David Rilley-Harris
Ditsong National Museum of Military History
January 2021

 

Introduction

 

The Battle of Bangui was fought between South African peacekeepers defending the Central African Republic (CAR) capital and the Séléka (coalition) rebel forces. The Séléka gained control of the capital and the entire country and the South African forces pulled out of CAR. Fifteen South African soldiers were killed and 25 were wounded. Equipment abandoned on the battlefield amounted to an estimated loss valued at R4 458 4301. While the South Africans had performed as well as they could be expected to in the circumstances, they had been heavily outnumbered, and were underequipped, and the CAR army (FACA) and regional peacekeepers (FOMAC) who were supposed to have stood alongside South Africa barely engaged in the fight at all.

SANDF soldiers watch as their fallen comrades are loaded on to a plane at the French base in Bangui to be flown back to South Africa on March 25 2013. They hold a flag that was shot up when a group of 200 soldiers kept a Séléka rebel force of several thousand out of Bangui. (Picture and caption from Times Live article A desperate prayer in the shadow of death by Stephan Hofstatter, 9 November 2014)

Séléka outside the Presidential Palace soon after the battle (AFP)

The Immediate International Response

In their defence of Bangui the South African forces had fired thousands of rifle rounds, 12 000 machinegun rounds, 200 mortars, and 60 rockets. Before the ceasefire which preceded South Africa’s withdrawal from CAR the South Africans had killed roughly 800 of the enemy but still could not protect Bangui.2 After the pyrrhic Séléka victory, CAR began a descent towards genocide and famine.

On the day following the battle South African President Jacob Zuma said that “Our soldiers inflicted heavy casualties on the attacking bandit force. We commend them for their bravery and this will not deter us from going ahead with defending peace and democracy”3. The United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had already condemned the Séléka attack as an “unconstitutional seizure of power” and called for the restoration of order.4 The African Union (AU) Peace and Security Chief Ramtane Lamamra announced sanctions and the suspension of CAR from all AU activities, as well as travel restrictions and asset freezes on Séléka leaders. France and the European Union (EU) also condemned the attack. In the meantime, Séléka leader Michel Djotodia announced his intentions to declare himself president.

 

An emergency summit was held in N’Djamena in the Republic of Chad on 3 April 2013, ten days after the Battle of Bangui. The Chad summit was formally called the Extraordinary Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). The South African delegation was headed by President Jacob Zuma and included the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation (Ms Maite Nkoana-Mashabane), Minister of Defence and Military Veterans (Ms Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula), and Minister of State Security (Dr Siyabonga Cwele).

 

During the Chad summit ECCAS requested that South Africa send more soldiers into CAR to help restore order. In the days leading up to the summit Red Cross volunteers had been helping to treat the scores of wounded and clear the remains of the dead. Some of the looting that was occurring was being committed by the rebel forces themselves and one FOMAC soldier said “There is pillaging everywhere, it’s very hard to control anything”. Hundreds of people were roaming the streets looking for food.5 The South African soldiers, however, were pulling out of CAR with only vague promises to return if necessary6. France sent in 300 more soldiers adding to the 250 who had been protecting the Bangui airport7.

The host of the Chad summit, Chad President Idriss Déby, said that FOMAC was unable to restore order and that there was no money available while the Séléka “is an organisation that lacks unity and the initiative of a command”. Regional leaders committed 2000 more troops adding to the 500 already in CAR from Gabon, Cameroon, Congo, and Chad, but President Zuma only confirmed that South Africa would extend its presence in neighbouring Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).8 CAR had always represented a regional peacekeeping concern for South Africa with the belief that instability in CAR could spill over into the DRC. Inside CAR, there were suspicions regarding regional support for the coup with it being said that:

“There are far too many uniformed Chadians racing through the streets and manning impromptu roadblocks for this to feel like an internal conflict. We had already negotiated our way through four roadblocks at this point, all of which were manned by Chadians. How do I know they were Chadians? They spoke Arabic rather than French or Sango and, to make it easier, they also told us that they were Chadian.”9

CAR’s ousted president, François Bozizé, said that the soldiers that had attacked South Africa at their base on the last day of the battle had been Chadian Special Forces and not coalition (Séléka) rebels.10 One of the reasons that President Bozizé had sought out help from South Africa in the first place was because of waning support from Chad. President Bozizé had previously relied heavily on Chad’s Presidential Guard for his protection11.

