South Africa

South Africa

SA’s role in the Battle of Bangui: The blood on Zuma’s hands

SA’s role in the Battle of Bangui: The blood on Zuma’s hands

In the midst of the excitement of the Brics summit and the presence of some of the world’s most powerful leaders on our soil, serious issues around the SANDF deployment in the Central African Republic are conveniently being downplayed. However important the Brics summit might turn out to be, it does not take precedence over the fact that South African troops were engaged in armed combat in another country, without international mandate, and with deadly consequences. If there was any dishonesty in this deployment, there would be grounds for impeaching the president. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

At a media briefing on Monday, President Jacob Zuma informed the nation that members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) had been killed in the Central African Republic (CAR) over the weekend. Zuma reeled out a few nice words about the bravery of the soldiers “who were committed to fighting for peace and stability in Africa” [hopefully that was their understanding of what they were doing], and conveyed his condolences to the bereaved families.

“We are truly proud of our soldiers. Just over 200 of them fought bandits numbering more than a 1,000 people. They fought a high-tempo battle for nine hours, defending the South African military base, until the bandits raised a white flag and asked for a ceasefire.

“Our soldiers inflicted heavy casualties among the attacking bandit forces. They paid the ultimate price in the service of their country and Africa. We honour them for their bravery and commitment to peace,” Zuma said.

So, our president has admitted that our soldiers have killed citizens of the CAR, in their country.

Let’s for a minute imagine a reversal of this situation. Our country has been through situations of strife in the past, for example, between the ANC and Inkatha Freedom Party. Imagine a foreign army in our country, engaged in armed combat which resulted in deaths of our citizens. Whatever our problems, would we want another country’s army here, on an unspecified mission, fighting alongside one or other group, killing our people?

South Africans do not have a clear explanation of what our troops were doing in the CAR; it is equally doubtful that the citizens of that country do. But there were media reports already in January, in the very week Zuma announced he was sending 200 soldiers to beef up President François Bozizé’s forces, that the Seleka rebel alliance was unhappy with the South African military’s presence in their country. Some of the reports quoted the rebels referring to the South African troops as “mercenaries”.

Clearly the rebels were hostile to the SANDF presence in their country and the president must have been aware that the soldiers’ lives were therefore in danger. But this seemed not to trouble him as he disregarded the recommendation of Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula that the troops in the CAR be withdrawn as well as a warning by senior army officers that the mission was “suicidal”.

After the weekend’s slaughter, Zuma did not bother explaining his reasons for ordering the deployment without United Nations or African Union approval. He also did not bother to explain the precise role of South Africa’s troops in the CAR, why rebel fighters were attacking a South African military base or why he ignored the warnings to withdraw the soldiers.

Zuma simply paid his respects and left it to the chief of the army to deal with “operational matters”. But it was Zuma who authorised the mission, against the advice of the minister and the military command, and therefore only he can provide answers as to why he did so.

This situation is extremely serious: if our army has been a player in a civil war in another country, in violation of international law, Zuma could be impeached.

Constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos spells out the constitutional and legal procedures required to authorise the deployment of the military and render foreign interventions legitimate. It is clear now that Parliament was used to rubber-stamp this mission and did not have the opportunity to interrogate it.

Zuma’s explanation to Parliament was that the troops were there to assist with “capacity building of the CAR defence force” and to assist with the “implementation of the disarmament, demobilisation and re-integration process”.

But Bozizé was in South Africa last week to meet with Zuma and would have surely told him that he was under siege. Assuming the reasons given to Parliament were true, Zuma would have realised then that there was no point to continuing the South African mission as there would definitely not be any “capacity building”, “demobilisation” and “disarmament” going on when a coup was on the cards.

He would also have realised that the troops were ill-equipped to protect themselves in armed combat between that country’s military and the rebels and should have taken extraordinary precautions to make sure the soldiers were safe. And if they were to remain there in a combat situation, surely this changed their mandate, a change which placed Zuma under obligation to inform Parliament that the SANDF was now involved in a war.

Even if you give Zuma the benefit of the doubt and believe his explanation to Parliament, he still falls short in his subsequent reaction.

But let us consider an alternative explanation: that Zuma had some deal with Bozizé that entailed providing him with back-up protection from the rebels in exchange for something else. Why else would Zuma go out on such a limb and Bozizé run here on the eve of being deposed? And what else could have provoked the rebels to the kind of hostility that resulted in a nine-hour battle?

This would mean that Zuma misled Parliament and also interfered in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation. If this is what happened, the president obviously did not gamble on the rebels defeating the CAR military and SANDF troops, and he clearly did not think his friend Bozizé would get toppled.

If the alternative explanation is proven accurate, Zuma would be open to impeachment by Parliament at least two grounds: violation of the Constitution or law; and/or misconduct. 

But Zuma is bound to adopt his usual methods of fending off interrogation:  dodging questions, hiding behind the ANC’s parliamentary majority to avoid scrutiny and pretending all is well and his intentions noble. 

This situation, however, goes beyond the pale and has the potential to bring the South African government into serious international disrepute. It is not just another case of blowing taxpayers’ money, ridiculous behaviour by a member of Cabinet, barely believable incompetence or corruption.

The president’s actions, for whatever reason – noble or illicit – led to South Africa becoming involved in a war it should have had nothing to do with. It is not in our region, there are no economic interests (for the state, at least) that we know of and there is no international mandate for us to participate in this war. What’s more is that the president’s actions led to soldiers, South African citizens, dying in combat. The matter cannot be dismissed, like every other crisis plaguing the Zuma administration. The president needs to account to the nation for the deaths in the CAR. 

And, most urgently, Zuma needs to explain why South African troops are still in Bangui, the capital, which is now under the control of the rebels. Why are they not being withdrawn? Clearly the people who killed 13 South African soldiers also see the remaining troops as the enemy. If they are to remain there, their role would obviously not be “capacity building” for the illegitimate new rulers but to intervene, somehow, to defeat the rebels.

So, what is it now?

Is South Africa prepared to continue participating in this war in the CAR it did not know it was in? If not, then stop it. Hold the president to account, bring the troops home and protect South Africa’s Constitution and the rule of law.

The blood of the 13SANDF soldiers and that of the CAR citizens who died in the fire fight is on Zuma’s hands. The blood of any more people who die as a result of South Africa’s presence in the CAR is on ours. DM

Photo by Greg Nicolson (Daily Maverick)


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