Central African Republic: New Big Man, Old Politics - the Challenging Road Ahead for Car's Djotodia

16 May 2013

Since independence, the Central African Republic has experienced five coups. What chance does the country's latest strongman have of seeing out his term in office?

Following months of fighting in the Central African Republic (CAR), President François Bozizé was overthrown on 24 March by the Seleka Coalition, a collective of foreign and northern-based militias.

Soon after, the then-relatively unknown Michel Djotodia, one of Seleka's leaders, declared himself president before being formally elected by the Supreme Council of Transition, CAR's interim government until elections in 2014.

This made Djotodia the country's sixth head-of-state since independence in 1960. Ominously for him, four of the previous five have been victims of coups.

And now, in order to survive his 18-month transitional reign until elections in 2014, Djotodia must confront the same range of complex political challenges that faced his predecessors.

In fact, having traded military fatigues for slick suits and plush five-star hotel headquarters, the new strong-man of CAR may well look back at his ouster of Bozizé and his rise to the top of the political hierarchy as having been the easy part.

Six leaders, five coups: CAR's regional wranglings

As the violent rumblings of the coup persist - with reports of Seleka members engaging in looting, pillaging and human rights abuses - the most immediate concern for Djotodia and internationally-recognised Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye is the restoration of peace and order.

A significant part of this challenge, however, will be appeasing Seleka militias who have expectations of financial and political reward following the victory over Bozizé.

Indeed, more broadly, Djotodia will be faced with the task of quickly establishing and/or maintaining a system of patronage to ensure his political survival.

This has been the strategy adopted by CAR's leaders from David Dacko, the country's first president, to the eccentric Jean-Bédel Bokassa who ruled from 1966 to 1979, to the recently deposed François Bozizé.

In all these cases, complex patron-client networks, family bloodlines, local ethnic politics and rebel militancy were key in shaping CAR's politics.

In particular, ethnic and regional contestation have played a significant role in post-independence CAR. CAR's first two presidents - Dacko and Bokassa - were both members of the Mbaka people who reside in the south.

Reflecting the ethnic politics conducted under French colonial rule, Dacko and Bokassa drew their top civil servants mainly from southern minorities, while the nomads and pastoralists of the northern savannah lands, who were neglected under colonialism, remained marginalised.

Under André Kolingba - who took power in 1981 in a bloodless coup and replaced Dacko, who had returned to power two years earlier in a French-led ouster of Bokassa - ethnic politics was once again used to secure power. Kolingba was a Yakoma, also from the south, and ensured top military and government positions were dominated by members of this grouping.

This became a particular cause for concern when power handed over to Ange-Félix Patassé in 1993. Patassé is CAR's only leader to have initially come to power through elections.

He is also CAR's first northern ruler. Given this, the southern Yakoma majority in the armed forces became a constant cause of tension. Towards the end of the 1990s, disgruntled and under-paid army officers loyal to Kolingba waged three mutinies against Patassé and his presidential guard, which Patassé had shrewdly ensured was dominated by the northern Sara ethnic group.

At this time, Bozizé was a recently-dismissed army general with presidential ambitions of his own.

A member of the Gbaya in the north-west, Bozizé exploited the divisions between the Yakoma and the Sara and gave support to the Yakoma rebels who led a failed coup attempt in 2001. The failed ouster led to the systematic targeting and killing of many Yakoma militias and civilians by government authorities.

In 2003, Bozizé adopted a different tactic by taking advantage of northern grievances. He enlisted the support of a northern rebel movement led by Djotodia and which was mainly composed of the minority Gula, a group of predominantly Muslim pastoralists who felt they had long been marginalised by CAR's past governments.

This partnership turned out to be a fruitful one for Bozizé who took power in 2003. But after failing to keep his promises to pay the rebels for helping him oust Patassé, Bozizé fell out with his former northern allies and, during his ten-year rule, fought off several armed rebellions from discontented groups from the north.

This finally came to a head in 2013 when the Seleka coalition swept towards the capital Bangui and - after a hiatus in fighting following the signing of the Libreville Peace Agreement - overthrew Bozizé.

Arise Djotodia

Now, Djotodia, CAR's latest leader, is likely to be looking to establish his own networks of ethnic patronage in order to secure his position, compensate Seleka fighters, and address regional grievances.

