Guest post by Bob Bahr
This piece was one of two written for Claire Adida’s UC San Diego undergraduate course “Contention and Conflict in Africa” selected for publication.
Former Central African Republic president Francois Bozizé is no stranger to rebel opposition. With only brief pauses in the fighting following a series of failed peace negotiations, insurgents continually challenged Bozizé’s rule during his decade in office. The rebels’ objections to Bozizé are all too familiar in central Africa’s political climate: forgotten health and education promises, war crimes, and the exclusion of certain groups from government positions. Some of this opposition was ordained from Bozizé’s first day in office, as he was not democratically elected but came to power after a 2003 military coup and has subsequently been fraudulently reelected.
All of these factors have, at least in theory, contributed to the fuel feeding the insurgents’ fire. Of course, it is wrong to write off the incentives of personal gain: CAR is, like many other African nations, rich in natural resources. Yet despite these political and monetary incentives Bozizé was able to fend off insurgent forces for a decade before finally being forced to flee into exile in late March 2013 by insurgents collectively known as Seleka, a coalition of five major rebel units. This defeat is all the more noteworthy given CAR’s weak official military. Mindful of the prospect of army-spurred regime change CAR presidents have traditionally kept the military underfunded and unmotivated.
This pattern of military deprivation did not change with Bozizé, who himself came to power through a coup. So how was Bozizé able to hold onto power for a decade before his sudden ouster? In other words, what changed?
Is it possible that Seleka gained momentum throughout the years leading up to Bozizé’s exile? While the group may have strengthened through accumulating resources like weapons and cash, a general lack of sympathy for their cause makes it unlikely that the rebels experienced a drastic shift in power from 2003 to 2013. While Bozizé was unpopular in some regions of the country, most CAR citizens sought peace rather than the regime’s overthrow. “We want peace in Central African Republic…we are tired of this”, lamented Marie-Claire Boni, a Bangui shopkeeper, in an interview with the BBC. The rebels have not seemed to garner much support from neighboring African nations, either: when Michel Djotodia, a prominent Seleka figure, installed himself as CAR president the African Union promptly suspended the nation’s membership. During the fighting South Africa took a more hardline approach, sending its own soldiers to squelch the insurgency in CAR. Because Seleka’s agenda was unpopular domestically and in the greater African community, the claim that popular momentum led to Bozizé’s ouster is dubious at best.
Much clearer is the recent change in French military policy towards Bozizé’s late administration. “This time the message was very clear, that ‘we are not here to save the regime'”, explained Thierry Vircoulon, Central African director for the International Crisis Group. “Paris is playing a new game in Africa now…and that is that the region is handling its own crises.”
A ‘new game’ indeed. For years, France was willing to do the counterinsurgency heavy lifting for the Bozizé administration. In 2006 and 2007 the French military conducted a series of airstrikes on Seleka rebels to prevent them from reaching the capital, and France has a long history of getting its hands dirty in CAR affairs since it was granted its independence in 1960. France’s 1979 “Operation Barracuda”, which deposed Emperor Bokassa, is just one of a long list of examples of presidential ousters conducted in CAR by its former colonial power.
If the withdrawal of French support for Bozizé’s regime led in part to his demise, why did France remove itself from CAR affairs after decades of meddling? What caused its sudden change of heart? Was France just recently inspired to allow CAR its unimpeded right to political self-determination?
The reasons for France’s new disinterest in CAR become clearer after considering its economic stakes in the country. Most notably, the Areva uranium mine, perhaps France’s most valuable asset in the country before 2011, has been mothballed in light of the post-Fukushima fall in global uranium prices — presumably making the Bozizé regime’s protection of French economic interests less vital.
It does not end with uranium, however. France’s unwillingness to intervene in support of Bozizé was also highly likely to have been precipitated by his involvement in bourgeoning Chinese-CAR relations. One needs to read no more than the title of a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable exposed by Wikileaks to understand this relationship: “Growing Chinese Influence in CAR Evident”, writes former U.S. ambassador to CAR Frederick Cook, going on to catalogue China’s recent military cooperation, public diplomacy, and development efforts in the resource-rich nation. Most notable is Cook’s argument that China’s involvement in CAR is “almost certainly to gain access to economic resources,” including “uranium, gold, iron, diamonds, and possibly oil.” China, of course, has witnessed a meteoric rise in geopolitical stature over the past twenty years and is seen in the eyes of many to be a rival of the West — arguably lessening the French incentive to intervene on Bozizé’s behalf.