David Rilley-Harris
Ditsong National Museum of Military History
August 2020


Source: UNICEF
Introduction

During the Cold War Africa had been a battle ground for the two massive power blocs of the capitalist West and communist East. The end of the Cold War coincided with the end of South Africa’s Apartheid era and so as power vacuums appeared in Africa, a new optimism grew regarding South Africa’s role on the continent. European dominated United Nations peacekeeping missions in Africa were to make way for increasing peacekeeper support from African countries and the legacy of European dominance in Africa might finally be eased aside.

In the last few years of the 20th Century, African Renaissance was discussed in South Africa as France debated military withdrawal from its former colonies, including the Central African Republic. In March 2013, two hundred South African soldiers found themselves forming a vanguard of these ideals as a numerically far superior rebel force drew down on their lines. Inadequately supported and inadequately equipped, the extremely well trained and disciplined South African defence held out as long as humanly possible.

Central African Republic (CAR) 2003 Coup

In the French 1995 elections, François Mitterrand was replaced by Jacques Chirac whose new political party promised a return to the France imagined at the end of the Second World War. The Cold War was over and France would suspend conscription and reduce the size of their military. In the article French Military Reform and Restructuring, American defence analyst Ronald Tiersky wrote, “No longer will typical operations consist of a few hundred soldiers jerry-dispatched to former French Africa to put down a coup or replace a failing president”.1

The French dominated peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, MISAB, was coming to an end. MISAB stood for Mission Interafricaine de Surveillance des Accords de Bangui (Inter-African Accord Monitoring in Bangui). While MISAB was comprised of African countries financed almost entirely by France, the new United Nations peacekeeping mission would be more of an international effort with over 1300 troops and support staff from Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Canada, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, France, Gabon, Mali, Portugal, Senegal, Togo, and Tunisia. The UN mission was called MINURCA or Mission des Nations Unies en RCA (UN Peacekeeping Mission in the CAR).

In 1998, a few months after MINURCA was launched, the South African Cabinet approved the White Paper on South African Participation in International Peace Missions. Much was said about African Renaissance and the altruism of a new South Africa. The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) Chief, General Siphiwe Nyanda, spoke of South Africa’s “…relatively speaking… wealth of resources and capabilities to contribute…” to peacekeeping. The more pragmatic angles were also considered with a large proportion of South African exports being bought within Africa, and with the spill-over effects of African conflicts having the potential to threaten South African security. There was also a stated awareness of the support which peacekeeping provides for trade and development.2 There was a shared will for African countries to take on a larger role in African peacekeeping and South Africa seemed well positioned to step up.

In CAR, MINURCA was being hailed as a success. An official UN communique said “MINURCA contributed significantly to restoring a climate of stability and security as well as dialogue among political actors. This progress encouraged efforts, with support of Bretton Woods institutions, to re-launch the economy and also enabled legislative elections to take place in a peaceful manner in November/ December 1998. MINURCA also played a supportive role in the staging of the presidential elections of September 1999, which were won by the incumbent President Ange-Félix Patassé.”3 MINURCA, however, ended in April 2000 and CAR began to unravel almost immediately. A weak economy and the strikes that accompanied it led to calls for the removal of President Patassé. After an attempted coup in May 2001 ethnic and political violence led to the exodus of 50,000 people from CAR capital Bangui with at least 300 people being killed. At the time, President Patassé was personally protected by 100 Libyan soldiers and 300 soldiers of a rebel group from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) called the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC). While Patassé became increasingly reliant on foreign troops, and the MLC added to the looting and killings in Bangui, a previously sacked CAR army (FACA) Chief of Staff planned a rebellion. His name was François Bozizé.4


François Bozizé. Source: DefenceWeb

Bozizé may have been planning a coup of his own when he was sacked in October 2001. His removal from FACA polarised the army and Bozizé escaped to France. From France Bozizé fermented rebellion in CAR and President Patassé asked Libya to provide more soldiers to defend Bangui. Libya saw fit to deploy 300 troops who were replaced with a new regional African peacekeeping force called FOMUC (Forces Multinationales de la CEMAC). CEMAC was the Central African Economic and Monetary Union. At this time, MLC remained in CAR.5 FOMUC (which became FOMAC on 12 July 2008) along with the CAR army (FACA) were the two forces which had been expected to stand in defence of Bangui alongside South Africa in the 2013 battle.