His coming to power will be particularly significant for north-south tensions. Discontent amongst the Arabic-speaking Gula people in the north has become militarised in recent years and Djitodia, a Muslim from CAR's long-marginalised north-east, will be expected to ease these grievances.

Meanwhile in the south, Djitodia will have to deal with the exaggerated fears amongst some (particularly in Bangui) that CAR will be turned into an Islamist state under his rule.

Aside from north-south politics, CAR's new leader will also have to successfully manage a two-pronged strategy of patronage and co-optation; he will not only have to reward Seleka, but acquire the support of Bozizé's political allies who could still threaten his reign if demands for a role in government, as endorsed by the regional African community, are not met.

To appease all these stakeholders, the transitional governing body has already been increased in size from 97 to 105 to 130 members over the past month or so.

Furthermore, in a radio address to the nation earlier this month, Djotodia announced the appointment of two former Bozizé cabinet ministers: former prime minister Faustin-Archange Touadéra and former Minister of Public Safety Claude-Richard Gouandja.

Friends and enemies: CAR's international affairs

But Djotodia's challenges are not restricted to domestic affairs. Internationally, he also faces an uphill struggle in forming diplomatic relations. Djotodia faced condemnation and isolation for leading the coup against Bozizé and for proclaiming himself president shortly after.

More recently, President Idriss Deby of Chad cautiously described Djotodia as "head-of-state of the transition" rather interim president, while other world leaders have typically revealed a preference in dealing with Prime Minister Tiangaye, who was appointed under Bozizé as a concession to the Seleka coalition, rather than Djotodia.

This could prove problematic for the new strongman. After all, international patron-client relations have played an important role in CAR's politics since independence.

The former colonial France was instrumental in installing Dacko in power in 1960, and then restoring him as president again in 1979, following 13 years of his cousin Bokassa at the helm.

From 1960 until the early 1980s, the French also provided significant budget support and government officials to CAR and maintained close - sometimes scandalous relations - with the former colony's leaders.

France's President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing received diamonds from Bokassa and although d'Estaing claimed he sold the gems and donated proceeds to CAR charities, the scandal of his relationship with Bokassa - 'the Butcher of Bangui' - was, according to reports at the time, one of the key reasons d'Estaing was not re-elected in 1981.

But as France's involvement in CAR's domestic affairs has decreased, other foreign players have filled the gap.

Under Patassé, for example, Libya's Muammar Gaddafi expediently negotiated his allegiances and support to get the most out of his relationship with CAR.

A year after the Democratic Republic of Congo and Libya helped Patassé stave off an attempted coup led by Kolingba loyalists in 2001, Patassé awarded 99-year mining concessions to Libya to prospect for oil, gold, uranium and other mineral resources. Under Bozizé, Chinese companies were awarded rights in the north to mine gold and diamonds and to prospect for oil.

It is uncertain where Djotodia will or can turn. He has promised to review all mining deals, but those awarded to richer states are likely to be secure.

The French billion dollar uranium project in Bakouma has remained largely unaffected by the conflict, and last month the interim council announced Canadian gold mining company Axmin Inc. could continue with its exploration operations.

Djotodia may have more leverage however when it comes to lucrative local contracts, which could be revised to favour his own people. Djotodia could well take a leaf out of the book of Bozizé, who allowed Sylvian Ndotungai, his nephew and former right-hand man, to build up his wealth as Minister of Mines through controlling diamond exports and other business ventures.

History repeating?

You can't please all the people all the time, but Djotodia now faces the colossal task of trying to please enough people enough of the time to stem discontent. He not only has to restore basic order, but reconcile the many competing interests of CAR's political classes and foreign patrons.

The Soviet-trained former diplomat will have to gain some degree of trust with CAR's patron-client states, reward those who fought alongside him, and even accommodate some of those he fought against - namely, supporters of the ousted Bozizé regime, some of whom have vowed to take revenge against Seleka.

More urgently, however, Djotodia's biggest initial challenge may be to maintain unity and discipline among the country's rebel groups to make it easier for him to govern.

But with friction within Seleka and resistance growing among groups of CAR's population, this will not be easy. Indeed, with some members of Seleka ignoring calls for peace and behaving largely as a law unto themselves, it seems Djotodia will struggle to rule and the CAR's violent cycle of regimes pitted against rebels and mutineers could repeat itself once again.

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

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