CAR unlikely to be a new battlefield between France and South Africa

In early January, an IRIN analytical piece reported that South Africa’s deployment of South African National Defense Forces (SANDF) troops in the Central African Republic (CAR) was seen by some “not simply as an effort to assist CAR’s army but also as a move to counter French military influence in the region.” South Africa’s involvement in CAR, the argument goes, is part of South Africa’s intention of supporting “African solutions to African problems.”

To briefly recap the basis for South Africa sending troops to CAR, as IRIN summarizes:

South African presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj said in a statement on 6 January that President Jacob Zuma had “authorized” the deployment of 400 soldiers between 2 January 2013 and 31 March 2018, as part of a military cooperation agreement. The authorization means the South African force could be doubled at short notice, without any procedural delays.

South Africa and CAR signed a military cooperation agreement in 2007, which was renewed for a further five years in December 2012. That agreement is providing CAR’s army with an array of military training, from infantry, artillery and special forces training to logistics and driving courses, as well as “refurbishment” of military infrastructure in Bouar and Bangui. South Africa’s military has also supported disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programmes, and it assisted in CAR’s 2011 elections

The IRIN piece from January cited an analyst from the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS):

However, it was France’s recent move to boost its troops in CAR from 250 to 600 that may have provoked South Africa’s increase in its own military presence, David Zoumenou, a senior conflict analyst at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS), told IRIN.

Since CAR achieved its independence from France in 1960, the former colonial power has maintained an almost continuous military presence in the country. France’s habit of stationing troops in its former colonies has always been a contentious issue for the African Union (AU) and its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

Zoumenou said, “We are asking why South Africa has deployed so many troops [to CAR].” It can been viewed as “a new battlefield between France and South Africa”.

South Africa, the continent’s powerhouse, has championed the AU’s mantra of “African solutions to African problems,” and is increasingly becoming involved in Francophone Africa, Zoumenou said. It is an open secret that tensions exist between France and South Africa over how to deal with Madagascar’s nearly four-year-old political crisis.

Now I don’t claim to know whether South Africa’s intentions in deploying troops to CAR were as described here or something different. SANDF reinforcements are supposedly on their way (seemingly contradicting earlier reports of SANDF troops trying to get flights out of Bangui on Sunday). However, I think the coming days – and the South African reaction to the unfolding situation – will be incredibly telling as regards how far South Africa is willing to go and whether or not CAR will indeed end up with a “new battlefield between France and South Africa.”

It will also be interesting to see how influential the South African electorate will be. Monday’s article on the situation in CAR in the Daily Maverick is titled “SA troops killed in Central African Republic: Why, Mr. President?” Today, we have “SA”s role in the Battle of Bangui: The blood on Zuma’s hands.” The opposition party the Democratic Alliance is reportedly seeking a parliamentary inquiry into why SANDF troops were sent to CAR in the first place. And the South African National Defence Union (SANDU) is calling on the government to bring the troops home. While these excerpts do not necessarily represent all of the South African opinion on the situation, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was popular opposition to further risking South African lives in CAR.

That being said, I’m not convinced France is that keen either, especially given the financial, logistic and diplomatic toll of the situation in Mali. Expert Roland Marchal is quoted by FRANCE 24 as saying:

To say it in a very un-diplomatic way, France is just fed-up, exhausted by CAR because there is no structural or significant strategic interest there, but CAR all the time requires attention because of their adventurous way of managing the country.

France feels that this time it should just let the regional organisation – which is Chad and Congo Brazzaville – lead the mediation and get a solution for the country.

The bottom line is that the argument for this “new battlefield” seems to have jumped the gun a bit. Only time will tell for sure, but for now, I would be surprised if either South Africa or France (unilaterally, not via supporting MICOPAX or other similar initiatives) committed themselves to CAR in the long-term.

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