Harare, Zimbabwe – Days after the sudden fall of the Central African Republic to Séléka rebels, questions are being raised about the circumstances surrounding the hasty departure of President Francois Bozizé.
Explosions could be heard late on Saturday as government forces clashed with the Séléka fighters, who had taken control of a power station in the north and cut the supply during the final battle for control of the country.
Bozizé’s administration gave assurances that everything was under control, but by the following morning, the president had fled, leaving the Séléka – a northern-based rebel coalition – in control of the presidential palace, and much of the rest of the country.
Despite the formation of a national unity government and a January peace deal that briefly ended hostilities, the Séléka continued to seize towns in northern and southeast CAR until the final onslaught on Bangui this weekend.
“It could also mean that less inclusionary politics could see the light, particularly with regard to the Muslim part of the population. At least some of the rebel components are considered to have such an agenda.“
– Andreas Mehler, German Institute for Global Area Studies
Shortly after Bozizé’s swift exit, the Séléka issued a communique proclaiming control of CAR. Signed by Secretary-General Justin Kombo Moustapha, and emblazoned with the group’s oval-shaped blue stamp, the group claimed the departure of Bozizé was a fulfillment of the Libreville peace deal, and it urged people to remain calm.
“Prepare to welcome the revolutionary forces of the Seleka,” the communique said.
Professor Andreas Mehler, from the German Institute for Global Area Studies, told Al Jazeera the rebel takeover that ended Bozizé’s decade-long rule may mark the beginning of a more authoritarian regime.
“It could also mean that less inclusionary politics could see the light, particularly with regard to the Muslim part of the population,” Mehler said. “At least some of the rebel components are considered to have such an agenda.”
Fear of reprisals
An official in Cameroon announced Monday that Bozizé had taken sanctuary there. His son is believed to be in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Reports of human rights abuses have surfaced, including allegations of killings, rapes and looting. Residents in some quarters of Bangui have already expressed fear of reprisals for supporting Bozizé.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the rebel takeover, and the African Union suspended CAR’s membership on Monday.
“We are very concerned by the worsening humanitarian situation in CAR and credible, widespread reports of human rights abuses by both national security forces and Séléka fighters,” said Victoria Nuland, US State Department spokeswoman. “Perpetrators of such abuses must be held accountable.”
Rebel leader Michel Djotodia, meanwhile, has declared himself president, but not all Séléka factions endorse that claim.
Djotodia had been the vice prime minister and defence minister in the unity government until a week ago. He has pledged to keep many ministers in the unity government, including Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye.
In an interview with a Central African Republic news agency, Nelson Njadder, leader of the CPSK faction of Séléka, said elections would be held in a year’s time.
But Mehler expressed scepticism over the post-coup announcements, saying the material interests of the group were a key factor in determining the rebels’ future actions. The movement is made up of many “politico-military entrepreneurs”, he said.
|Rebels patrol the CAR city of Damara in January [AFP]|
“Coup leaders and rebels want to win hearts and minds from the outset and usually announce grandiose things,” Mehler said. “Everything should be taken with a grain of salt. Corporate interests of the rebel combatants … will certainly play a major role [in what happens next].”
Questions are also being asked about Djotodia’s specific role in the ousting of Bozizé.
The situation in the Central African Republic deteriorated after five government ministers were detained by the rebels after a March 17 meeting, which also involved representatives from the African Union and United Nations, in the town of Sibut, 185 kilometres north of Bangui.
One of those held by the Séléka was Djotodia, who said the decision to detain the ministers was made by rebels on the ground.
“I am not the one who decided this. There are units who have made this decision,” Djotodia said. “It a type of pressure. They want the head of state to respect the terms of the accord that was signed.”
The Séléka have complained that, under the unity government, their demands for military integration and prisoner releases have been ignored.
Details of what exactly happened last week still remain unclear. Professor Mehler said the circumstances were unknown, but he suggested the hostage taking of the five ministers may have been part of a wider plot to seize power and oust Bozizé.
“It now looks as if the move to ‘arrest’ a couple of ministers, including Michel Djotodia, was just a small ploy in a wider game to install him at the head of CAR,” he said.
The events of the past few days are nothing new to the country. Violence has gripped the Central African Republic since independence from France in 1960. Four major offensives were launched to take Bangui between 1996 and 2003, when acting army chief Bozizé seized power from then-President Angel Felix Patassé in a coup.
On the tenth anniversary of Bozizé’s takeover on March 15, the rebels demanded their grievances be addressed and issued a three-day ultimatum to comply, or face an overthrow. Apparently those demands were not satisfactorily met.
Failure to protect Bangui
Soldiers from the Congo, France, Gabon and South Africa were deployed after the Libreville peace agreement was signed in January.
Thierry Vircoulon, from the International Crisis Group, was critical of the regional armed forces tasked with keeping the peace. Known as the Mission for the Consolidation of Peace in Central African Republic (Micopax), the European Union-funded African force had orders to protect civilians and secure territory in CAR since 2008.
Vircoulon described Micopax’s apparent absence during the recent march on Bangui as “disturbing”, noting South African soldiers appear to be the only ones who tried to fend off the rebels – a task they paid for with 13 soldiers killed, 27 wounded, and one who remains missing.
“Micopax was not doing anything, but they were supposed to protect Bangui. It was the South African forces who were fighting,” he said in a telephone interview on Monday.
Vircoulon suggested the African coalition forces should and could have engaged the rebels militarily. “I don’t know why this happened. Micopax was there to fight the rebels but they did not, and this let the rebels take the road to Bangui. Perhaps they had instructions … not to do anything,” he said.
“It looks like a similar situation to 2003 when there was a coup by Bozizé. There was also an African force and they didn’t do anything. There is a lot of historical irony in what happened.”
“Central African Republic has a history of power sharing agreements … never fully implemented; and return to violence after a few months.“
– NGO Conciliation Resources
The NGO Conciliation Resources said political turmoil was inevitable because the January peace deal was drafted by an Economic Community of Central African States commission – not by the warring parties.
Coupled with the extended presence of foreign troops, this made Bozizé appear to his critics as overly reliant on external help to solve internal problems, Conciliation Resources’ Kennedy Tumutegyereize and Nicolas Tillon wrote in a commentary.
“Central African Republic has a history of power sharing agreements and political dialogue … What these dialogues have in common are: power-sharing agreements, promise of demobilisation and reintegration of fighters never fully implemented; and return to violence after a few months.”
While Bozizé and his family safely escaped, the nation of 4.5 million people is left again in disarray with an uncertain future, and an uneasy coalition of rebel factions now firmly in control.
Follow Tendai Marima on Twitter: @i_amten