The government of the Central African Republic did not make a formal request to South Africa to send troops there. Ousted president François Bozizé made the request directly to President Jacob Zuma, without going through his own country's national assembly.
The doyen of constitutional lawyers in the CAR, Maître Zarambaud Assingambi, told the Mail & Guardian that there is nothing wrong with the president signing a defence agreement, but any such agreement must be ratified by the national assembly, and Bozizé did not do that.
The apparent lack of respect for official process appears to mirror steps not taken in South Africa to get South African National Defence Force reinforcements up to Bangui. Constitutional experts say Zuma failed to inform Parliament, as required by the Constitution, of plans for deploying the troops.
Zarambaud, when not playing a decades-old role of government watchdog, spends his time at the International Criminal Court representing the families of Central Africans who are victims of crimes against humanity allegedly committed on CAR territory by Congolese rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba.
According to Article 28 of the CAR Constitution, the country's national assembly must pass any defence agreement signed with another country. Zarambaud told the M&G that there was no clear objective for bringing South Africans to the CAR. "The war in this country is a civil war, and the only ratified deal we have with another country is with France, in which the French agreed to come to our aid if we were attacked by an external force, and that is not the case here," he said.
In the emergency summit on CAR in N'Djamena, Chad, last week, Zuma was heard asking why the French were in the country – diplomats attending the talks said that the South African president didn't seem to be aware of the defence agreement Bozizé signed with then French president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010.
France pulled most of its troops out of the Central African Republic in 1998 after the United Nations agreed to replace a French-led peacekeeping force with a United Nations peacekeeping operation known by its French acronym, Minurca. A devolved UN mission has been in place since then, but is generally viewed by locals as ineffective and too close to whoever happens to be in power.
Regional peacekeeping force
Although some political observers believe Zuma is trying to flex his muscles in order to replace France with South Africa as the dominant partner in the region – much in the way his predecessor Thabo Mbeki unsuccessfully tried to exert South African influence in Côte d'Ivoire prior to the ouster of Laurent Gbagbo – Zarambaud believes the real power play in the region is between two other leaders. Chad's Idriss Déby and Congo Brazzaville's Denis Sassou Nguesso have been vying for leadership in the middle of Africa ever since Omar Bongo, Gabon's president of 41 years, died in 2009.
In the CAR, Déby certainly has the upper hand. Chadian soldiers form part of the regional peacekeeping force as well as part of the Seleka rebels who are now in charge, though Déby claims his government has absolutely no link to Seleka.
One of the unanswered questions about the battle of Bangui between the rebels and the South African army is why Fomac, the regional peace force dominated by Chadian soldiers, stood aside at Damara, the frontline town 70km north of the capital, when Seleka decided it would no longer be party to the peace agreement signed in January.
It was Fomac's lack of engagement that would propel the South Africans into a defensive combat role only two hours later. The question of how many South African soldiers died that day remains a mystery. Pretoria is not budging on the figure of 13 dead and 27 casualties, whereas the Seleka general who led the final push forward, Arda Hakouma, still claims he saw 36 South African bodies.
The M&G met General Hakouma and asked him whether he had heard the report in which he is quoted on French radio and whether he had been quoted correctly. He replied in the affirmative. The M&G also asked the French journalist who wrote the original story, Cyril Bensimon, whether he believed the general could be trusted.
"I see no reason for him to lie, and I get the feeling that he is somebody who doesn't know how to lie" was what the veteran Africa-watcher replied. Radio France Internationale is generally regarded as one of the most reliable information sources in Francophone Africa and has millions of listeners across the continent.
Waiting for instructions
If ever there was a paper trail documenting South African interests in the CAR, it is not to be found at the ministry of mines. What's left of the ministry now is nothing but looted and burnt buildings where anything of value, including electrical sockets, has been removed. Rather surprisingly, ministry personnel were still turning up for work in the morning, standing in the parking lot because all of their chairs had been stolen. They were waiting for instructions from the new Seleka-appointed minister, a cousin of the president, who had yet to report for duty.
Mining companies with offices in Bangui have suffered the same fate as the ministry. At the offices of Canadian mining firm Axmin, as well as its local gold mining affiliate Aurafrique, and the finance institution Hydro Finance – three businesses with a connection to local entrepreneur Richard Ondoko – Seleka had either destroyed or removed anything of value, including paperwork.
The M&G managed to reach Ondoko on his local CAR cellphone number. However, he was in South Africa when he answered, and had no comment other than to say: "You should ask Seleka."