On 25 October 2002, forces supporting Bozizé attacked Bangui. President Patassé’s 300 strong Libyan supporting force along with several hundred MLC soldiers successfully defended Bangui with the help of two Libyan Marchetti aircraft which bombed rebel positions in the northern part of Bangui. President Patassé launched a counterattack with MLC forces and reclaimed some land in the north of CAR. Regional influence on the CAR conflict escalated as Bozizé found support from Chad (providing elite troops) and the DRC (providing hardware) and the Republic of the Congo (providing 4.6 Million Euros). Gabon also spoke in favour of Bozizé while FOMUC were told not to interfere and FACA stood idle.6 In a new attack on 15 March 2003, Bangui was easily taken by Bozizé. From South Africa, President Thabo Mbeki and his then Deputy Jacob Zuma condemned the coup.7

South Africa’s first fully fledged African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission (AMIB) took place in Burundi a few months after the 2003 CAR coup8. South Africa led AMIB and it was a partial success at a cost to South Africa of US$140 Million9. Bozizé retained a precarious hold on power in CAR until winning an election in 2005. Patassé was excluded from the ballot.

South Africa Enters CAR

President Bozizé relied heavily on the Chadian troops who had assisted him in the 2003 coup. In 2006 a rebellion formed in northern CAR in response to claims of Chadian looting and Bozizé corruption. They called themselves the APRD or Armée Populaire pour la Restauration de la Démocratie (People’s Army for the Restoration of Democracy) and were formed from remnants of Patassé’s Presidential Guard.10

In January 2006 South Africa’s SANDF and Defence Department left for CAR on a fact finding mission. This visit resulted from an AU meeting were President Bozizé approached President Mbeki requesting military defence help and financial investment so that CAR could be less reliant on France11, and perhaps Chad, who maintained a close relationship with France. In April 2006 South Africa’s Defence Minister, Terror Lekota, signed a cooperation agreement with CAR for defence, minerals and energy, and followed up that agreement with an “onsite assessment” trip in May 200612. In September 2006 three CAR rebel groups united to form the UFDR (Union des Forces Démocratiques pour la Rassemblement). They were made up of the MLJC (Mouvement des Libérateurs Centrafricains pour la Justice), the GAPLC (Groupe d’Action Patriotique pour la Libération de Centrafique), and the FDC (Front Démocratique Centrafricain). In October 2006 the UFDR began taking substantial territory in northern CAR. President Bozizé asked for help from “…friendly nations, in particular those linked by specific treaties, particularly France, to work for the restoration of the territorial integrity”13. FACA launched a counterattack on 27 November 2006 with French tactical and logistical support. French forces became increasingly involved during the fighting using HALO (high altitude low opening) parachute drops and needing to employ air support to avoid being overrun.14 A South Africa/CAR defence cooperation agreement signed on 11 February 2007 called for “co-operation on peace and stability and the training and capacity building of military personnel through the exchange of trainees, instructors and observers”. Later that year the AU Peace and Security Council asked African states to help CAR in “the consolidation of peace and security”.15 France came under criticism from the UN and Human Rights Watch for allowing FACA to commit human rights violations during the counterattack against UFDR. The violations may have been committed by retreating UFDR forces but France was under generalised pressure due to continued French interventionism in Africa.16 On 13 April 2007, UFDR and the CAR government signed a peace agreement involving amnesty, recognition for UFDR as a political party, and the planned integration of its forces into FACA.

South Africa’s mission in CAR was called Operation Vimbezela (literally, besiege). One or two Ratel 90s were delivered for training purposes and hundreds of FACA soldiers were trained up. The South African soldiers were from 1 Parachute Battalion and 5 Special Forces Regiment. Growing instability in the wider region led to the deployment of EUFOR (a France dominated European Union security force) with UN backing in 2008. Concurrently, UNAMID (United Nations – African Union Mission in Darfur) was launched in Sudan becoming the first hybrid UN-AU peacekeeping mission and the largest peacekeeping mission in the world. The UN asked South Africa to commit more to UNAMID which it did in November 2008 bringing the South African contribution to over 760 personnel. South Africa was also involved with MONUSCO (UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo). A researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue, Fritz Nganje, suggested that South African interests in CAR may have included concerns over the potential for CAR violence to spill over into the DRC17. On 28 February 2008 French President Nicolas Sarkozy delivered a speech to the Parliament of South Africa. Sarkozy said, “We find ourselves in a situation in which our political, military and economic engagement alongside Africa is seen by many not as a well-meant helping hand but as neo-colonial interference; and in which, at the same time, indifference, withdrawal or lack of engagement on our part is criticised as abandonment or lack of gratitude”. Sarkozy also mentioned that if the AU achieves its will to have a strong standby force available by 2012 then France would be able to withdraw its own military presence18.


