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Mysteries behind Battle of Bangui

“François Bozizé is Satan on earth.” These were the words of a respected international banker from the Central African Republic when he saw me reading The Battle of Bangui at a hotel in N’Djamena a few days ago. 

From what I know of the former president of the republic, I would say that my friend is spot on. 

Infamously, Bozizé turned to former South African president Jacob Zuma when he had run out of friends — and Zuma offered to help. But why?

The lies, secrets and greed associated with the deal these two men made would eventually lead to the deaths of 15 South African soldiers. Troops who would never really know why they had been sent to Bangui, or why, in March 2013, they would be the only line of defence between a large rebel force and a president whose only support was 4 000km away, south of the Limpopo.

The South Africans defending the capital were overwhelmed by the Seleka rebels, who had access to a variety of deadly weaponry.

A letter from survivors, victims, and family members of those killed in Bangui, addressed to President Cyril Ramaphosa appeared in the Daily Maverick in March, eight years after the battle in Bangui in 2013. The letter asked for answers — why were members of the SANDF sent, at short notice, with little preparation, to a place most South Africans had never heard of?

South African soldiers have been sent to the Central African Republic since Thabo Mbeki was president.

Even the National Party provided aid to the CAR back in the days when the apartheid government was attempting to buy votes in the United Nations general assembly to block any anti-Pretoria resolutions.

Why South Africa’s continued interest in this country? I have been watching the Central African Republic closely for more than two decades and the research carried out by Warren Thompson, Stephan Hofstatter and James Oatway in response to that question is the best I have seen on the subject, and I have seen and read a lot.

My praise is high because I expected this book to be little more than an account of why the SANDF was in Bangui, a play-by-play account of the battle (in the Central African Republic, few people know much if anything of the South African involvement), and the aftermath at home, especially in parliament.

Doomed to failure

This book could have had several titles, including A South African’s Guide to the Central African Republic — that is because the battle is only part of the story. This is the first book I have read in English (most writing on the Central African Republic is in French, and even in French, the choice is limited) that provides excellent background on why the Central African Republic has been doomed to failure since before its independence in 1960. 

The authors’ look at what might have been, had the father of independence, Barthelemy Boganda, not been killed in an air crash shortly before the end of French rule. Since then — and the authors go into considerable detail — the country has been plagued by bad governance driven for the most part by greed.

A constant figure in the mess in the Central African Republic is Francois Bozizé. As a general under Jean-Bedel Bokassa — the man who crowned himself emperor in the 1970s — he would attempt to overthrow most of his country’s presidents until being overthrown himself in 2013. Today he leads a rebel group that is trying to overthrow the current president — Faustin-Archange Touadéra.

Any Central African Republic watcher knew that by the time Jacob Zuma sent the SANDF to Bangui, it was not about protecting democracy. The book goes into considerable detail about a uranium deal involving Thabo Mbeki at a time when French nuclear agency Areva (now Orano) was the frontrunner for building nuclear power plants in South Africa. In 2006, Mbeki’s defence minister, Terror Lekota, would travel to Bangui to sign a defence, minerals, and energy pact. That deal fell apart when Mbeki was removed from power two years later.

A deal Bozizé and Zuma

When Zuma turned his interest towards the Central African Republic, he did not even bother going through parliament, as required, to send more troops to Bangui. His new friend Bozizé also skipped the parliamentary route — it was a deal between two men rather than two countries.

Bozizé is hated almost universally both inside and outside his country. The short list of people he felt he could trust came from his ethnic group, the Gbaya, as well a few well-placed South Africans with strong links to the ANC. 

Delusional: Jean-Bedel Bokassa crowned himself emperor of the ‘Central African Empire’ in Bangui in 1977 after being president for 11 years. He was overthrown two years later. Photo: Pierre Guillaud/AFP/Getty Images

The list of dubious ANC activities in the Central African Republic before and after the Battle of Bangui is long, and, not surprisingly, recurring themes range from diamonds and uranium to oil, Chancellor House, Mbeki, and Zuma and yes, even the Guptas.

The rebellion that removed Bozizé from power (and spelt an end to SANDF deployment in the Central African Republic) was a rebellion foretold. In 2007, Bozizé sent the army to the northeastern corner of the country, a predominantly Muslim and Arabic speaking region, where his soldiers adopted a scorched earth policy, burning, raping, looting, and driving the local population into the bush, where those who survived lived on grass and insects. 

The rebel group known as Seleka grew out of the survivors. Seleka would meet little opposition, apart from some South African soldiers, when they quickly crossed the country and took over Bangui. Bozizé fled the country, and the South Africans did the best they could to stay alive. It should be noted that just prior to the Battle of Bangui, a peace accord was signed in the Gabonese capital, Libreville. One of the terms of the accord was the immediate withdrawal of South African troops. Zuma refused. 

The authors’ description of the battle that followed will take your breath away. South African deaths were inevitable. The equipment they requested and needed was out of commission in South Africa, helicopters and fighter aircraft were broken, and more booze was sent up for the troops than ammunition.

Fifteen South African soldiers would most likely be alive today if the country had respected the terms of the peace agreement. 

A bigger question is what if the SANDF had managed to repel the rebel attack? South Africa would have enabled a madman to continue in his position as a ruthless dictator, while enabling South African politicians and their hangers-on to continue making money from dodgy deals. 

The excellent writing in this book will leave you wanting more. I hope it will encourage South Africans to learn more about their continent as well as question the motives of their politicians.

David Smith covered the Seleka rebellion in 2013 for the Mail & Guardian. He was part of a United Nations peacekeeping operation in the Central African Republic between 1998 and 2000, during which time he established a radio station that remains on the air today — Radio Ndeke Luka. He does similar work next door in Chad and throughout the Lake Chad region, using radio to encourage dialogue between belligerents and others working towards stability.

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David Smith
David Smith is the Guardian's Washington DC bureau chief. From 2010 to 2015 Smith was the Africa correspondent for The Guardian for which he was based in Johannesburg, South Africa

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