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CAR: Timely warnings were ignored

Thirteen South Africans soldiers have been killed and 27 injured.

The government was warned three months ago by South African soldiers on the ground that the situation in the CAR was volatile and deteriorating, according to sources in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

The rebels, who describe the SANDF soldiers deployed in the CAR to protect that country's deposed President François Bozizé as "mercenaries" and should be treated "accordingly", are themselves not united.

Read more CAR coverage

Cracks began showing on Tuesday when Nelson N'Jadder, president of the Seleka-allied rebel group, the Revolution for Democracy, said he would fight a fellow rebel leader, Michel Djotodia, who declared himself the CAR president on Monday. N'Jadder told Associated Press he had "enough soldiers loyal to me to attack Djotodia".

According to reports, some South African soldiers were captured by rebel forces.

But the SANDF spokesperson, Brigadier General Xolani Mabanga, refused to comment on this and dismissed reports that badly injured soldiers were still in the CAR. He said it was "nonsense".

Poor resources
"All our injured soldiers have been evacuated and are receiving medical attention," he said.

The government knew for several months that the security situation in the CAR was deteriorating. Soldiers deployed there complained to their seniors as early as 2011 about poor resources assigned for their mission. President Jacob Zuma himself was again warned on Friday March 22 that things were getting out of hand.

He knew by that Friday morning that South African troops were likely to be caught in fighting with the rebels, according to SANDF sources.

Bozizé called on Zuma, apparently to seek direction on how to tackle the rebels that were about to take the capital, Bangui.  Bozizé told Zuma that the rebels had given him a 72-hour ultimatum to vacate the presidential palace.

In addition to this, Zuma and the South African government knew from as early as the beginning of December last year that the Seleka rebels, a coalition of several rebel groups opposing Bozizé, had launched an offensive against the CAR government.

By the middle of last week, the United Nations was told by French representatives that Seleka already controlled three-quarters of the country and that fighting had reached the town of Damara, 75km from Bangui, by last Friday.

This raises questions about whether South Africa was negligent and shirked its responsibility for the deployed soldiers; and why, with the information in hand, Zuma's administration failed to provide the company of soldiers with more resources, given the prospect of a looming battle.

"The rebels had given him [Bozizé] 72 hours to give up power. He came to see Zuma to ask him what to do," the SANDF source said.

"Zuma apparently said 'I can't be part of this, it has become too political. Go back to your regional members [the Economic Community of Central African States] who know your politics better'."

The United Democratic Movement leader, Bantu Holomisa, a former army general himself, said Bozizé probably came to South Africa to seek refuge because, by Friday, it was too late to ask Zuma for reinforcements.

By choosing Pretoria as the first place to run to backs up talk that, in the months leading up to Bozizé's fall from power, Zuma remained one of his few reliable friends.

Helmoed-Romer Heitman, a military analyst and a Jane's Defence Weekly correspondent, said there  was little South Africa could do when Bozizé told Zuma on Friday last week about the impending battle of Bangui.

"By the time he came here, it was already too late. If South Africa had military transport aircraft, we could have been able to fly in more reinforcements," said Heitman.

Even deploying fighter jets such as the Rooivalk and Gripen was not an option South Africa could afford, Heitman said.

"For us to fly fighter jets to CAR, we would need to stop in another country and refuel, then stop again in another country. That's not good for the military's security."

On Monday, Zuma, the SANDF commander-in-chief, told journalists that the South Africans would stay on in the CAR. "There is no reason for us to leave … we are looking at how to reinforce our forces and how to move forward," he said.

A joint statement by Parliament's portfolio committee on defence and military veterans and the joint standing committee on defence expressed support for Zuma's decision to keep the troops in the CAR.

Conflicting reports
"We support the resourcing of SANDF personnel based in that country and are hopeful of the safe return of the rest of our troops as soon as their mission is accomplished."