CAR army base Vimbezela. Source: Wikipedia
Rise of the Séléka Rebels

Seleka rebel coalition members in a village north of the Central
African Republic capital on January 10, 2013. Source CNN (Getty Images)

On 23 January 2011, President Bozizé was elected to a second term in office. While some said that the polling was marred by fraud19, others described the election as “reasonably free and fair”20. In any case, President Bozizé became a reasonably credible leader by regional standards and continued to survive by absorbing rebel attacks into the underequipped and demoralized FACA ranks21.

Progressing peace agreements gave the appearance that CAR was stabilising up until November 2012. In September 2012, largely Muslim elements of what remained of CAR’s rebel groups united into one coalition. They called themselves the Séléka (coalition in Sango, one of CAR’s official languages with French). The Séléka were made up of parts of the FDPC (Democratic Front of the Central African People), CPJP (Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace), UFDR (Union for the Rallying of Democratic Forces), A2R (Alliance for Revival and Rebuilding), and the CPSK (Patriotic Convention for Saving the Country). On a CNN Global Public Square blog African Studies doctoral candidate Jason Warner wrote, “Government officials from Bangui have accused Seleka of harboring ‘foreign provocateurs’ greedy for the country’s vast mineral wealth, and there are suspicions that nationals from Chad, Nigeria, and Sudan also make up Seleka’s ranks”22.

In November 2012, a Séléka offensive rapidly overran the north and centre of CAR while the small South African contingent remained at bases in Bouar and Bangui. In early December 2012 President Zuma sent Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to CAR to assess the situation and her report recommended an intervention23. South Africa was facing a double-edged sword. During December, President Bozizé appealed to South Africa for help based on the 2007 agreement and claimed that South Africa’s failure to assist FACA as much as had been planned left South Africa liable for FACA’s weak state24. On the other hand, the Séléka had swept through the northern half of CAR in a matter of weeks taking strategic towns and prompting Chad, the Republic of Congo, Cameroon, and Gabon to send soldiers onto CAR25. President Bozizé had been accused of reneging on aspects of previous peace agreements and did not have convincing regional support. A report from senior SANDF officers to South Africa’s top structures warned that the CAR mission amounted to “suicide”26. There was also the question of how the South African team in CAR could be evacuated without abandoning military equipment. Some equipment would be difficult to access as it was stored in the Bangui presidential palace to which South Africa did not have free access27. A withdrawal would also come with a political cost and could precipitate an attack on Bangui.

The SANDF gave a conservative estimate of its needs for remaining in CAR. This included “a company of paratroopers of 1 Parachute Battalion, with a composite weapons platoon with four 12.7mm heavy machineguns and four 81mm mortars, and with seven Gecko vehicles to transport the heavy weapons and ammunition; a detachment of 5 Special Forces Regiment, with two of its specialised Hornet vehicles with 12.7mm machineguns and 107mm multiple rocket launchers and four Land Cruisers armed with 7.62mm PKM machineguns; a tactical intelligence team, an electronic intelligence team, some engineers and some signallers; and two Casspir armoured ambulances and two ordinary ambulances. The force also acquired five ordinary Land Cruisers and a single 5-ton truck from the South African training team, and provision was made to deploy the remainder of 1 Parachute Battalion if necessary”28.


