SA soldiers in another central African country: this time it’s different

SA soldiers in another central African country: this time it’s different

The earth had not yet settled on the graves of the soldiers killed in the Central African Republic when our government committed another 1,000 men to another central African war, this time in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s a dangerous deployment, but this time we’re going about things the right way. By SIMON ALLISON.

As he announced on Sunday that South Africa would be sending yet more soldiers into central Africa – this time to fight rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo – South African National Defence Force spokesperson Brigadier General Xolani Mabanga was at pains to emphasise that this was in no way related to the botched military operation (or whatever it was – government has yet to properly explain what we were doing there) in the Central African Republic.

“The DRC deployment has nothing to do with the CAR,” he said. “Neither did the CAR incident influence the decision to send the troops into the DRC. They are two different issues.” I know it’s a little difficult to take military spokespeople at their word right now, but Mabanga is right: the DRC is a completely different situation, for a few good reasons.

1. The DRC mission has an international mandate

We’re still waiting to find out why exactly South African soldiers were sent to the CAR in the first place. Government officials have offered a variety of unconvincing and contradictory explanations. We were “protecting assets”, or “training CAR forces”, or “supporting peace and stability”, they say. What we do know is that the deployment was arranged in a bilateral agreement between South Africa and the CAR. This means that in addition to the scarcity of internal oversight of the deployment, there was no international oversight either – South Africa did not have to prove to anyone that its intentions were honourable.

Of course, international oversight – in the form of mandates from international organisations such as the United Nations or African Union – does not guarantee honourable intentions. But it does mean that a certain minimum threshold has to be met in terms of proving that there is just cause for the use of military force. There must a clear danger. Other alternatives, such as negotiation or mediation, must have been exhausted. There must be a clear plan of action and equally clear objectives.

International mandates are not always given. Remember when the United States approached the United Nations to request approval for the war on Iraq? The UN said no (and was promptly ignored by the US, but look how well that turned out).

In the DRC, South African troops will be operating under a UN mandate as part of the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (known by the French acronym Monusco). Established in 2010, Monusco is authorised to deploy 19,815 soldiers in the DRC to support the government in its attempts to stabilise the country and to protect civilians from imminent danger or humanitarian disaster.  The bulk of these soldiers come from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Uruguay and South Africa (the South African contingent currently numbers 1,228, according to the Monusco website).

Last month, Monusco’s mandate was extended by the UN Security Council to March 2014, and altered quite dramatically to incorporate an “intervention force” which is empowered to go on the offensive against rebel groups if necessary. The extra troops being committed by South Africa – possibly as many as 1,000 men – will be part of this new intervention force.

2. There are clearly defined goals and objectives, although this is a dangerous new mission

Monusco’s mandate explains exactly what its purpose in the DRC is, and what it is allowed and not allowed to do. When established in 2010, its main priorities were to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence; help bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice; help the government create a stable, secure environment in dangerous areas to which refugees and internally displaced persons would return; and help conclude the ongoing military operations against rebels in the east.

In essence, Monusco was created as a peace-keeping operation. This, however, has evolved into what some described as a peace-enforcing operation, whereby the new intervention force is allowed to actively engage in combat operations against the rebels. This is a huge departure from the United Nations’ standard operating procedure, and a potentially significant development in the organisation’s role in tackling conflict areas.

In practice, what this means is that South African troops are taking part in an important but largely untested experiment which could determine the future of conflict resolution. This is invaluable experience for us if we plan on taking more leadership roles in Africa, which appears to be the current policy. It does, however, mean our soldiers are actively looking for a fight; greatly increasing the danger to themselves. And the rebels presumed to be the main target of the intervention force – the M23 movement – have already promised a hostile welcome.

3. There should be adequate military support and back-up, and we know the area

There are a few important advantages for military forces operating as part of a large, multilateral effort: back-up and support.

One of the major problems faced by South African soldiers fighting in the CAR was a basic logistical failure. They did not have enough ammunition to fight the rebels bearing down on them; there were no reinforcements to drag them out of a dangerous situation or air support to provide cover and reconnaissance ability; they didn’t even have proper food, forced to rely for months on emergency ready-to-eat ration packs.

This should not be as much of a problem in the DRC. South Africa has had some military presence in the country since 2000 (originally as part of the United Nations mission which preceded Monusco), so we know the lay of the land and have tried and tested supply chains. We’ll also benefit from the resources of Monusco as a whole, which means that no South African soldier should die from want of a helicopter.

“Logistically there is definitely a bit more preparation on the ground around the area of operations which these troops would be working in,” said defence analyst John Stupart, speaking to the Daily Maverick. “Not just from an SANDF perspective, but also because of the larger UN framework they’re operating in. That means airlift within the DRC, helicopter transport, more armoured vehicles and, if necessary, nearby Quick Reaction Forces who can assist if the SADC troops get into trouble… Essentially it’s a safer environment for less-elite SANDF/SADC troops to operate in, and I think match the task well. In the CAR, the strategic objectives did not really match up to the reality on the ground, which I think is an important distinction to make.”

There is no doubt that the DRC deployment will be dangerous. We may see yet more body bags delivered to Waterkloof Air Base. But – unlike their comrades felled in the Battle of Bangui – we should at least know what they were fighting for, and that we gave them the best possible chance of success. DM

Read more:

  • South Africa to send troops to join UN mission in Congo on Reuters

Photo: Armed South African soldiers talk in Begoua, 17 km (10 miles) from capital Bangui, in this still image taken from video, March 23, 2013. REUTERS/Reuters TV


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