With turmoil continuing on the streets of Bangui, questions are raised about the role of South African soldiers in the conflict.The status of the South African troops in Central African Republic remains unclear as looters and gunmen roam the streets of the capital, Bangui. Rebel leaders and regional peacekeepers are said to be battling to restore order after the ousting of President Francois Bozize at the weekend. And in the chaos, little is known of what exactly the South African troops stationed there are doing. Even the events surrounding the battle that cost South Africa 13 lives last Saturday remain murky.
By De Wet Potgieter, Greg Nicolson, Khadija Patel and Sasha Modike, March 27, 2013, The Guardian
Twenty-eight South African soldiers who were wounded in the battle are being treated at the 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria. While security around the hospital has been tightened since the arrival of the soldiers, a Daily Maverick source heard from wounded soldiers that they believed South African troops were being used for ulterior motives in the Central African Republic (CAR).
In January, when Zuma announced he was sending 200 soldiers to beef up Bozize’s forces, there were reports that the Seleka rebel alliance – which has now taken control of the capital – was unhappy with the decision. Some of the reports quoted the rebels referring to the South African troops as “mercenaries”.
South African troops were supposed to be in the country for “capacity building of the CAR defence force”, but soldiers say that they were not involved in any military training. This could be understood in the greater context of the rebel insurgency that emerged last December making gains against Bozize. Soldiers say they were told that they were there to protect other South Africans, their assets and equipment as well as the South African National Defence Force equipment deployed in the CAR.
They say they were stationed 50km outside the capital when they were attacked last Saturday by the rebels. Significantly, wounded soldiers said they had also been attacked on Friday by CAR government troops trying to enact their own little coup, but were able to repel this attack.
The Central African army is under-financed, and its soldiers are said to lack equipment and motivation. Historically, CAR’s leaders have been wary of a strong army. Only the presidential guard, consisting of troops from Bozize’s own ethnic group, is said to have had real firepower. What has become of them in the current morass is anyone’s guess.
But while Bozize has turned up in Cameroon this week, it is worth noting that he was being guarded by soldiers from Chad until last October. The military cooperation agreement between South Africa and CAR included promised security and protection to Bozize. It remains unclear whether South Africans were guarding the ousted president in the absence of the Chadian troops.
There are also many unanswered questions about the battle, which mostly relate to what the South African soldiers were doing and where exactly they were stationed, since their position was apparently attractive enough to warrant the attention of both the army and the Seleka rebels.
Outside the Defence Force office in downtown Pretoria, meanwhile, Sergeant Alvin Tshuma looked strained when questioned by the media. He said the troops were “facing a difficult situation” and that more troops were being deployed to CAR.
Another sergeant, who didn’t want to be named, said, “It is true that our people are dying out there, even though there are not war engagements. It is a very difficult task trying to keep order with someone who is already shooting at you.”
The Defence Force members were reluctant to speak to to media, but one sergeant, who also wished to remain anonymous, said more troops had been sent to the CAR – a claim supported by other sources. “The 44 Parachute Brigade in Bloemfontein is the one that went yesterday,” he said. Other troops from Limpopo, the Braambos Military Base in Louis Trichardt (Makhado) are expected to depart today, he added. “But we do not want war with them (the rebels in CAR). Rebels are not supposed to fight peacekeepers.”
Defence analyst Helmut Heitman praised the South African role in the CAR, and said the decision to keep the troops there would send a message to rebel movements across the continent that South Africans are not easily beaten. This is crucial considering the country’s other peacekeeping missions, he said. “If it’s badly handled we’ll turn a tactical victory into a strategic defeat,” he said.
“Just leaving a small force there is a bit silly and pulling them out would be counterproductive,” said Heitman. He said one battalion of 800-1,000 troops with heavy equipment should be sent to reinforce the troops and achieve stability on the premise that an African Union or United Nations force would then take over.
“It’s a catastrophic failure on the planning side,” he said, when asked about the inability to airlift the troops out of the CAR. “You must be able to reinforce or withdraw.”
Other analysts are not as confident of South Africa’s fortunes in the CAR. “This is complete disaster for South Africa,” Thierry Vircoulon, Central African specialist at the International Crisis Group, told Reuters. “They did not at all understand they were backing the wrong horse.”