SANDF Gecko. Lieutenant Colonel William Bucibe; Captain Mmakoena Mahlo; Staff Sergeant Serole Mampa; Major Luckyboy Kwele; Colonel William Dixon.  Source TimesLive (Photo by: James Oatway)


SANDF Hornet. Source: DefenceWeb

On 6 January 2013 South Africa announced the planned deployment of 400 troops “to render support in fulfilment of an international obligation of the Republic of South Africa towards the CAR… to assist with capacity building of the CAR defence force and will also assist CAR with the planning and implementation of the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration processes… The employment of members of (South Africa’s military) to CAR is one of the efforts that South Africa is making to bring about peace and stability in the region”29. Jules Gauthier Ngbapo, a spokesman for Josue Binoua, CAR minister of decentralisation and territorial administration asked, “How can there be peace if the rebels are looting, raping and abducting our civilians?” Ngbapo accused the Séléka of “shooting randomly, destroying properties and… raping civilians”. Souleymane Diabate, UN children agency representative in CAR said, “Reliable sources have informed us that children are newly being recruited among their ranks”.30 On 6 January 2013, the Mail & Guardian website reported South Africa’s condemnation of the Séléka attacks and their undermining of the Libreville Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The report mentioned that 200 of the 400 South African troops had been deployed and were well equipped, expecting a five year stay.31 On the arrival of South African reinforcements, the South African force in CAR pulled out of Bouar and all resources were moved into Bangui32. According to an article in the Sunday Times, South African field commanders pleaded unsuccessfully for armoured personnel carriers, sniper rifles, Rooivalk attack helicopters, Oryx transport helicopters, and a reconnaissance aircraft33. In the meantime, South African Defence Minister Mapisa-Nqakula was estimating the cost of deployment at R1-billion34.

A tentative CAR Unity Government was briefly formed with Séléka, prompting South Africa to consider pulling out of CAR in a moment where it appeared to be stabilising, but UN representative Margaret Vogt pleaded with South Africa to wait35. By 18 March, Séléka had grown impatient with President Bozizé’s apparent unwillingness to accede to demands for the release of political prisoners, integration of Séléka forces into FACA, and for South African soldiers to leave CAR. After an ultimatum expired Séléka advanced farther taking the towns of Damara and Bossangoa on 21 March. When hostilities resumed, President Bozizé was on a “courtesy call” to South Africa35. The regional peacekeeping force, FOMAC, had established Damara as a red line but when Séléka took the town residents said that FOMAC had simply stepped aside36.

Early on 22 March 2013, Nelson Ndjadder, a CPSK spokesperson for Séléka, said that their forces were a few kilometres from Bangui and that “We have 2000 men on the ground and some have slipped into the capital”37. FACA warned that FOMAC vehicles were responsible for smuggling Séléka soldiers into Bangui38. French forces were distracted by a fight against Islamist rebels in Mali and left less than 300 soldiers in CAR who were almost entirely tasked with protecting the airport. President Bozizé was said to have told his cabinet to seek safety and as national radio announced the rebel advance shops and schools closed and the streets of Bangui filled with panicked residents looking for safety.39 Not long after midday, the streets of Bangui fell quiet40. South Africa’s training teams and reinforcements together numbered around 265. Séléka force strength estimates vary from 1000 to 7000.

The Battle of Bangui

Around midday on 22 March 2013, a FACA force reported coming under fire near Damara prompting the South African force commander, Colonel William Dixon, to send a Special Forces team northward to assess the situation41. 15km from Damara the Special Forces reconnaissance team reached a FACA checkpoint which reported no movement. 10km from Damara soldiers (presumably FACA) were again encountered and again reported no movement. Shortly after, now more than 20km north of Bangui and at 3pm, the South Africans found themselves in the middle of a 300m-long ambush with enemy fire coming from only 10m from the roadside42. The South Africans with their four Land Cruisers and two Hornet vehicles with heavy machine guns returned fire on the 200 strong Séléka ambush and managed to break out after a 15-minute fight which wounded three South Africans43. The wounded were taken to the airport for evacuation to Pretoria where they were admitted to 1 Military Hospital at 1am on the morning of 23 March44. 150 paratroopers of Charlie Company, 1 Parachute Battalion, had been settling down for the night when they were turned around by the return of the bullet riddled Special Forces patrol. As night fell, they deployed on a defensive line off the Damara road 4,5km north of their Bangui base45. The commander of the Special Forces patrol reported that the Séléka had been well equipped and were heavily armed46.

