Africa

DA to Zuma: Get the troops out of the Central African Republic

By Rebecca Davis 2 April 2013

The DA cannily chose a slow news day on which to announce its intention to compel President Jacob Zuma to withdraw South African troops from the Central African Republic. With public outrage mounting over the deaths of 13 soldiers on a deeply ambiguous mission, the move is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. But it’s clear that the opposition is operating pretty much in the dark when it comes to the whole dark saga. By REBECCA DAVIS.

How much more does the DA know about what’s been happening in the CAR than the rest of us? Perhaps not a great deal. If it does have any confirmed information about the underlying purpose of the troops’ deployment, or the situation on the ground, it was certainly keeping it close to its chest at an Easter Monday press briefing. Shadow defence minister David Maynier several times made reference to the “communications blackout” imposed by the SANDF since 25 March, in order to explain why the DA leadership was unable to give concrete answers to questions about troop numbers or movements.

On the basis of whatever information it does have, however, the DA wants Zuma to pull South Africa’s troops out of the CAR. The party wants this because it smells a big rat about the nature of South Africa’s involvement in the country. DA leader Helen Zille said there appeared to be “prima facie evidence that Jacob Zuma told an untruth to parliament”, in terms of his assertion that the troops were being deployed for the purposes of “capacity building” and disarmament. If this was the case, Zille asked, why were they fighting against the rebels and Bozize’s own troops? Why were they fighting at all?

The party intends to achieve the removal of SANDF troops from the CAR by means of an urgent parliamentary resolution forcing Zuma to terminate their deployment. Because Parliament is currently in recess, the DA is calling for the National Assembly Speaker, Max Sisulu, to convene an emergency sitting of Parliament in order to vote on the resolution. This would require MPs to return early from their constituency work/lengthy Easter holidays. DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko specified on Monday that the party wished this extra parliamentary session to take place this week, or “at the latest” next week.

Expecting the Speaker to decide that MPs – the majority of whom are ANC MPs – should return to Parliament to vote on a measure effectively humiliating the president may seem optimistic. But Mazibuko points out that Parliament has been summoned back in this manner in the past for far less – for example, to vote on matters for which it hasn’t previously managed a quorum.

On Monday the DA leadership also repeated its call for a full parliamentary inquiry into the CAR military saga, and in particular the reason behind the deployment of SANDF troops without a mandate from the United Nations or the African Union. The parliamentary joint standing committee on defence is meeting on Thursday, and it is hoped that this hearing will flesh out a number of details. But the DA made clear it would not be satisfied with this alone: Mazibuko dismissed any attempt to “fob it off” on to the joint standing committee.

It’s clear that the DA smells blood, and isn’t about to back off any time soon. DA leader Helen Zille made reference to the allegation that one of the financial stakeholders in the CAR may be the Chancellor House Trust, which fundraises for the ANC. “These charges have not yet been refuted,” Zille said grimly. When the full money trail is finally exposed, Zille said, “this could be a scandal that will dwarf all other scandals that have plagued President Zuma’s incumbency.”

The DA dismissed the idea that its motion – which has a very limited chance of succeeding – smacks of a PR stunt more than anything else. “The presidency forgets how accountable to Parliament it is,” Mazibuko said. “It is our responsibility to move this motion… The presidency has assumed it can operate without accountability. We must exercise power to hold the executive accountable.”

Zille took a stronger line: “If we did not use all the powers we have…it would be a gross dereliction of duty,” she said, emphasising her belief that there is “far more to this than meets the eye”. South African lives are on the line, Zille said, and “if the official opposition does not stand up for defending our troops, no-one else will.”

When asked if the DA would consider seeking a result from the court on this matter, however, Zille said that the DA would exhaust all parliamentary mechanisms first. Perhaps the party has heeded the frustration expressed by Judge Dennis Davis last November, when Davis was asked to adjudicate on whether opposition parties could force a parliamentary debate of no confidence in Zuma that same afternoon. In his judgment, Davis voiced his opposition to the growing trend of drawing judges into political disputes: “Courts do not run the country; they are there to police constitutional boundaries,” he said. 

