Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 3 April 2013

Five rules for deciding whether to get in a fight with another country

For the past two decades, democracy in Africa has been on a steady ascent. There are fewer coups and conflicts in Africa than there have ever been, and across countries, most Africans recognise that dictators and despots are totally uncool. So 2013 is throwing the continent off its positive groove; first Mali and Chad, now the Central African Republic.

The Central African Republic’s ridiculous new “president” Michel Djotodia represents a throwback to a time in African history when a rag-tag bunch of rebels and armed children could march to the capital and take over. 

Apart from its deadliness, the politics of the CAR is parochial beyond belief. Djotodia has spent the last decade alternating between being a mid-level public servant and the leader of a rebel movement seeking to overthrow his on-again-off-again employer, and he has already fallen out with the “opposition” because he has stacked his “cabinet” with fake civil society people. Nice. 

This is precisely why South Africa’s involvement in this mess is so problematic. As South Africans have wondered aloud about how we got ourselves so enmeshed, there has been much growling and breast-beating from President Jacob Zuma and the ANC as they seek to bluster their way through yet another scandal. 

But if one looks beyond the tactics designed to ward off questions, the government has been trying to say that the intervention in the CAR was justified because what is good for Africa, is good for South Africa. Clearly the Seleka Coalition and its leader are not good for the CAR, and they aren’t good for the image of the continent. There can be no doubting that in broad terms this is true. 

I agree with the president that when violence breaks out in the fist of countries that sit between Nigeria and Angola, and spread eastwards to include Burundi and Rwanda, the potential for the sub-region to be pulled into the mêlée is significant. But I disagree that the form of our intervention has to be military and I strongly disagree that the target of our first foray into the big bad world of trying to be a military super-power should be the Central African Republic. 

How is it that we just skipped over Swaziland and Zimbabwe, as they lie on our doorstep, battered and bleeding from decades of internecine political and economic warfare, and went directly to what must be Africa’s most obscure country? 

I don’t propose that we invade Swaziland or Zimbabwe. However, I am aware that budgets for military operations are significant, and foreign policy minds are most attentive to the needs of a country when troops have been committed to the ground. Resolving the two long-standing crises in Zimbabwe and Swaziland would demonstrate what South Africa means when it frames foreign policy issues as being in the national interest. The link between the political and economic fates of these countries and our own cannot be more straightforward and, thus, the case for more robust engagement with both states couldn’t be more compelling. 

The deaths of South African soldiers in Bangui have highlighted the lacunae in foreign policy. Much to Zuma’s chagrin, in the absence of clarity about how, if and when to go to war, many views have been offered by regular South Africans. I think it is important and exciting that South Africans are prepared to debate how we engage with the world. It deepens democracy rather than threatens it. So I too will throw my hat in the ring. 

Here are my five rules for deciding whether to get in a fight with another country: 

1. Avoid countries that have the letter C in their name, especially if the name starts with a C.  Examples:  Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Cameroun, Côte D’Ivoire.

2. Avoid countries where satellite phones are a necessary fact of life. See examples above. 

3. Avoid countries where jihad is part of the political lexicon. Most importantly, avoid countries named Mali. Seriously. There are some enemies we don’t want. There are some enemies who will wage war against our children’s children if we start something with them. By “our”, I mean all South African passport holders. I mean that it will be personal – against you, the reader, the taxpayer, the person who is innocently taking a flight that gets blown up because South Africa has become an enemy of some random rebel group that filled the post-Gaddafi vacuum. 

4. Do get involved in places within the SADC where one of our 11 languages is spoken. Avoid countries in which the colonial power was either Portugal or France. They are likely to fight on the wrong side of the road and they are likely to kick our bums. Hard. 

5. Definitely step in if there is an absolute monarch in play. If said monarch is known to hang out in reedy places seeking to find child brides, the majority of the (invading and invaded) public will be behind you. DM

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