The Central African Republic, known best for its history of coups, military revolts and brutal rule is back in the headlines following a lightening rebel advance on the capital Bangui.
The country's president, François Bozizé, has appealed to 'our French cousins' and the United States 'to help us to push back the rebels'. François Hollande, France's president responded on 27 December saying that French soldiers stationed in its former colony would not be used to defend Bozizé's government but only to protect French assets. France continues to maintain 320 troops at Bangui airport providing technical support to a peacekeeping mission run by the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS).
Now, France's Operation Boali force has been temporarily assigned to protect French nationals and diplomatic assets in Bangui. The United States has evacuated its embassy and non-essential UN staff have also left the country. General Jean-Felix Akaga, commander of the regional central African military force (FOMAC), said Bangui was 'fully secured' by its troops, adding that others will arrive to reinforce the mission.
Popular frustration over the government's inclusiveness and also over irregularities in the presidential and legislative elections which resulted in the re-election in 2011 of president Bozizé has galvanized the rebellion. President Bozizé took power in a military rebellion in March 2003, but won subsequent presidential elections in 2005 and 2011.
A coalition of insurgents calling itself Séléka ('alliance') and formed by dissident factions of three former rebel groups - the Convention patriotique du salut du Kodro, the Convention des patriotes pour la justice et la paix (CPJP) and the Union des forces démocratiques pour le Rassemblement - launched an offensive on 10 December, seizing 12 towns including the strategic diamond mining town of Bria and on 23 December the northern city of Bambari, the third largest town in the country. Séléka claims that the Bozizé administration has failed to uphold the terms of peace deals signed in 2007, 2008 and 2011, under which former combatants were to be given economic opportunities, including jobs and compensation.
Bozizé's troops have fallen back from the rebel advance in disarray and the national army is poorly equipped and ill-disciplined. The government struggles to project power beyond the capital region and the country's south. Chad has intervened several times in the Central African Republic. The nation helped Mr Bozizé when he took power in 2003, and again in 2010 when he was fighting some of the rebel groups who are once again on the offensive. Chadian forces have been deployed to support Bozizé and present the only real obstacle to the rebels, who are now positioned at least 300 km from Bangui. It remains unclear how long Chad's president, Idriss Déby, will be willing to assist Bozizé. A heads of state and government of ECCAS meeting in Chad's capital Ndjamena on 21 December emphasized that the crisis in the Central African Republic must be solved through dialogue.
Ready for dialogue?
Rebel leaders said they would suspend operations to allow humanitarian access and start talks with the government, and pledged to depose Mr Bozizé unless he negotiates with them. The UN is continuing efforts to encourage dialogue to resolve the conflict and the regional body, ECCAS, is also trying to broker a truce. The French Foreign Ministry noted in a recent statement that negotiations are due to 'begin shortly in Libreville (Gabon).' But it is not immediately clear if any dates have been set.
Unstable since 1960
The advance by Séléka is the latest in a long history of chronic instability in the CAR since it obtained independence from France in 1960: at least three coup plots were foiled in 2012. It has suffered from interlinking insurgencies in neighbouring Chad, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Congo-Brazzaville. Despite some international efforts to disarm rebel groups - including a 400-strong Micopax stabilization mission and more than €100m of EU spending on peace consolidation missions in the country since 2004 - it has seen numerous incursions and has remained unstable. In October, the French nuclear giant, Areva, suspended its operations at its uranium mining operation in Bakouma because of low global demand and poor security.
Although the rebels say they do not plan to capture the capital Bangui, their continued offensives seem to indicate that they may try. Mr Bozizé's grip on power appears to be weakening further and the risk of a coup to remove him is increasingly likely even if the rebels cease their campaign and a negotiated settlement is reached.
Alex Vines is Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; and Head, Africa Programme of Chatham House.