As conflicting reports surfaced about the battle of Bangui, Mabanga refused to say whether any soldiers were killed by CAR government forces rebelling against Bozizé.

Mabanga also refused to say  whether reinforcements had been sent in to assist the deployed soldiers. "It would be a security risk to provide that information," he said.

The television station eNCA reported on Wednesday that more SANDF troops were seen arriving at Uganda's Entebbe airport and the station's Uganda correspondent said the soldiers did not fly in from the CAR.

The South African National Defence Union general secretary, Pikkie Greeff, told the M&G that soldiers said they had not been in the CAR to do any training of the CAR army.

"Soldiers who were on the ground have told us that they never trained anybody. All along they were there to protect assets and President Bozizé," he said. "We should not be in CAR. At the very least, the SANDF misled Parliament about their intentions, which was to guard and not to train. Why else would you send parachute and reconnaissance soldiers when you foresee a conflict?"

Although the competence of South African soldiers is not in question, the force was ill-equipped for war, unlike the rebels. This forced them to move their base to an area next to the Bangui M'Poko International Airport after Sunday's tense ceasefire, where French troops are based, so that they could get some backing should they be attacked again.

Leaders of the SANDF knew from as early as October 2011 that the troops deployed in the CAR needed weapons for combat.

When Major General Duma Mdutyana of the SANDF's joint operational headquarters visited peacekeeping missions in the CAR in October 2011, the soldiers told him about their problems.

Military co-operation agreement
The SANDF's in-house Soldier magazine reported in January last year that a Colonel Ramoshaba, who presented a situational analysis to the delegation, complained about "the lack of medical evacuation procedures and the poor serviceability of vehicles".

A member of the SANDF delegation said they were "waiting for J Ops [joint operations] to initiate a formal tasking for an air ambulance for air medical evacuation".

But 17 months later, the troops' requests had not been fulfilled.

This week, opposition parties called for a debate in Parliament about the mission and are particularly concerned about the reasons why South Africa saw fit to deploy troops to the CAR.

A former defence minister and now the Congress of the People leader, Mosiuoa Lekota, who signed the first military co-operation agreement with the CAR, called for the soldiers to be withdrawn.

Reports that the department of international relations and co-operation (Dirco) was not informed about the sending of an additional 200 soldiers to CAR in January this year represents a serious break in protocol makes the situation even more difficult for Zuma.

According to sources with detailed knowledge of events, the department should have been informed because it is standard practice that foreign diplomatic relations must be worked out before troops are sent to another country, such as  the CAR.

"For some reason, this time was quite different and Dirco woke up to find that South African troops had been deployed to CAR," said a source.

It appears that the reinforcement of the CAR mission in January was neatly sealed between Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and Zuma.

Holomisa said the speed with which Zuma authorised the additional deployment of soldiers on January 2 was suspect. Parliament was still in recess.

"In December, Bozizé made an appeal to say, please help," Holomisa said. "Nosiviwe was sent to CAR to speak to him; she came with a report that she presented to the president who then decided to deploy more troops.

"There was then this rushed-up process to approve 400 soldiers."

Holomisa said South African soldiers were "an irritation" to the people of the CAR.

"The people we were fighting [rebels] are now in charge. Why are we still there? We didn't sign an agreement with the rebels; we signed with Bozizé, who's now out. So we can't still continue with the mission," he said.

Lekota said South Africa was interfering in the domestic affairs of the CAR.

"When you are supporting a country, the people in that country are in the front line. Not a single French soldier appears to have been shot," Lekota said.

The Ministry of Defence has denied that there was any truth in claims that Zuma went against the advice of Mapisa-Ngakulu in sending troops to the CAR in January.

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Mmanaledi Mataboge
Guest Author
Glynnis Underhill
Glynnis Underhill has been in journalism for more years than she cares to remember. She loves a good story as much now as she did when she first started. The only difference is today she hopes she is giving something back to the country.

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