Zille described the CAR situation as serious enough to “bring a government down” – and indeed, the opposition would be dreadfully remiss if it were not asking difficult questions at this time. But not everyone is convinced that the DA has done enough up until recent days to interrogate the SANDF involvement in the CAR. “Wonder why the DA did not insist on vetoing the sending of troops to CAR in January when it could have made a difference,” wrote constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos on Twitter. “Can’t do that if Parliament is not truthfully informed of purpose and scale of deployment,” shot back DA MP Geordhin Hill-Lewis.

It’s not clear whether the DA had anything to say when the original memorandum of understanding (the bilateral defence accord) between South Africa and the CAR was signed in 2007. (Indeed, it’s difficult to find many details about the memorandum at all. We know it came into force on 11 February 2007. A response to a parliamentary question asked by Maynier states only that: “The memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed between governments of Central African Republic and South Africa to capacitate the Armed Forces of Central African Republic (Faca) to be able to defend and protect the sovereignty and territory of the Central African Republic”; and that “Based on the signed MOU the SANDF deployed a contingent to train Faca on VIP Protection, Sub Units and Junior Leader Group”.)

When the memorandum of understanding was extended until March 2018, the DA, it appears, did not protest. On 6 January 2013, the Department of Defence put out a statement attesting to the extension: “An agreement between the Government of the Central African Republic and the Government of the Republic of South Africa concerning Defence cooperation signed in Pretoria on 11 February 2007 has been extended for another five years,” it read. But again, it described the SANDF’s duties in the CAR in such a way that would not reasonably invoke alarm: “Since the prevailing security situation in the Central African Republic the South African Nation Defence Force has sent a support and protection team with the mission to protect the SANDF contingent that has been in the CAR for training and capacity building purposes and its property.”

From the beginning of January, however, the government was making worried noises about the CAR. On 2 January, a statement put out by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) announced that “South Africa is gravely concerned about the situation in the Central African Republic”, and that in light of this, Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula has been deployed to “assess the situation” on 31 December 2012. The statement also affirmed South Africa’s rejection of “any attempt to seize power by force”, and announced that the country supported “sanctions and other measures against the perpetrators of any unconstitutional change of government”.

Four days later, it would be announced that Zuma had authorised the deployment of 400 SANDF forces to the CAR; and here the DA did enter the fray. A day later, the opposition protested that the correct procedure (mandated by the Constitution) had not been followed in informing Parliament of the deployment. When Zuma announced that the cost of the deployment would be over R65 million, Maynier immediately requested clarification of this figure, and duly won the information that this estimate actually only covered the period from 3 January to 31 March.

On 11 January, Sapa quoted Maynier as saying: “We have to get to the bottom of why we are planning to sink R21m per month – or R1,26bn over five years – into the CAR.”

Accusations that the DA was asleep at the wheel in the build-up to the deaths of SANDF troops in the CAR are thus not entirely accurate – particularly as all indications suggest that the opposition was at every turn fed the same evasions or untruths as the public. Nonetheless, for any watchful observers, the signs that the South African troops in the CAR might be in a precarious position were there for some time.

On 7 January 2013 – one day after the statement was made by the Department of Defence regarding the deployment of 400 SA troops to the CAR – leading French newspaper Le Monde ran a story on the CAR conflict. In it, the newspaper quoted rebel leader Eric Massi as accusing president Francois Bozize of seeking to “reinforce his position in Bangui with the support of weapons and South African mercenaries”. That word – “mercenaries” – could have served as a warning bell as to the activities of, and attitude towards, SANDF troops on the ground. DM

Photo: Members of the South Africa National Defence Force (SANDF) carry the mortal remains of 13 members that were killed in Central African Republic (CAR) during the handing over to the respective families at the Waterkloof Air Force Base, in Pretoria, March 28, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

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