22 March 2013

Central African Republic: Rebel Surge Shatters Fragile Peace

Rebel soldiers (file photo).


Just two months following a peace agreement, CAR's Seleka rebels are reported to be marching on Bangui. How did we get to this point?

Clouds of uncertainty and anxiety are hanging over the Central African Republic (CAR) as members of the rebel Seleka coalition march on Bangui. Details are difficult to verify, but reports suggest that rebels may have reached the outskirts of the capital having seized the town of Damara 75 km away.

Nelson Ndjadder, spokesperson for the CPSK faction of the Seleka coalition, is quoted by Reuters as saying, "Our objective is to take Bangui today", adding "We have 2,000 men on the ground and some have slipped into the capital".

The same news report also quoted an unnamed senior official in the international peacekeeping force in CAR as saying, "There is not much resistance from the Central African army. Bangui could fall in a couple of hours". However some other unconfirmed statements suggest regional peacekeepers are ready and able to defend the capital. President François Bozizé meanwhile is believed to be out of the country and on a visit to South Africa.

These hostilities mark the renewal of a one-month rebellion waged against President Bozizé's government last December. At the end of last year, the Seleka coalition - an alliance of various rebel groups in CAR - began hostilities against the government. They took several towns and were marching on Bangui before they agreed to peace talks following a regional diplomatic and peacekeeping intervention.

These hasty talks, hosted by the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) in Gabon from January 8-11, resulted in the Libreville Accord which led to the establishment of a power-sharing government and an end to the clashes. But over the past days and weeks, the political and security situation has rapidly deteriorated again.

A hasty accord

Bozizé first came to power in 2003 through a coup aided by the northern-based Union for Democratic Forces (UFDR), led by Michel Djotodia. Bozizé failed to retain their support, however, and within a year of his election as elected president in 2005, the UDFR launched an offensive on the Bangui government. Bozizé eventually signed peace agreements with the UFDR and several other armed groups in 2007 and 2008.

The deal, however, did not satisfy the rebels in the long-term, and the Seleka coalition rose out of continued frustration with the status quo. In December 2012, discontented rebels thus once again tried to overthrow Bozizé and, once again, a peace deal was signed. This agreement, like its predecessors however, was also partial and ineffectual according to many analysts.

Nicolas Tillon and Kennedy Tumutegyereize, for example, criticised the deal, saying it read like a follow-on deal from the 2008 Libreville agreement and pointed out that it had been drafted by the same regional commission of experts.

According to some, the peace deal that foreign mediators came up with tried to take into account the needs of the different stakeholders in CAR, but neglected the grievances between the actual warring parties.

Since the deal, some rebel members claim that they have seen little benefit from the January accord and have complained about its slow implementation. Some claim that Bozizé retained control of key ministries such as Foreign Affairs and Justice, and that Seleka ministers have to work alongside Bozizé's appointed deputy ministers - seen as a way for the president to retain control and block Seleka initiatives.

Peace on the rocks

There have been significant differences in perspective within the Seleka movement, however, on how to move things forwards. On the one hand, Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye - the top Seleka representative in the new unity government - has often urged the rebels to withdraw from occupied towns and cease violent acts, and invited rebels to engage in talks. By contrast, Minister of Defence and rebel commander Djotodia has publically expressed dissatisfaction with the deal and threatened to overthrow Bozizé.

It seems calls for renewed used of force have prevailed over calls for talks. In the past weeks, rebels have occupied several towns in the southeast. Last week, the rebels delivered a list of demands to regional mediator, President Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo.

And on Monday, the rebels issued Bozizé's government a 72-hour ultimatum to comply with their demands or face renewed fighting. Before issuing the 72-hour ultimatum on Monday, some of Seleka's representatives in government - including Djotodia - withdrew from Bangui and retreated back to the bush.

The list of demands included the release of political prisoners, the integration of at least 2,000 rebel fighters into the national army, the lifting of road blocks and curfews, and the departure of a multinational force composed of troops from various countries (including Gabon, France, South Africa and Uganda).

Foreign troops - particular the 400 from South Africa - have essentially propped up Bozizé's government since the December offensive. These same troops are now reported to be stationed in a suburb on Bangui to deter the approaching fighters.

Responding to the rebel demands on Wednesday, Bozizé issued two decrees on state radio. The decrees freed all political prisoners held since March 15, 2012, and lifted the curfew which has been in place since the signing of the Libreville Accord.

But in an interview with the BBC, Seleka's head of military operations, Arda Akouman, said the concessions were insufficient and vowed to march on the capital. "We'll be going towards Bangui on foot or in pick-up trucks. We don't want to have a dialogue with Bozizé anymore", he Akouman, rejecting further efforts at negotiated reconciliation.

At the time, UN Special Representative of the Secretary General Margaret Vogt reported that rebels control about 75% of the country, but added, "The ultimatum on Wednesday and the indication we got was that they were prepared to allow a bit more time for negotiations to take place".

Now, with rebels reportedly on the outskirts of Bangui, this time seems to have run out. The rebels appear to have rejected the possibility of negotiations with Bozizé and resorted back to force.

A spokesperson from Seleka has been quoted as claiming Bangui will be taken before long, though it is important to note that the regional peacekeepers that protected Bozizé a few months ago forcing the rebels into negotiations are also still in CAR.

It is impossible to predict what will happen next. The political crisis in CAR has been played for years, taking many twists and turns. But with yesterday's momentary peace a distant memory, could this be the beginning of end of François Bozizé's part in it?

Tendai Marima is a freelance journalist and post-doctoral researcher in African literature.

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