South Africa in the CAR: Was pulling the troops a catastrophic mistake?

South Africa in the CAR: Was pulling the troops a catastrophic mistake?

After 14 South African soldiers died on the streets of Bangui, South Africa’s military commitment to the Central African Republic halted abruptly. This was a popular decision at home. But was it the right one? Is there anything we could have done to prevent the CAR’s swift descent into chaos and humanitarian crisis? SIMON ALLISON looks for answers.

In March last year, South African troops were caught up in a firefight as rebels advanced on the Central African Republic capital Bangui. Fourteen of them died in the scuffle. South Africans were outraged: what were our soldiers doing there? Why weren’t they better prepared?

Under huge public pressure, the South African National Defence Force withdrew its soldiers from the country. South Africa drew a line under an embarrassing incident, and attention promptly moved on to the next big scandal.

But in CAR, the situation rapidly deteriorated. The rebels have proved to be even worse governors than the administration they deposed, the rebel leader largely powerless to control his own militants, never mind the country. Fighting between militants and rag-tag self-defence groups have left a trail of dead and injured in their wake; and, as always, civilians have suffered the most from the violence. At least one million people have been displaced from their homes, and rights groups report widespread incidences of rape and the recruitment of child soldiers. Some of the fighting has taken on an ugly religious tone; at one point, the United Nation’s Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide warned that the CAR could be another Rwanda.

In light of the devastation that came next, South Africans need to be asking a few more tough questions about our country’s role in the CAR. Was it right to for SANDF to withdraw when it did? Were any other options available? Is there anything South Africa could have – should have – done that might have alleviated some of the suffering?

Unsure of the answers ourselves, the Daily Maverick went in search of some informed opinion. The debate makes for fascinating reading – and should make South Africa’s foreign policy-makers feel more than a little uncomfortable.

David Hornsby is a senior lecturer in international relations at Wits, with a specialty in African conflicts. He has written in-depth about the situation in the CAR. He argues that South Africa should be ashamed of its conduct there, and that our actions (or lack thereof) have hugely undermined our standing on the continent:

South Africa’s hasty retreat from the CAR and the little action since is nothing short of shameful and here is why:

1) South Africa’s exit contributed to the power vacuum as there was not an effective counter balance to the Seleka rebels wreaking havoc in the immediate coup period. The SANDF’s presence and ability could have done much at the early stages to prevent the context for the current atrocities and human rights abuses emerging. At the same time, South Africa’s presence could have supported and reinforced key institutions of the state in continuing to be relevant.  Whilst France did take up a peace-keeping position, it came in earnest once things started to decline and was largely unsuccessful at preventing the violence and human rights abuses taking place across the country.  This is in large part because French troops have been concentrated at the airport and in much of Bangui.  In contrast, South Africa troops were positioned outside of the capital as well as in it.

2) South Africa, as a leader on the continent and an advocate for human rights, had a responsibility to ensure the collective security of others under the Right 2 Protect (R2P) doctrine, particularly when SANDF were present and maintained a capacity to do something. Zuma’s order to withdraw SANDF instead of bolstering troops, as originally committed, flew in the face of UN and AU principles. Instead of providing coherent leadership on the ground, South Africa has become a marginal player in a situation where its continental position, moral authority, and leadership could have helped.

3) The withdrawal of troops from the CAR back in July was due to a public outcry over the deaths of SANDF soldiers and a general lack of awareness of South Africa’s presence in CAR. The public anger is understandable as decision-making was not transparent but the exit has done more to harm to South Africa’s influence on the continent than to advance it. If SA wishes to be a player in continental and international affairs it needs to back up its rhetoric with action. This involves taking difficult decisions sometimes and sticking one’s neck out.

4) To withdraw so quickly and with so little regard for the well-being of other Africans suggests that the principles securing the foundation of South African foreign policy, particularly Ubuntu, ring hollow and are nothing more than table dressing.

Kristen van Schie is a journalist with The Star. Van Schie was one of the first and only South African journalists to visit the Central African Republic following the South African withdrawal (her excellent three-part report is available here). Van Schie’s not convinced that South Africa could have done much to help, especially as our impartiality was already hopelessly compromised:

Could the SANDF have made a difference by staying? I don’t think so. Theoretically, there are things they could have done. They could have played a part in disarming the rebels in the capital along with the Chadian and Congolese FOMAC [Multinational Force of Central Africa] troops. They could have been a stabilising force in the regions outside the capital, where the only authority is Seleka, sitting idly in the government buildings they looted and imposing a sort of see-sawing, lazy terror in the countryside.

But under what ambit?

Yes, our soldiers were the only ones who took a stand as Bangui was invaded. FOMAC watched. FACA [the CAR armed forces] fled. We fought. And that was brave and good, even if the reasons for deployment were misguided. But South Africa chose a side, and that side lost. To make a difference in staying, the SANDF would have had to act – either against or hand-in-hand with the same forces they had just killed. What room was left for diplomacy and cooperation after that? How was staying ever an option?

