THE CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC (CAR) ON THE EIGHTH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BATTLE OF BANGUI (22-24 MARCH 2013)
By David Rilley-Harris, Curator; DITSONG: National Museum of Military History
Eight years after the Battle of Bangui Wikipedia’s first paragraph on the CAR references Human Rights Watch writing that “As of 2021, the CAR is the scene of a civil war, ongoing since 2012”1. An opportunity to stabilise the CAR was missed in 2013 when the small South African force trying to defend Bangui had been left underequipped and underfunded. The consequence has been famine, genocide, and ever-growing financial costs for the international community in trying to manage an otherwise forgotten ongoing war.
Despite finding themselves with almost no support from the CAR army (FACA) or the regional peacekeepers (FOMAC), the small South African force put up a heroic fight in 2013 trying to prevent the fall of Bangui, but they were overwhelmed. The year-long period after the Battle of Bangui began with South Africa’s withdrawal and ended with the CAR in strife after consistent expensive failures by the African Union (AU), United Nations (UN), France and the European Union (EU), and regional powers to stabilise the country.
Before the Battle of Bangui, the largely Muslim Séléka (coalition) forces had control over just about the entire CAR but they did not have the capital, Bangui. The battle gave the Séléka Bangui but in late 2014 they were only controlling the centre third of the CAR. The Christian anti-balaka militia had taken much of the western third of the CAR including most of Bangui, and the notorious Christian Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was present in the eastern part of the CAR.
Figure 1: Source: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MINUSCA)
MISCA (Mission internationale de soutien à la Centrafrique sous conduite africaine), the international AU-led support mission to the CAR, was established by the UN Security Council and deployed in December 2013. It was created with the option of changing into a larger UN-led mission further down the road if necessary.
MISCA was required to maintain order as far as possible so that elections could be organised but that task would prove terribly difficult. By the one year anniversary of the Battle of Bangui the situation in the CAR was dire. According to Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Inter-communal hatred remains at a terrifying level as evidenced by the extraordinarily vicious nature of killings…This has become a country where people are not just killed they are tortured, mutilated, burned and dismembered – sometimes by spontaneous mobs as well as by organised groups of armed fighters. Children have been decapitated, and we know of at least four cases where the killers have eaten the flesh of their victims”.2 Within only a few months the AU appeared overwhelmed. After their twenty-first peacekeeper was killed, the AU called the anti-balaka militia “terrorists” who they would treat as enemy combatants. In incidents following the death of that Congolese peacekeeper, MISCA forces killed twelve anti-balaka combatants. Increasingly, there were calls to move to a larger UN-led peacekeeping force.3
On 29 March 2014, Chadian soldiers who were escorting Muslim civilians into Chad, opened fire in a mainly Christian CAR neighbourhood. Twenty-four were killed and roughly one hundred were injured. This incident supported mounting claims that Chad had sided with remnants of the Séléka and were targeting Christian civilians. Regarding the anti-balaka militia, the UN’s expert on the CAR, Therese Keita Bocoum, confirmed that the anti-balaka were working with the Lord’s Resistance Army who were in the CAR to target Muslims and foreign forces.4
In defence of MISCA, the EU mission called EUFOR RCA (EU Force – CAR) which was supposed to be helping MISCA had been delayed in its deployment. France had been pushing for more help form the EU to reinforce the two thousand French soldiers and MISCA’s roughly six thousand soldiers. The EU mission had been approved in January 2014 with expectations of deployment in February, but it was only in May that EUFOR RCA started deploying its one thousand soldiers. All of their soldiers would only have arrived in June. Their goal was to provide security in Bangui and to protect the Bangui airport where about seventy thousand people were living in dire conditions in order to escape the violence.5 The presence of EUFOR RCA appeared to be a brief stopgap for Bangui before a larger UN-led force could take shape. A few days before EUFOR RCA arrived in Bangui, South Africa’s Defence Minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said that there would be no deployment of South African forces to the CAR as there were sufficient forces there from the region, France, and the EU.6 Also in early April 2014, Chad announced their withdrawal from the CAR due to mounting accusations that their forces had been attacking Christian civilians. Chad had been providing roughly eight hundred and fifty of the six thousand strong MISCA mission.
