The Seleka rebels have taken control of Bangui. What does this mean for the future of the long-troubled central African country?
On Sunday, 24 March 2013, the Seleka rebel alliance in Central African Republic (CAR) took the capital Bangui. President François Bozizé fled to Cameroon. A number of South African troops in Bangui were killed in a fight with the rebels.
Seleka leaders now claim to be in control of the government. One of its leaders, Michel Djotodia, reportedly declared himself president and said he would remain in that role for three years. The African Union imposed sanctions on the coup leaders and urged others to do the same.
What is Seleka?
The Seleka - which means alliance in the national language, Sango - is a coalition of several armed groups such as the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP) and the Wa Kodro Salute Patriotic Convention (CPSK), joined by fighters coming from Chad and Darfur.
This coalition came from the northeast of the Central African Republic and reached the doorstep of the capital city, Bangui, at the end of December 2012.
The emergence of the Seleka coalition resulted from the absence of a solution to the problem of the armed groups in northeastern CAR; the lack of a programme of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) for these fighters; and a crippled security system.
The leaders, the components and the initial demands of the Seleka have been features of the Central African political and security landscape for a long time. For instance, the disarmament of the fighters has been planned since the agreements of Libreville in 2008, but it has never taken place due to the lack of political will of the Bozizé regime.
The rebels of the Seleka mainly come from the northeast of the country.
This region is geographically isolated, historically marginalised and almost stateless. The lack of governance in the Vakaga and Haute Kotto regions, the permeable borders and the widespread contraband of weapons and other goods constituted the perfect terrain for the development of armed groups, giving rise to the Seleka.
How can we explain the fall of the Bozizé regime and the failure of the political transition?
The political transition process that was meant to follow the 2013 Libreville agreement never really started. The peace agreement, signed on 11 January 2013, was followed by the creation of a transitional government on 3 February 2013 which included the Seleka leaders. The rebels' takeover of the capital city and this reversal of situation are due to four factors:
1) The common feeling in the Central African political class that President Bozizé would not respect the Libreville commitments and that he would block the transition.
For instance, he celebrated the tenth anniversary of his own putsch on 15 March 2013 by organising a public meeting in Bangui and urging young people to "resist Seleka". In addition, he had imposed some of his relatives in the transitional government, rearmed (buying helicopters) and delayed releasing political prisoners.
2) The discontent of the military commanders of the Seleka towards the Libreville agreement. Some Seleka military commanders blamed Michel Djotodia for signing the agreement too quickly and for taking into consideration his own interest and not that of the fighters. This generated serious tensions within the Seleka.
3) The end of Bozizé's regional support. At the meeting in Libreville, former President Bozizé's regional peers forced him to accept several concessions and blamed him for closing down political space and dialogue with the opposition.
The fact that the MICOPAX (the Economic Community of Central African States' peacekeeping mission in CAR) did not intervene when the rebels moved towards Bangui can be interpreted as the end of Bozizé's regional support.
4) The unavoidable collapse of the Central African army. It had already been unable to stop the Seleka fighters in December 2012 and Bozizé had dismissed his son, who was Minister of Defence at the time and the army chief of staff. Under-equipped and unmotivated, the army was no longer able to fight and the rebels quickly realised it.
What are the political and security consequences of the Seleka's seizure of the power?
At the moment, CAR is neither governed nor governable.
The critical thing now is the restoration of law and order in Bangui as well as in the rest of the country. The heterogeneous structure of the rebellion makes it very fragile and the Seleka leadership might not be able to control all its troops, as demonstrated by the looting that already happened in Bangui.
At the request of the Seleka, the French army and MICOPAX already patrol the streets of the capital, which illustrates that the first challenge is to enforce law and order.
On the political level, the Seleka leadership sent positive signals by maintaining Nicolas Tiangaye as a prime minister, by mentioning the possibility of including dignitaries of the previous regime in the new government, and by insisting on respect of the Libreville agreement.
Michel Djotodia announced that presidential elections would be held in 2016 in accordance with the Libreville agreement. In order to avoid a dangerous power vacuum, the leader of the Seleka had no choice but to quickly form a government. The composition of the government will be a first indicator of the Seleka governance.
On 25 March 2013, Michel Djotodia suspended the constitution, announced the dissolution of the National Assembly and said he intends to rule by decree.
Finally, the seizure of the power by the rebels led to a robust reaction from the African Union (AU) which condemned the unconstitutional change of regime.
The AU also decided to suspend the participation of CAR in the activities of the AU and to impose targeted sanctions, such as travel bans and asset freezes, against the main leaders of the Seleka, including Michel Djotodia. Furthermore, the AU called on other international organisations to adopt the same approach.
The United Nations Security Council condemned the attacks on Bangui and emphasised that "those responsible for violations and abuses of international humanitarian and human rights law, including violence against civilians, sexual and gender-based violence and recruitment and use of children in armed conflict, must be held accountable".
This position was also supported publicly by European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton.
The United States made similar points on impunity, strongly condemned "the illegitimate seizure of power by the Seleka rebel alliance", and said it would review its roughly $2 million in non-humanitarian aid to CAR.
What role does the region and South Africa have in this crisis?
Several foreign forces are deployed in CAR, but they are not all involved in this crisis and above all they position themselves differently when it comes to the recent events.
After stopping the Seleka in December 2012, the leaders of the region seem to have accepted the fall of Bozizé. MICOPAX did not try to block the rebels when they moved to Bangui and the similarities between the 2003 coup and this one are striking.
At that time, Bozizé's putsch against President Ange-Félix Patassé was implicitly supported by the leaders of the region, including Chad. The positioning of the Chadian regime towards the Seleka currently raises a lot of suspicion. The French military deployed in CAR is mandated to support MICOPAX; it is following the policy of armed neutrality and is presently securing the airport and French nationals.
During this crisis, South Africa sided with Bozizé on behalf of stability and a military cooperation agreement dating back to 2007. The South African troops that protected Bangui lost 13 men, their biggest loss in a military operation since 1994.
This can be regarded as a serious blow to South African foreign policy in Africa. Until now, Pretoria did not contemplate withdrawing its military personnel from CAR. President Jacob Zuma called the Seleka fighters "bandits".
Ugandan troops and their American military advisors are located in the southeast of CAR in order to fight against the Lord's Resistance Army. The Chadian and Sudanese troops are based in Birao in order to secure the Vakaga region in the northeast of CAR.
The fact that the South African troops were the only line of defence for Bangui demonstrates clearly that coordination between the foreign forces in CAR was minimal and that their political leaders do not have the same perspective on the best way to handle the CAR crisis.
This article was originally published here at the International Crisis Group blog.
Thierry Vircoulon is International Crisis Group's Central Africa Project Director based in Nairobi, Kenya.
He has previously worked for the French Foreign Ministry and the European Commission, notably in South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most of his work is focusing on governance and SSR. He is also part of the OECD group of experts on statebuilding and peacebuilding.