Stephanie Wolters is an analyst for the Institute for Security Studies, and one of South Africa’s most informed commentators on the politics of central Africa. Wolters says the real question is not whether South Africa should have withdrawn, but why it didn’t withdraw earlier – as soon it became clear that the CAR’s President Bozize was doomed, and South Africa’s military commitment was hopelessly outnumbered by the advancing rebels:

Regardless of what you think about the nature of or motivation for South Africa’s involvement in the CAR, its relationship was with [the deposed] President Francois Bozize. There was an official training element, as well as aspects of providing personal security to Bozize. Once Bozize had been overthrown, and 13 South Africa soldiers killed in fighting with the Seleka rebels who overthrew him, South Africa really had no reason to remain in the CAR. There was also no framework for continued engagement – Bozize was gone, and the FACA had mostly dropped their guns and fled, so there was no national army to train or support.

Another element is that, at the point at which South Africa withdrew, it was not clear whether Seleka would be accepted and or recognised by other African countries or the AU, which has a staunch policy of refusing to recognise those who come to power through unconstitutional means. Seleka was a hostile force, and once it took Bangui, there was no obvious appetite within the region, or by the Fomac force (the Chadian element of which practically facilitated Seleka’s victory), to deploy resources to attempt to push them back out.

In this context, the South African withdrawal from the country does make sense. It is also important to remember that in the weeks following the coup, South Africa did deploy significant resources to a staging post in northern DRC, in preparation for a possible re-engagement to push Seleka out. It was the only country which demonstrated a willingness to do this. Insane as that looked at the time, with hindsight one wishes that operation had gone ahead.

I think the real question is why South Africa did not withdraw earlier, when it had become clear that the Libreville agreement [between Bozize and the then-rebels] was useless and that Seleka intended to take the capital and overthrow Bozize. This is intelligence that we know the South African government did have. Knowing that its own force had neither the manpower nor the equipment to halt the overthrow, or even, as we saw, to protect itself, it should have either reinforced its position – if it wanted to burnish its peacekeeping credentials by showing that it was not going to run away from active combat – or withdrawn. The decision to stay put even when it knew it was in a weak position and would not have time to strengthen its force  was a mistake, which cost South African lives, gave rise to countless rumours about the real reasons for its deployment, and tarnished South Africa’s reputation as a peacekeeping force.

Darren Olivier is a defence analyst who has written extensively on the CAR for the African Defence Review. Olivier highlights a few home truths about South Africa’s military capacity: simply put, given all its other commitments, there’s no way that SANDF could have maintained a long-term military intervention in the CAR, especially without any kind of regional mandate:

Once it was clear that there was no regional support for a counter-offensive to retake Bangui, remove Seleka from power and establish some sort of independent authority, the position of South African troops in the CAR became untenable over the long term and a withdrawal would’ve likely happened at some point. So while it may have arguably been strategically unwise for the South African government to have removed its troops only a short while after the battle, because that sent ambiguous signals about the country’s commitment, I can understand why the decision was made.

The important thing to note here is that SA did not have sufficient personnel for a long-term presence in the CAR in the numbers that would’ve been needed to maintain authority and prevent a civil war, as that would’ve required at minimum a battalion of between 700 and 1000 troops [and even this is insufficient, as the French have subsequently discovered]. With the SANDF being heavily committed to peacekeeping missions in both the DRC and Sudan (more or less a battalion each), and border patrols within South Africa, it could not supply another battalion for a years-long deployment. The soldiers who were in the CAR at the time of the Seleka takeover were specialised troops from 44 Parachute Regiment and the Special Forces who are equipped and suited for use as rapid-reaction forces.

The situation may have turned out very differently had the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and the AU seized the opportunity to use the four Gripens, two Rooivalks and large number of reinforcements, that South Africa had flown up after the battle, to oust Seleka and to use the Chad-led FOMAC peacekeeping mission to maintain control in Bangui and elsewhere in the country after South Africa had withdrawn. Hindsight is of course 20/20 and that action would have brought risks of its own, but it would I believe have had a better chance of success at preventing large-scale violence.

Khadija Patel is a senior reporter for the Daily Maverick. She helped lead the Daily Maverick’s coverage of the SANDF debacle in Bangui, and its aftermath. Patel emphasises that all military action must have a mandate from the people. In the emphatic absence of this (we’re still not entirely sure what SA troops were doing in the CAR in the first place), the SANDF had no choice but to withdraw:

While the continued presence of South African troops in CAR, or indeed a reinforced presence, may have prevented the extent to which the country has plunged into anarchy, for the South African government, withdrawing from Bangui was the right decision. This was not a war South Africans wanted.

Recall that according to military analyst Helmoed Heitman, “the South African government had wanted to relieve the troops and deploy a stronger force to stabilise the situation pending a decision by the African Union, but the French commander at Bangui airport, the only viable airport for such a force rotation, had no mandate to permit the deployment of new South African forces through the airport.”

The South African government certainly showed an inclination to re-enter the fray in Bangui. But the outcry at the deaths of South African soldiers, the scrutiny on alleged ANC business interests in the CAR and the mounting calls for more transparency, certainly thwarted further military involvement in CAR. DM

Photo: French military personnel try to control supporters who are asking them to disarm fighting gangs, near the airport in Bangui December 23, 2013. Christian militia attacked Muslim neighbourhoods in the capital of the Central African Republic on Friday, as France appealed to European partners for assistance in quelling months of religious violence in its former colony.(REUTERS/Andreea Campean)


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Download the Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox.

+ Your election day questions answered
+ What's different this election
+ Test yourself! Take the quiz