29 May 2008

Central African Republic: France's Long Hand


Vincent Munié looks at France's strategies and machinations in the Central African Republic.

Buried deep in the mixed-bag of the November 19 2007 presidential agenda, a meeting took place between Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Bozizé of the Central African Republic (CAR). The secrecy and brevity of the encounter (27 minutes) belies a certain degree of discomfort. In fact, CAR is by no means an insignificant country to France.

CAR attained independence in 1960 from its former colonial master after decades of exploitation, but this did not diminish France's political and military influence. Why then, was this meeting so quietly and hurriedly held? It appears that a chasm has opened between France and CAR.

At the beginning of 2007, relations between the two countries seemed normal. In the spring, Birao, the capital city of the Vakaga region which lies in the far north-east on the border with Chad and Sudan's Darfur, briefly hit the headlines. In the same period, France was in the midst of an electoral campaign period, and consequently, there was little media focus on what role the French military was playing in this strategic region. And yet, on the 4th of March, in the first such campaign since Kolwezi in 1978, the French carried out an aerial assault on Birao, which had been under attack from the rebel Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UDFU).

This new rebel force was formed in September of 2006 and brought together three armed groups composed of disillusioned ex-comrades of Bozizé, former officers who had served under ex-president Ange-Felix Patassé, and soldiers disgruntled with their pay. The Central African rebellion is a heterogeneous one; The movements oscillate between a Pro-Patassé political stance and a criminal tendency. However in order to understand the attack of 4 March, 2007, one must track back to November 2006, when a force of 50-odd men first seized control of Birao and several other areas of the North-East (Sam Oandja, Ouanda Djalle, etc.).

It took a month for the Central African army, supported by Bangui-based French troops and F1 Mirage fighter jets from N'Djamena to repulse the rebels toward Chad and Sudan. The tension was palpable. This is despite the fact that in February of the same year, a peace accord was signed in Sirte, Libya, between President Bozizé and Abdoulaye Miskine, on behalf of the UDFU. On the ground the rebels under the new leadership of Damane Zacharia dismissed the accord.


At the beginning of March, Daman Zacharia announced a second assault on Birao. He declared that he was taking on the French, for what he saw as their interference in national matters. Since November 2006, France had maintained a small Special Force detachment of 128 in Birao. On the night of 3rd March, this force came under heavy artillery fire.

Two Mirage F1 fighter jets dispatched from Chad quickly destroyed the artillery nests. The following night, 50 troops from the 3rd Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment were dispatched form Bangui to a small airstrip 12 km from Birao to setup a launch-point for Transall and Hercules carriers bringing in troops from Central Africa and about one hundred French legionnaires. The Central African Army, with the manpower and logistical support from the French, were thus able to regain control of the town and its surrounds.

Zacharia and his forces were headed for Bangui, and were it not for Paris, the government of Bozizé would have fallen. The Central African conflicts are seen as wars of the poor. The UDFU has never had more than 500 combatants, while the national army has 5000 men, of which the fighting force is less than 2000. For a country size of France, this is very small.

After the March conflagration, Birao was left in ruins: 70% of houses were burnt and looted. There were very few civilian casualties given that all the town's inhabitants had sought refuge in the bush. However, the destruction of the millet reserves, just before the onset of the rainy season, portends a certain famine for an impoverished population that is totally dependent on its meager agriculture production.

Although all parties deny responsibility, its seems that the national army bears a huge culpability for the pillage. In this forgotten part of a forgotten country the military once again has the dubious distinction of turning on its own citizens. The soldiers in Central Africa seem to be out of control. The terror metered out by the army in the North West is a major cause of the insecurity in the area. Of particular concern is the presence of the ubiquitous dreaded presidential guard - drawn from "ex-freedom fighters who were brought in from Chad to bolster Bozizé's coup in 2003.

There have been massacres, rape, torture and looting... all perpetrated under the guise of fighting the rebel group Armée Populaire pour la Restauration de la République et de la démocratie (APRD), the country's second rebellion. The presidential guard has launched several attacks on the civilian population. The national army (formed by France) is responsible for the massive displacement of citizens (200,000 displaced in the North-West).

Clearly, France would not gain from attention on its involvement in CAR. However, the national army has become a dubious ally. There were several calls from the French Foreign Ministry over the summer, urging the CAR government to rebuild confidence between the army and the citizenry. At the beginning of November 2007, Bozizé himself acknowledged the atrocities and took symbolic measures. He invited the rebel groups to the negotiating table. Their demands, put forward primarily by the Central African People's Liberation Movement (MLPC) of former Prime Minister Martin Ziguélé, revolve around the disputed 2005 elections, army atrocities and the mismanagement of economic reforms.

France still does not seem ready to cut its ex-colony loose. Under a 1960 defence accord, France is obligated to intervene in the event of foreign aggression. The current rebellion is, however, of local origin - and not orchestrated by Khartoum, as has been suggested in official circles. France's presence in the region has taken on an "unquestionable" character. The March military operation is but a symptom of a much bigger problem.