After a quiet night, at 8am on 23 March, Colonel Dixon’s Land Cruiser and tactical headquarters travelled to the French Embassy getting confirmation that the French would keep the airport secure and available for South African casualties47. On leaving the embassy, he received word that the Charlie Company defensive line, or blue line, was under attack. With his driver, a signaller, two pathfinders, and his second-in-command, Major Michel Silva, Colonel Dixon’s Land Cruiser raced to the front line48. The paratroopers were being attacked in waves by an enemy using AK47s, machine guns, mortars, grenade launchers, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and bakkies with Russian anti-aircraft machine guns bolted on the back (technicals). During this time, a South African combat medic, Staff Sergeant Serole Mampa, returned rebel fire while helping to rescue a wounded soldier, and Séléka Colonel Ali Abubaker was on one of the first technicals hit taking seven killed and three wounded.49 When Colonel Dixon reached the front two paratrooper platoons had been pushed off a hill on the left flank. A Special Forces group who had also arrived at the blue line helped to retake the hill and by 2pm the Séléka had been pushed back.

Colonel Dixon’s tactical headquarters and the Special Forces unit returned to the base to rearm. Within minutes they had to move out again50. A South African tactical intelligence team watching a bridge on the Mpoko River farther west reported that FACA had failed to halt a large Séléka force advancing towards the bridge. The South African Special Forces team which had engaged at the blue line and another Special Forces team with six Hornets that had just been flown into Bangui joined Colonel Dixon’s command Land Cruiser to counter the new Séléka advance51. The Séléka were moving forward with several hundred soldiers and at least 15 technicals. A FACA Mi-25 attack helicopter arrived but only circled at high altitude firing a few ineffectual rockets before leaving. The South African force of about 35 soldiers was heavily outnumbered firing 107mm rockets at point blank range. When there were no rockets left to fire, Colonel Dixon brought up the 81mm mortars from the blue line which provided effective fire until the Séléka who had been moving around and past the South Africans towards Bangui were only 50m away. When, by 4:30pm, the South African Special Forces units had been pushed back to the outskirts of Bangui, and fighting had become as close as 10m, Colonel Dixon ordered a last fire belt action (a brief burst of maximum firepower) and had his soldiers return to their base. Twelve more South Africans had been wounded.52

With daylight fading Major Silva was sent with every available vehicle to help the paratroopers at the blue line withdraw to the base. He found them under a renewed Séléka attack and having again been pushed off the hill on their left flank. Packed into four Land Cruisers and four Geckos they drove in the dark on a road back to the base. As the convoy approached a Y-junction, combat medic Staff Sergeant Mampa saw a bloodied Muslim robe on a checkpoint rope drop to the ground. Heavy fire hit the convoy. Vehicles exploded and Mampa attended to the wounded he could save as some of his fellow soldiers told him to leave – that they would die fighting. In hand-to-hand fighting the South Africans broke free from the ambush and made their way back to the base however they could. 53 The bodies of eleven South African soldiers were later recovered at the Y-junction54.

From 7pm until 9pm the base was under attack from roughly 1500 rebels using mortars, heavy machineguns, and RPGs55. By 10pm a Séléka General had sent word to Colonel Dixon that he wanted to stop the fighting. The General failed to meet face to face but fighting did largely quieten down. Through the night there were South African soldiers trying to reach their base. By sunrise on 24 March, 23 South Africans were wounded and 20 paratroopers were unaccounted for.56 At around 6:30am the base came under attack again for a short while before a Séléka commander telephoned to request a meeting. He said that he had 2000 soldiers with which to attack the base but would prefer not to attack57. Low on ammunition and with Séléka forces already piercing the base perimeter, Colonel Dixon was still looking to end the fighting. A Séléka officer later announced at the base that a general had arrived, and Colonel Dixon, Major Silva, and two other officers met him at the base perimeter with their hands raised but their rifles slung across their chests. The Séléka leader was General Hakouma Arda and he was at the base gate with two other generals and three colonels. South African medics treated several wounded Séléka soldiers as Colonel Dixon spent hours negotiating the return of South African soldiers or their bodies, often having to hand over vehicles or cash in return.58

By midday on 24 March Séléka rebels had captured Bangui with only small pockets of resistance remaining and President Bozizé had fled. At 6:30pm Séléka’s Michel Djotodia declared himself the new president of CAR. The Battle of Bangui killed 15 paratroopers. On 25 March ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu said “These soldiers were true sons of the continent who were willing to give up their lives in the interest of ensuring peace in the continent”59. The Séléka Pyrrhic victory has led to a constantly evolving civil war that remains unresolved and continues to demand the attention of the international peacekeeping and humanitarian community. After the battle, South Africa pulled out of the country and South African peacekeeping forces have never returned.

References