications of the envisaged restoration to power, even if temporary, of President Bozizé is bound to be domestic as well as regional. It would facilitate the modernisation of one of the world’s least developed countries. It would also rejuvenate political life by weakening ethnic conflicts and redefine citizenship in civic rather than in ethnic, tribal and clan terms. It would open the polity up to all the ethnic and religious groups of the Central African Republic and lighten the grip of Bozizé’s own Gbaya people. Bozizé himself was born in neighbouring oil-rich Gabon.
Ironically, Bozizé who rose to become a high-ranking army officer in the 1970s, under the regime of the discredited self-styled Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa, has gone from demonised dictator to de facto interlocutor of Paris, Pretoria, Washington and the African Union. After Bokassa’s political demise, Bozizé served in the government as minister of Defence from 1979 to 1981 and as minister of information from 1981 to 1982. His record is deplorable as a corrupt politician in an archetypical failed state. He participated in a failed 1982 coup attempt against President Andre Kolingba and subsequently fled the country as he did this weekend once again. History repeats itself in the Central African Republic and Bozizé is invariably the comeback kid.
Years later, he served as army chief of staff under President Ange-Felix Patasse, a protégé of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. But, Bozizé in his usual unscrupulous fashion rebelled against Patassé in 2001, betraying his former benefactor and paymaster, Gaddafi. It is against this ugly historical backdrop that a deal must be reached that both sides must be determined to see stick, to resolve this latest political crisis cum coup d’état in the Central African Republic. Ousted President Bozizé sought “temporary” refuge on its territory, the Cameroonian government confirmed Monday. He will be back someday in Bangui no doubt.

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