In the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Bangui the prospect of any form of political stability looked bleak. South Africa had been the only power in CAR to make a strong clear attempt to prevent the coup but was withdrawing. What reinforcements were being promised was far short of what would be needed to stabilise the country. Yves Ganazohi, a Bangui resident said “We have the impression that Central African Republic is a forgotten nation. We appeal to the international community to help us now.12

Forgotten nation

The atrocities of the first few months after the Battle of Bangui were committed mostly by the Séléka. Human Rights Watch reported the following: Séléka killed 17 unarmed people in Damala on 27 March. In Walingba on 12 April a rocket attack injured 15, including 13 children, two of whom required amputations. On 13 April Séléka killed 18 unarmed people near Ouango and Kassai with witnesses reporting a priest being killed while holding up a bible appealing for calm and a women being killed with her baby still strapped to her back. On 13 and 14 April Séléka attacked Boy-Rabe killing about 28 unarmed people and injuring 13. On 15 April Séléka killed a woman and her 18-month-old daughter shooting the baby in her head before killing the mother. Séléka killed at least 6 unarmed people in Gobongo on 29 June. There were also several reports of Séléka executing CAR military (FACA) soldiers and people they believed to be FACA soldiers with one incident on 15 April seeing five executed at the Mpoko River outside Bangui. Much of the violence was attributed to weak leadership and lack of organisation in the transitional government under Michel Djotodia with reports including Séléka killing Séléka for control of territory. Over one thousand homes were already destroyed in the first few months after the battle leaving civilians living in the bush and dying of injuries, hunger, and sickness. Recommendations from Human Rights Watch included a request that the government of Chad investigate allegations of Chadian support for the Séléka.13 The UN described the situation as a total breakdown of law and order and a threat to regional stability. In August 2013, Michel Djotodia was sworn in as CAR President.

Michel Djotodia (Wikipedia)

In September Michel Djotodia dissolved the Séléka under criticism that he had failed to control them and in October the United Nations approved a peacekeeping force to support the African Union and French forces. One part of the reasoning behind South Africa’s initial entry into CAR was to promote the use of African resources for African peacekeeping. A more efficient system of peacekeeping in Africa could be spring-boarded with traditional funders putting money into African peacekeeping initiatives instead of sending their own forces. As it happened, the only force actively defending CAR at the Battle of Bangui was an underequipped small South African force without external funding. The result, alongside a human rights catastrophe, was the obligation of far more international funding then would have been needed to support Africa’s own peacekeeping efforts.

The initial Séléka (largely Muslim) attacks on mostly Christian civilians saw the predictable development of counter attacks by Christian militias calling themselves the anti-balaka (anti-machete). In a Séléka controlled area of Bangui, bodies were discovered shoved into what may have been a septic tank in what was probably the first uncovered mass grave14, and attacks on Muslim civilians was accelerating in response to such atrocities. With hundreds dying in violence increasingly described as sectarian, the end of 2013 saw France increasing its CAR force to 1600 joining the 6000 African Union peacekeepers (MISCA or Mission internationale de soutien à la Centrafrique sous conduite africaine). In January 2014, Michel Djotodia resigned as President under criticism for failing to stop the proliferation of sectarian violence. On 23 January, the Mayor of Bangui, Catherine Samba-Panza, took over as interim President.