Robert Moidokana is the head of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, EITI, an international initiative under which member governments commit themselves to ensuring that transactions in the resource sector, including revenue payments to the government, are above board and transparent. Like many Bozizé appointees, Moidokana is keeping a low profile in the hope that he just might be able to keep his job. He knows who has signed mining contracts, he knows how much money has changed hands and he knows where much of the money went.
But, unfortunately for EITI, its offices have also been looted and the records are gone. It would have been difficult to have confidence in Moidokana's take on the mining sector in any case – during most of his meeting with the M&G, he tried to convince this correspondent that,; contrary to international news reports, the CAR is an example of good governance and transparency.
Tension as things fall apart
The political and security situation in the war-torn Central African Republic became highly volatile this week.
United Nations envoy Margaret Vogt painted a grim picture of the country following the overthrow of the government on March 24 by rebel fighters from the Seleka alliance.
Michel Djotodia, a rebel fighter who helped to form Seleka, declared himself president.
The country's capital, Bangui, has been hit by widespread looting and violence, especially during this past week.
The Mail & Guardian's correspondent in Bangui, David Smith, who has been covering the violent transition in the CAR, sent this SMS to the M&G's news desk on Thursday, minutes before leaving the country from Bangui's airport.
"Shit going to hit fan here. Almost didn't make it to airport. On bus to plane. Big anti-seleka protest heading to ledger hotel where djotodia is. Protesters don't let tiangaye the pm pass as he leaves airport on return from france. I expect seleka to fire on protesters. One protester already shot dead."
A few minutes later, he sent this: "Protesters tried to stop me until told them I am founder radio ndeke luka and they let me pass. Most other passengers not getting on plane cannot access airport. Engines starting."
The Colonel, the Driver, and the Driver's Girlfriend
There's not much talk about South Africans anymore in Bangui. Truth is, the South Africans were always just a sidebar here. Everybody knows that South African soldiers were protecting the former president, and, unlike back in South Africa, where questions are still being asked about what the SANDF was really doing here, locals don't have any doubt – foreigners come here to get involved in shady business deals with the government, whether they are from South Africa, Lebanon, or Chad. How much truth there is in this belief is irrelevant to most Central Africans. In this country, few people ever expect to hear the truth from people in power; politicians exist simply for self enrichment.
One of the best known foreigners in the CAR has become known recently in South Africa. Didier Pereira is from Congo Brazzaville and in Bangui he's known as the Colonel. Quite coincidentally, the driver I hired to ferry me around for my Mail & Guardian duties just so happened to be the Colonel's driver as well. As we moved from story to story, Tangui Kawa told me what a pleasure it was to work for the Colonel. "Didier, he's super cool." "I told him my wife was sick…he sent her medication." "If the South Africans had a problem, he sorted it out."
Understandably, Tangui did not want to go into details. After all, I was only in Bangui for a week, while who knows what might be next on the agenda for Mr. Perreira. Whatever deals the Colonel may or may not have been trying to forge between presidents Zuma and Bozize, there is no doubt that people here who know him see him as a positive force in a place where few seem to be trying to make things better. For my first few days in Bangui, i stayed at the Oubangui Hotel, a once grand establishment, and formerly part of the French Sofitel group,on the banks of the river of the same name that forms the international boundary with the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It turns out Didier is part owner of the Oubangui. When the manager found out I was from South Africa, he told me that soon the hotel would be refurbished because Didier would find the money fix it up. This may not sound like much, but it is very rare to hear anybody in Bangui say that they have any expectations for improvement to infrastructure. In Bangui, things fall apart, and they stay that way.
Through Tangui, I met gardeners and security guards who had worked for Didier. While all were reluctant to say anything about their former employer's business life, they were unanimous in their praise for him as a kind and generous employer. Morale at the crumbling Oubangui Hotel remained relatively positive for similar reasons – a belief that Didier would find the means to fix the place. The Mail & Guardian knows that Mr. Perreira did approach in international lending institution with offices in South Africa a few years ago for funding to renovate the hotel, funding he and his partners did not receive.
My driver was keen to impress when he found out I knew who the colonel was. Following a difficult day of negotiating roadblocks manned by drunken Chadian soldiers, Tangui took me to his girlfriend's house to relax over a glass of palm wine. The wine was sweet and welcome in the hot humid haze of a Bangui afternoon. Had there not been both a curfew and a deadline looming I would have gladly had refills. The need to leave also made it easier to politely decline his offer to find me a girlfriend who was as nice as his.