After a brutal colonization of the Oubangi-Chari, the first "French" town, Bangui, was established in 1889. Independence did not end French patronage, making CAR a textbook example of what is referred to as "Franco-Africa". After the "fortuitous" death of the republic's founder Barthélémy Boganda, France has always systematically maintained a firm grip on power by propping up and deposing its protégés; David Dacko was twice installed and deposed, Jean-Bedel Bokassa proclaimed himself emperor and was overthrown by France in Operation Barracuda, André Kolingba set up a military regime, Felix Patassé was the first "democratically-elected" president, and the latest in line is Bozizé.

In a review of the cooperation, the two permanent bases of Bouar and Bangui were closed in 1998, following the "mutinies" of 1996 during which French soldiers seized control of the capital. In 2002 an operations centre consisting in part of the Special Operations Command (COS), was set up through Operation Boali... Another sign of France's continued influence is the presence of General Henri-Alain Guillou as presidential military advisor, along with about 60 other officials in various ministries.

Whereas CAR has been relatively untouched by the systematic industrial depredation suffered by its neighbours, its central position on the continent fits in with France's political and economic strategy. In the course of the last fifty years, CAR has secretly become a feeding-trough. The sustained lawlessness has favoured the wanton extraction of minerals, precious stones and illegal ivory trade. The 1979 diamond affair is just a tip of the massive iceberg that is the exploitation and expatriation of gold and diamonds by French businessmen. The same has been true for the rapacious exploitation of timber and rubber resources through concessions given to individuals engaged in tropical misadventures. The Kolingba (1982-1993) and Patassé (1993-2003) regimes have followed on in the same style.

France has more or less maintained some military presence in CAR since independence, and at the same time exercises the same political patronage as in the rest of the sub-region. An important part of this presence is France's ability to monitor the neighbouring countries. In addition, France has always favoured Africa as a military training ground. So far, France has been able to prevail militarily, given that none have taken on a terrorist character as has happened in the Middle East. The hand of France has also been clearly seen in African politics, as was the case in Rwanda and Côte d'Ivoire.

The French media also has a significant part to play: on 14 July 2007, France 2 carried a rare report on CAR that glorified the role of French troops in the Birao rebellion, without addressing the question as to why France was there in the first place, the root causes of the rebellion, the state of the country, or even the atrocities committed by the CAR army.

It is true that the CAR crises do not constitute an all-out war or a humanitarian crisis of the kind that stirs up international attention or emotions. At the same time the country continues to suffer silently in grinding poverty. The Human Development Index list CAR as the 5th -poorest country. The state is practically non-existent outside the capital, hardly giving any assistance to a population left to its devices. In January 2008, civil servants went on strike to demand salary arrears. On 18 January, the prime minister resigned. Since 1960 the country has been yoked with leaders chosen more for their obsequiousness than their managerial acumen. As a result the CAR has been impoverished, hence justifying the need for "aid" - military, economic and political.

Bozizé did however deign to take liberties against his colonial master and protector. In April 2007, the government suddenly decided to nationalize the petroleum sector, in the process excluding Total, which until that point had been the major shareholder in SOGAL, the hydrocarbon management company. Further still, the president's nephew Sylvain, Ndoutingaye, minister for mines, was given the economy portfolio, against the advice of Sarkozy and the World Bank. Strict financial conditions were also imposed on Areva's exploitation of the Bakouma mine. Areva had recently acquired Uramin, the Canadian company that held uranium-mining concessions in CAR. The final act of defiance was Bozizé's visit to Omar El-Bashir, his Sudanese counterpart, despite France's disapproval.

At the same time France has been accused of ties to a "rogue regime" thanks to its links with the national army. Despite efforts at transparency, the national army remains largely unaccountable, given that officers accused of crimes are simply dismissed without charges. The heralded national dialogue remains an illusory promise. Although diplomatic pressure has been brought to bear, France withdrawing its troops would be the key factor. Only a couple of military advisers were withdrawn this summer. South African diplomats however continue to work in the corridors of power. A peace accord was signed in March when Thabo Mbeki quietly visited Bangui. As a result of this visit, the presidential guard was placed under the tutelage of thirty South African military instructors. At the end of the day, the stakes are rising in the race to take over patronage of CAR.

The CAR revolt is not an isolated case. Chad's Idriss Déby showed an independent streak in the Zoe's Arch saga. Niger's president Mamadou Tandja has been actively seeking out other economic partners. In this context, France's traditional bilateral ties, the military cooperation and economic networks seem to be on the wane. France has subsequently insisted on the deployment of a European Union force (EUFOR), which will effectively double the number of French troops on the ground in the strategic Chad/CAR area. Their mandate remains unclear as far as Mission "Epervier" or Operation Boali are concerned, raising the likelihood of confusion.

In 2007, however, a mere military presence is not enough to guarantee France's pre-eminence in the country. As her paratroopers and soldiers descend upon the capital and patrol its streets, they walk past the ruins of the Sports stadium, where Bokassa was enthroned. This gift from the Giscard-d'Estaing regime, continues to crumble and decay by the day, while a mere forty metres away rises the city's grandest structure: a beautiful thirty-nine thousand-seater stadium. A gift from China.

*Vincent Munie is the director of Survie-France.

*This article appeared in the French edition of Pambazuka News http://www.pambazuka.org/fr/category/features/48282 and was translated by Josh Ogada.

*Please send comments to editor@pambazuka.org or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/

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