Catherine Samba-Panza (Wikipedia)

In February 2014, as anti-balaka attacks on civilians further filled the gap left by the dissolved Séléka, Amnesty International reported that peacekeepers had “failed to prevent the ethnic cleansing of Muslim civilians in the western part of the Central African Republic” prompting “a Muslim exodus of historic proportions”. One hundred Muslims had already been killed in January in Bossemptele in the north of CAR.15 The exodus of Muslims who had worked much of the CAR food trade threatened a famine. The United Nations estimated that a quarter of the country’s population (1.3 million people) were in urgent need of food aid. Nine out of ten people were eating just once per day and 800 000 people were displaced. With no other options, the UN planned an emergency airlift of food from Cameroon at five times the cost of trucking.16

By the end of February 2014, the anti-balaka were presenting as the new primary threat in CAR. On 16 February Rwandan peacekeepers near CAR’s border with Cameroon killed four anti-balaka militia who were firing on civilians17 and on 25 February Burundian peacekeepers in Bangui killed two anti-balaka militia who were looting a shop18. Chad president Idriss Déby said that French and African forces could not contain the violence and that “We need more men, more assets. Only the UN can provide this. We need to move to a UN force”19. For the UN, Ban Ki-moon instead proposed that the African Union force be provided with logistical and financial support with an estimated cost of $38 million for six months. The African Union Commissioner for Peace and Security, Smail Chergui, welcomed the proposal.20 The new CAR president Samba-Panza said she would “go to war” with the anti-balaka who she said had “lost their sense of mission” and had become “the ones who kill, who pillage, who are violent”21. For their part, the anti-balaka said through their spokesperson, Sebastien Wenezoui, that they would only disarm when the “bandits” are disarmed first, and that the tension with Muslims was driven by those that had come from neighbouring countries, mostly Chad22.

March of 2014 saw escalations in violence, increasing calls for international aid, and outright threats being made mostly against the anti-balaka. By this time almost all of the roughly 100 000 Muslims who had lived in Bangui had fled. They had been CAR citizens and not Chadian Muslim combatants. Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said “The anti-Balaka, who originally came into existence as a reaction to the depredations of the Séléka are now metamorphosing into criminal gangs who, in addition to continuing to hunt down Muslims, are also starting to prey on Christians and other non-Muslims… How many more children have to be decapitated, how many more women and girls will be raped, how many more acts of cannibalism must there be, before we really sit up and pay attention”? Pillay reported that CAR top leadership had said that there was no state or coherent national army or justice system.23 Pillay also appealed for the international community to provide the proposed 12 000 troops for a UN peacekeeping force saying “People apprehended with blood on their machetes and severed body parts in their hands have been allowed to go free because there is nowhere to detain them and no means to charge them with the crimes they have clearly committed… If we get it wrong again, by failing to support this country wholeheartedly in its time of need, we risk decades of instability and the creation of a new and fertile breeding ground for religious extremism, not just in CAR but in the wider region”.24 By the end of March 2014 the total number of AU peacekeepers (MISCA) killed had reached 21 and efforts against the anti-balaka were starting to be driven by anger.

In April 2014, the UN Security Council authorised the 12 000 strong UN peacekeeping force which, in September, formally took over from the AU. It was called MINUSCA (Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en Centrafrique or United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic). A smaller French-led European Union peacekeeping force was still in place. MINUSCA would be comprised of about 10 000 troops and thousands of various police and correctional services personnel, and would function with aggressive rules of engagement similar to that given to the UN Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) which South Africa had successfully led in ending the Democratic Republic of the Congo M23 rebellion in 2013. On the withdrawal of Chadian troops from the MISCA mission in CAR, Chad’s foreign ministry said “Despite the sacrifices we have made, Chad and Chadians have been targeted in a gratuitous and malicious campaign that blamed them for all the suffering in CAR”25.

For years France had been claiming that their will was to withdraw from CAR, its former colony, and to see either peace prevail or see its replacement by an African peacekeeping force. Accusations that Chad had taken substantial control over CAR’s fate led to Chad’s withdrawal in 2014. In the same year, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group became more active in CAR and appeared to be assisting the anti-balaka against Muslims, and USA became more involved partly as a part of their campaign against the LRA.