On 10 April 2014 the UN voted in favour of a twelve thousand strong UN-led peacekeeping mission for the CAR but it was only set to assume authority from the AU in mid-September. USA Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, met with the CAR interim leader, Catherine Samba-Panza, and urged for speedier funding for the CAR saying in Bangui that “We need to do more and we need to do it now”. In the same week, Rwanda was marking its twenty year remembrance of the 1994 genocide which killed eight hundred thousand people. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned of the danger of repeating the Rwanda mistakes in the CAR, and CAR interim President Catherine Samba-Panza said, “If we are not careful, we will also have a tragic event such as this to commemorate in a few years”.7
Figure 2: Bangui Airport after EUFOR RCA arrival (Picture from Reuters article of 2 May 2014, EU peacekeepers take charge at main CAR airport)
MINUSCA (Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en Centrafrique), the UN multi-dimensional integrated stabilisation mission in the CAR, was officially formed on 10 April 2014 but would only become operational on 15 September 2014. It would see substantial support from Rwanda and Pakistan with each nation providing more than one thousand of the total twelve thousand personnel. About ten of the overall twelve thousand personnel would be military troops, with about two hundred and forty military observers, two hundred staff officers, and one thousand eight hundred police personnel.
During August 2013, South Africa had led a United Nations peacekeeping force (The Force Intervention Brigade) with an aggressive mandate in a successful campaign against the Rwanda-backed M23 rebels in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). With optimism born from this campaign, there were early indications that MINUSCA might end up having a similar mandate, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that he believed MINUSCA would provide, “the immediate, concrete and sustainable support people in CAR need and deserve”.8
Figure 3: Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in November 2013 (Wikipedia: MONUSCO photos)
In late April 2014, through the UN Security Council, the United States and France formally proposed travel bans and asset freezes on three individuals thought to be responsible for continued violence in the CAR. One of these people was an anti-balaka leader, one was a Séléka leader, and the third was ousted President François Bozizé. It was Bozizé who had invited South Africa into the CAR before the Battle of Bangui, and who was ousted due to that Séléka victory. The United States and France alleged that Bozizé had been undermining peace efforts in order to find his way back into power. Before the Battle of Bangui, Chad had provided elite military protection to Bozizé but had apparently withdrawn their support leading Bozizé to call for help from President Zuma. While Chad was being accused of assisting the Séléka in the civil war, Bozizé was being accused of assisting the anti-balaka. The sanctions which the United States and France had proposed did not pass having been blocked by Russia and China. The UN Security Council cannot enforce sanctions without a unanimous vote. While some held out hope that Russia and China would be convinced to change their minds, statements from those nations suggested otherwise. A spokesperson for Beijing’s mission in New York said in an email, “We would reaffirm it is China’s principled stance to be opposed to resorting to sanctions. Sanctions are not conducive to the proper settlement of problems”, and Russia said in a written explanation, “the listing of Bozizé may lead to negative consequences, which would hardly contribute to the main goal of reaching settlement in the Central African Republic – inter-religious reconciliation”.9
In the months between the official formation of MINUSCA in April 2014 and their arrival in September 2014, the stability of the CAR interim government was becoming increasingly precarious. By May the six thousand MISCA soldiers had been reduced to a number closer to five thousand after Chad’s withdrawal, and the EUFOR RCA force of one thousand had barely even begun to deploy. If accusations of Chad’s support for the Séléka were true then Chad’s withdrawal would be weakening the Séléka position in the CAR. On 10 May 2014, a spokesperson for the Séléka announced that they had appointed a new army commander, General Joseph Zindeko, and were working to regroup their scattered soldiers, and that they were planning to organise a political wing.10 The Séléka had been dissolved in September 2013 by their leader, Michel Djotodia, who at the time had been the self-proclaimed President of the CAR. He had resigned in January 2014 after failing to stabilise the country. Djotodia and other original Séléka founders were reinstated as the Séléka leadership in July 2014.
Figure 4: Michel Djotodia (Picture from Reuters article of 14 July 2014, C. Africa Republic’s ousted leader back in charge of Seleka)
As the long months before MINUSCA’s September 2014 deployment dragged past it became increasingly clear that the CAR civil war was too much like a regional war to continue relying on the MISCA regional peacekeeping force. The need for more peacekeepers and more funding was obvious but the AU-led MISCA may have done as well themselves if they had used African nations from farther flung parts of Africa.
