CAR: How Bozizé lost his piece of Africa

President François Bozizé's family and bodyguards were watching Cartoon Network when I went to meet him at the presidential palace in Bangui a few years ago.

At the time, there were allegations that he had ordered his troops, the Central African Republic army known as FACA, to adopt a scorched-earth policy in the northeast of the country, and I was part of a delegation from the Pan-African Parliament sent to investigate. Bozizé's eyes were half shut and he spoke like an audiotape being played at slow speed.

There had been damning reports from organisations including the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch claiming that Bozizé's soldiers had been killing, raping and looting in the area around Birao, a dry, isolated town sandwiched between Sudan's Darfur region and southeastern Chad.

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I flew to Birao, much against the wishes of Bozizé's handlers, on a French military plane – the French were still giving Bozizé support back then, and were providing logistics to the FACA as they terrorised the locals. Birao was a burnt-out ruin and most of its residents had fled into the bush to escape government soldiers, many of whom were considerably younger than voting age.

Bozizé was hated in Birao, as he was in many other parts of the Central African Republic. The reasons for this were numerous. In the case of Birao, promises made by successive leaders over the decades, of which Bozizé was only the most recent, tended to be forgotten – schools had no teachers or books, hospitals had no doctors or medicine and roads linking the area to the rest of the country simply do not exist.

To be the president of the Central African Republic, whether one reaches that position through the ballot box or through the gun, for all intents and purposes means ruling over a small, decaying tropical city on the banks of the Oubangui River. Presidential powers barely reach beyond the limits of Bangui.

During almost all of Bozizé's 10 years in office, large parts of the country were out of his control. Supporters of former president Ange-Félix Patassé, deposed by Bozizé in a military coup in 2003, together with other anti-government elements – in particular, Michel Djotodia – kept much of the country in a state of more or less permanent revolt.


                                                                     Graphic: John McCann

Bozizé had been forcibly trying to remove Patassé from power since 2001, but in those days Patassé was able to rely on the support of troops loyal to Congolese rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, who now awaits trial in The Hague for alleged war crimes in the Central African Republic.

Skirmishes in 2003 turned into large-scale rebellion in 2004 and Djotodia led an alliance of several rebel groups calling themselves the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity. His bush war finally yielded fruit last Saturday, when his most recent rebel alliance, Seleka, entered Bangui, and headed straight for the presidential palace, where Djotodia proclaimed himself president.

During his last year in office, Bozizé could count on very few friends in high places. The French were no longer interested in helping – their troops remained in Bangui only to protect French interests in the Central African Republic, which these days mean French nationals.

Historically, the former colonial power has had a heavy hand in the country, but its main economic interest there – the Areva uranium mine – was mothballed two years ago when the uranium price dropped in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Bozizé's other erstwhile close friend, Chadian president Idriss Déby, who supported the coup that brought Bozizé to power, did not offer to help fight off this latest menace. As the noose tightened, President Jacob Zuma seemed to be his only remaining friend.

There is much speculation about why this is the case and, chances are, many of the questions surrounding this odd friendship will emerge soon. Despite South Africa's offer to train the FACA, Bozizé always feared that he'd be relieved of power in much the same way as many of his predecessors had been, so he played the dangerous game of keeping his army weak just in case they should decide to turn on him. It was a losing wager. The end came swiftly.

By December last year, the writing was on the wall – Seleka forces had taken over much of the country before the president reluctantly agreed to participate in peace talks held in the Gabonese capital, Libreville. With little left under his control outside Bangui, Bozizé still displayed his arrogance by refusing to negotiate and turning up late at the talks.

When the agreement was eventually signed in January, Seleka had dropped the condition that would have bothered Bozizé the most – the demand that he step down. Instead, a government of national unity was to be formed, with the occupant of the presidential palace remaining unchanged.

Seleka got to name the prime minister and elections were to be held within three years. Bozizé reluctantly agreed to the choice of Nicolas Tiangaye, a prominent human rights activist, as prime minister. But he made no move on one of the other key demands agreed to in Libreville – sending South African troops back to South Africa.

Perhaps if he had done what he had agreed to do, he would still be living in Bangui, and a number of South African families would not be mourning the loss of their loved ones, who died in a country many of them had never even heard of.

David Smith is a director of Johannesburg-based Okapi Consulting. He lived in Bangui where he set up Radio Minurca (now Radio Ndeke Luka), the only independent radio station in the country

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