In March 2013, the small lone force of a little over 200 South Africans who had stood in defence of Bangui had done well enough in their attempt to protect the capital to suggest that given authority and funding from the international community, they could have forced a stable resolution to CAR’s disputes. Instead, by mid-2014, CAR was absorbing tens of millions of dollars of international aid as anarchy reigned.

US Army special forces with troops from the Central African Republic and Uganda, in Obo, Central African Republic. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

 

References

  • Reuters: Retrieved from DefenceWeb: https://www.defenceweb.co.za/sa-defence/sa-defence-sa-defence/military-equipment-worth-over-r4-million-lost-in-battle-in-bangui/, 21 February 2017.
  • Heitman, H.: The Battle in Bangui: The untold inside story. Parktown Publishers, Johannesburg, 2013. p.6.
  • Mail & Guardian staff reporter: https://mg.co.za/article/2013-03-25-zuma-confirms-13-dead-soldiers-in-car-clashes/
  • Charbonneau, L. writing for Reuters: UN chief condemns rebel seizure of power in Central African Republic. 25 March 2013.
  • Mail & Guardian, AFP, 27 March 2013: ‘Zero Tolerance’ for Bangui looters after CAR coup.
  • Mail & Guardian, AFP. SAPA, 4 April 2013: SA Troops to be withdrawn from CAR.
  • Mail & Guardian, AFP. 27 March 2013: ‘Zero Tolerance’ for Bangui looters after CAR coup.
  • Mail & Guardian, SAPA. 21 April 2013: SA government considers CAR plea for more troops.
  • Mail & Guardian, Staff Reporter. 7 April 2013: Soldiers run riot in Bangui.
  • BBC News, 3 April 2013. CAR’s ousted leader Bozizé says Chad aided rebels.
  • Mail & Guardian: Analysis. Staff reporter. 3 April 2013. Why exactly is Zuma attending Chad summit on CAR?
  • Aboa, A. for Reuters: World News. 26 March 2013. Looters, gunmen roam Central African Republic capital after coup.
  • Mudge, L. and Le Pennec, E.: “I Can Still Smell the Dead”: The Forgotten Human Rights Crisis in the Central African Republic. Human Rights Watch, 2013.
  • Reuters: Retrieved from DefenceWeb: https://www.defenceweb.co.za/security/human-security/muslim-exodus-threatens-food-crisis-in-central-african-republic/, 12 February 2014.
  • Smith-Spark, L. for CNN. 12 February 2014. Rights groups warn of ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Central African Republic.
  • Reuters: Retrieved from DefenceWeb: https://www.defenceweb.co.za/security/human-security/muslim-exodus-threatens-food-crisis-in-central-african-republic/, 12 February 2014.
  • Reuters: Retrieved from DefenceWeb: https://www.defenceweb.co.za/joint/diplomacy-a-peace/chad-says-un-force-needed-to-stabilize-central-african-republic/, 19 February 2014.
  • Kokpakpa, S.L. writing for Reuters. 25 February 2014. Armed groups surround thousands in Central African Republic: UN.
  • Nako, M. writing for Reuters. 18 February 2014. Chad says UN force needed to stabilize Central African Republic.
  • DefenceWeb, by staff writer and Reuters. https://www.defenceweb.co.za/security/human-security/un-chief-wants-3-000-more-soldiers-for-car/, 21 February 2014.
  • AAFonline, 14 February 2014. Central African Republic: Northern Towns in Danger of Becoming Christian-Muslim War.
  • Coulibaly, M. for Reuters. Central African Republic militia says will only disarm after Mulsim rebels do.
  • DefenceWeb, staff writer. https://www.defenceweb.co.za/security/human-security/killing-rape-and-even-cannibalism-in-the-car/, 25 March 2014.
  • Reuters, staff writer, 25 March 2014. AU brands Central African Republic militia ‘terrorists’ after peacekeeper killed.
  • Irish, J. and Nako, M. for Reuters, 3 April 2014. Chad to withdraw troops from AU mission in Central African Republic.
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