In late May 2014 tensions between Bangui’s majority Christians and minority Muslims spilled over into hours of skirmishes in the city. About five thousand Christians had taken refuge in the Our Lady of Fatima Church near the Muslim section of Bangui when Muslim gunmen attacked the church killing at least seventeen and abducting twenty seven. This was a worse example of similar incidents which had been long occurring in Bangui. UN refugee agency (UNHCR) spokesperson, Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba said, “In the past, when we heard about abductions, sometimes people asked for ransom… But sometimes people disappeared and were never found again”. In response to the church attack, the Christian Bangui population protested in the thousands demanding that President Catherine Samba-Panza step down having failed to bring calm to Bangui. On the second day of protest, on 30 May, Burundian peacekeepers killed two protesters and accusations were directed at the Burundians for appearing to side with the Muslim population. President Samba-Panza suggested that belligerents were trying to destabilise the interim government saying, “Inter-community hatred is being exploited shamelessly by the enemies of peace who want to trigger another transition government and who are sparing no effort to undermine the actions of current transitional authorities to reconcile Christians and Muslims”.11
Figure 5: Entrance to the Muslim section of Bangui (AFP)
In late June 2014, the Ugandan military, which had been leading a five thousand strong AU force hunting the LRA, was in combat in the CAR against the Séléka for the first time. The Ugandans said that they had killed twelve Séléka and suffered one casualty, while the Séléka said they lost fifteen soldiers and killed three Ugandans. The Ugandan military had no mandate to attack but they claimed that the Séléka were working with the LRA. The Séléka claimed that the Ugandans were abusing their support from United States Special Forces in hunting the LRA in order to plunder the CAR for gold, diamonds, and ivory, while the Ugandans claimed that the Séléka had found reason to work with the LRA to trade such minerals with them in order to fund their war. United States State Department spokesperson, Will Stevens, said that “U.S. forces were not present during the incident, nor were they involved in the planning or support of the Ugandan mission that may have led to the incident”.12
On 21 July 2014, a little less than two months before MINUSCA was due to take over from MISCA, CAR ceasefire talks were held in the neighbouring Congo Republic capital, Brazzaville. The three-day Brazzaville talks were mediated by Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso and included one hundred and sixty nine delegates but Michel Djotodia, who had been reinstated as the Séléka leader, was still under United States sanctions and would not be present. The day before the talks began, Human Rights Watch Africa Director, Daniel Bekele, appealed for a rejection of any requests of amnesty for individuals responsible for human rights abuses saying, “Mediators need to make clear that lasting peace cannot be achieved without justice and that no one is above the law”.13 At the opening of the talks, President Catherine Samba-Panza appealed for a ceasefire but the anti-balaka expressed concern about foreign militia in the CAR and the Séléka proposed a partitioning of the country along religious lines. The Séléka did eventually drop their proposal for a partition, and a ceasefire was agreed to with positive comments from both the Séléka and the anti-balaka, but those comments appear to have been hollow. On 5 August, Séléka’s Ahmat Nedjad said, “The agreement was broken right after it was signed”. The Séléka and anti-balaka blamed one another for breaking the ceasefire and, on 4 August, French peacekeepers were attacked by about one hundred militia with anti-tank guns. CAR government spokesperson, Gaston Mackouzangba, said that international peacekeepers would need to forcibly disarm the militias.14
By mid-July 2014, the MINUSCA force due to begin arriving in mid-September was starting to take shape. Initially, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Morocco would contribute three battalions, Indonesia and Cambodia would send engineers, and Sri Lanka would provide helicopters to patrol rural areas. The under-secretary-general for UN Peacekeeping Operations, Herve Ladsous, said that MINUSCA would be “significantly superior” to MISCA and would “contribute in a powerful way to strengthen security”15. Ladsous also stressed the importance of airlift capacity for peacekeeping in the land-locked country16. Less than one month before the deployment, UN envoy to the CAR, Babacar Gaye, said that the initial mid-September deployment would include around seven thousand six hundred soldiers and police, and UK deputy ambassador to the UN, Peter Wilson, said that the total of twelve thousand personnel would be on the ground by April 2015. Cameroon’s Major General Martin Chomu Tumenta who had been the AU’s commander of MISCA would continue for the UN as the commander of MINUSCA.17 On 15 September 2014, control of the peacekeeping mission was formally transferred from the AU to the UN, and President Samba-Panza said, “Today’s events mark a clear shift – a new stage in the stabilisation of the country after the cycles of barbaric and aimless violence of the last three decades”18. Nonetheless, elections which had been planned for February 2015 were already being delayed for months with security presupposed to be a problem come that date.
