In August, United Nations (UN) Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos warned that 'the Central African Republic [CAR] is not yet a failed state, but has the potential to become one if swift action is not taken'. This warning became all the more real when on 13 September Michel Djotodia, the interim president of the CAR, decided to dissolve the rebel coalition Seleka, which he had headed during the December 2012 rebellion that led to the overthrow of General Francois Bozizé, the CAR's former president.
Through the decision to disband Seleka and by threatening to subject anyone acting on behalf of the rebel movement to the full might of the law, Djotodia has sought to reaffirm his authority in a country that desperately needs credible leaders and functioning institutions. This might also be a charm offensive in response to pressure from regional leaders and external partners. And while his decision could be seen as a bold move to curb the growing number of atrocities committed by members of the armed coalition, the risk of rampant instability or renewed armed conflict looms large.
It is not the first time that a little-known rebel leader has risen to power in Africa, only to turn his back on those who helped him get there. In May 1997, the unknown leader of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) attacked Kinshasa and toppled Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, with the help of Rwandese and Ugandan fighters. AFDL leader Laurent Desire Kabila proclaimed himself president of the newly rechristened Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but he soon felt the fatal poison of power. In 1998, Kabila turned his back on his former allies, which had provided manpower and weapons during that assault on Kinshasa. This plunged the DRC into the Second Congo War, pitting Kabila's government, supported by Angola, Chad, Namibia and Zimbabwe, against a Rwandan and Ugandan-backed rebellion. The consequences of that disaster are still evident today in the ongoing violence in the eastern DRC.
A few years later, the little-known Djotodia emerged as the leader of a rebel coalition called Seleka ('alliance' in the local Sango language). In late 2012 he toppled another dictator, the CAR's Bozizé. Bozizé himself had come to power following an armed rebellion in 2003, never intending to relinquish that power to a genuine democratic process. Reports have now emerged that Djotodia benefited from local, regional and extra-regional complicity in his initiative to take over the CAR.
With the dissolution of Seleka, Djotodia has taken a decision that has the potential to destroy both him and the country. Dissolving Seleka involved more than a speech delivered from the comfort of the presidential palace - Djotodia almost lost control over the coalition and the country, as he was unprepared for the role of the CAR's new strongman.
Internal tension in Seleka has long been evident, as the three main factions making up Seleka - the Union des forces démocratiques pour le rassemblement (Union of Democratic Forces for Unity, or UFDR), Convention des patriotes pour la justice et la paix (Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace, or CPJP) and Convention patriotique du salut du Kodro (Patriotic Convention for the Salvation of Kodro, or CPSK) - hardly share the same vision and ambitions.
A few months into his administration, one of Djotodia's main allies, General Moussa Mohammad Dhafanne, was arrested, accused of plotting a coup against the interim president and allegedly transferred by the authorities to neighbouring Chad. Tensions between Seleka and General Abdoulaye Miskine, the leader of the Democratic Front for the Central African Republic's People (FDPC), remain a potential source of concern. However, two fundamental issues are at stake here, beyond the internal contradictions of the rebel coalition.
Firstly, the interim president does not seem to have the authority to effectively call the various rebel factions to order. Subsequent security developments in the CAR have demonstrated the challenges that Djotodia faces in taking control of a country thrown into disorder. Reports of mass atrocities abound, while the civilian population is subjected to political violence and banditry as a strategy to access power under the guise of the Seleka rebel coalition. In fact, what had remained of the state administration collapsed with Bozizé's downfall, leaving the CAR in desperate need of an effective government.
Secondly, the dissolution of Seleka without a coherent stabilisation plan for the CAR could be a recipe for disaster. Though the transition has been set in motion and there is a general understanding that the January 2013 Libreville Agreement will remain the cornerstone of the political process in the country, there are concerns over the security environment, as well as the ability of the current leadership to lead a peaceful transition.
As the African Union (AU) discusses the possible deployment of an African-led International Support Mission in the CAR (Mission internationale de soutien à la Centrafrique, or MISCA), local and regional actors still have to reach a consensus on the mandate and modalities of such a peace mission. As matters stand, the AU estimates that 3 652 troops, consisting of 3 500 uniformed personnel (2 475 for the military component and 1 025 for the police component) and 152 civilians, will be needed to help protect the population, stabilise the country and assist in restoring the government's authority countrywide. Though some countries, including Congo-Brazzaville, Chad and Burundi, have already sent troops (200, 500 and 450 respectively), it is not clear how long it will take for the mission to be deployed. Moreover, despite the traditional financial and logistical concerns in such missions and the need for an accelerated process, the force commander still has to be chosen.
In the meantime, Djotodia's decision could unleash between 20 000 and 25 000 armed fighters on a country known for recycled rebellions. While he has resorted to the services of foreign private security companies for his own security, the children and women who bear the brunt of the instability have no such luxury. Without a proper plan for a comprehensive stabilisation process and a coherent political process that ends the cyclical violent regime change, the CAR could remain a source of instability for the region. An effective, robust international engagement in the CAR is both urgent and necessary to restore peace and stability.
David Zounmenou, Senior Research Fellow, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Pretoria