Grim circumstances in the CAR

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

It's unusual for the chief of the South African National Defence Force to chair media briefings and issue statements. General Solly Shoke was probably wishing this week that he was doing so under less grim circumstances.

An SANDF contingent stationed in the Central African Republic capital of Bangui since 2007 found itself caught up in the internecine conflict between the government and rebel forces.

By the time a ceasefire was brokered, the body count for our troops was 13 killed, 27 injured, 1 missing in action.

In General Shoke's words: "On 22 March 2013 a Section of the SANDF went to conduct a reconnaissance mission and they came under an ambush of about 1KM long manned by CAR rebels. The SANDF returned fire to protect themselves and their equipment.

"On Saturday 23 March 2013 the SANDF came under attack from the rebels in the outskirts of Bangui. The SANDF fighting force of about 200 members faced a rebel force of more than 3,000 that advanced towards Bangui on two main axis. This was a high tempo battle that took nine hours more than thirteen hours.

"During the night of 23 March, the rebels continued with sporadic fire on the SANDF positions. In the early hours of 24 March 2013 the rebels indicated their willingness to enter into a cease fire arrangement with the SANDF and an uneasy truce prevailed. It is worth mentioning that the CAR rebels apologized for having exchanged fire with the members of the SANDF and indicated that they regret that this had transpired.

"A period of calm ensued and the SANDF then started with the re-organisation and assessment of battle casualties.

"The discipline and calibre of the SANDF members deployed in the CAR is highly commended and they are the real South African heroes. I personally, as the Chief of the South African National Defence Force I want to praise the SANDF members for having conducted themselves valiantly in the face of overwhelming opposition. "

Coincidentally during this period, former Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf returned from self-imposed exile to his home country, apparently with the intention of re-entering politics.

You're probably wondering why I make the comparison? To my unemotional eye, Pakistan and the CAR have a lot in common. Both countries are former colonies which became nation states because their borders were arbitrarily assigned by the colonial powers with scant regard for linguistic or cultural divisions. And both countries have spent most of their existence under military rule. But I digress…

In the case of the CAR, the country became independent in 1960 and then spent most of the next 30 odd years under military control. Election were held in 1993 and civilians ruled for 10 years until General Francois Bozize deposed elected president Ange-Felix Patasse in a military coup.

Bozize then stood for elections in 2005 and was elected president. He was re-elected in 2011 but many people believed the elections were not exactly free and fair. In December last year, these groups banded together and captured many towns in the north and middle of the country.

Bozize's government held peace talks with the rebels in January this year and agreed to form a coalition government. Clearly, the wheels came off. As I write this, Bozize has fled his country for Cameroon, and the rebels have seized the presidential palace amidst reports of rape, killings, looting, and torture.

So what on earth are our troops doing in that basket case of a country? Well, it goes back to when Thabo Mbeki was still running our government. We signed an MOU with the CAR in 2007 to deploy a SANDF team to that country for training and capacity building purposes – not for combat.

When the excrement hit the fan in December last year, we sent a further team to the CAR for support and protection of the training team. When the coalition government was formed in January, said government apparently asked the SANDF to resume our training role.

I feel a profound sense of irritation with our government over this mess. Why was a training and capacity building team left in the middle of what was clearly turning into a full-scale civil war? Our team was not there in a peacekeeping capacity. We should have immediately pulled them out and waited for an African Union response to the conflict.

Imagine if this had happened to American troops. Do you think for a second that the US Defence Secretary would have kept his job? 1

  • 1. The print edition of this column was headlined "Unfortunate happenings in the CAR"