During 2015, the UN reported surging violence in the CAR and EU-commissioned research showed China and Iran to be supplying the Séléka with weapons. In November, a visit from Pope Francis calling for peace preceded the December elections which passed peacefully but were annulled by the CAR constitutional court due to irregularities. A run-off election in February 2016 gave the presidency to Faustin-Archange Touadera, and although he was re-elected in December 2020, his presidency has done little to stabilise the CAR. He had been a part of the Samba-Panza government. The December 2020 vote required a second round held on 14 March 2021 due to violence during the initial voting date. On the Saturday night before the December vote, President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke in his capacity as AU Chairperson asking belligerents to commit to dialogue as a means of achieving stability. Russia and Rwanda had deployed soldiers to assist with security.19
In 2016, the LRA increased their kidnappings in the CAR and Uganda, who had been fighting the LRA, withdrew from the CAR in 2017 as violence in the country continued to surge with several MINUSCA peacekeepers being killed in several attacks. The 2017 surge in violence forced the withdrawal of several aid agencies, and prompted MINUSCA to add one thousand more peacekeepers to the original twelve thousand. In mid-2018, three Russian journalists were killed while working on a documentary about a Russian government-linked mercenary group allegedly active in the CAR. In late 2017, the UN Special Representative to the CAR, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, was asked how long it would take to turn the CAR around. He said that he “hoped” it would be possible within twenty years20.
Figure 4: There was low turnout at the December 2020 vote due to security concerns (Reuters)
The struggle which continues in the CAR today is not very much unlike it has been since the territory started becoming independent from France in the late 1950s. The strife in the region during colonisation was of a different nature but was severe in its own way. It might be said that the people of the CAR have no living memory of peace. Landlocked between variously unstable countries, it may have been inevitable that civil conflict would become regional. Worse though, since the Battle of Bangui, the conflict within the CAR has increasingly become a Christian-Muslim conflict, and an increasingly international conflict. While the support of the larger nations had been so desperately needed for so long, their participation is becoming a proxy conflict influenced by their own disagreements with one another.
It is not unreasonable to think that a South African force could be a comparatively non-aligned element which could be effective in CAR peacekeeping given substantial funding from those larger nations. The question is whether or not the wealthier nations would provide such funding without the benefit of becoming tactical political stakeholders in the CAR conflict. A stabilised mineral-rich CAR economy would certainly benefit everybody but that raises another burning question. Which of the varying peacekeeping nations in the CAR are profiting from continued instability?
- Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_African_Republic, March 2021
- 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.
- AAFonline, 1 April 2014. CAR: Chadian Soldiers Fire On Civilians; LRA Joins Anti-Balaka.
- Croft, A. for Reuters, EU’s Central African Republic mission back on track. 30 March 2014.
- AAFonline, 1 April 2014. South Africa: Minister Denies Any Moves to Deploy Troops in CAR.
- Reuters, 10 April 2014. Two French soldiers wounded in C. African Republic before UN vote.
- Helfrich, K. on DefenceWeb, UN approves peacekeeping mission for CAR. 11 April 2014.
- Reuters, 24 April 2014. Russia and China block CAR blacklist at the UN.
- Reuters, 12 May 2014. African Republic’s Seleka rebels pick new commander, say to regroup.
- Reuters, 2 June 2014. Central African Republic leader denounces plot, peacekeepers kill 2.
- Reuters, 2 July 2014. Uganda says Seleka now its enemy as it hunts LRA in Central Africa Republic.
- Reuters, 22 July 2014. Central African leader appeals for ceasefire as talks open in Congo.
- Reuters, 6 August 2014. Central African Republic ceasefire in tatters after clashes.
- Agence France-Presse, 17 July 2014. UN force for C. Africa taking shape.
- DefenceWeb, 17 July 2014. MINUSCA taking shape.
- DefenceWeb, 21 August 2014. MINUSCA preparing to take over from MISCA in CAR.
- Reuters, 16 September 2014. UN takes charge of Central Africa Republic peacekeeping force.
- Du Plessis, C, for News24, 27 December 2020. Ramaphosa calls for peace and dialogue as CAR holds elections.
- Allison, S. for the Mail & Guardian, It is far too early to celebrate peace in the Central African Republic, 7 February 2019.