Zuma suppresses his suspicions about France to collaborate on solving the CAR crisis

Despite the South African government’s suspicions of French meddling in Africa, the two countries are working closely to stabilise the Central African Republic.

France is going to increase its military presence in Africa and South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma is very happy to hear that. That was the rather ironic gist of developments during French President Francois Hollande’s state visit to South Africa on 14 and 15 October.

The day before, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius had visited Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR), and announced that France would increase its troop number there from the present 450 to try to restore order to the country, which has grown increasingly anarchic since the Seleka rebel coalition ousted President Francois Bozize on 24 March 2013. He did not say how many extra French troops would be deployed but the media speculation was that the force would be increased to between 700 and 1 200.

What a difference a year makes! Just last year Zuma and his administration were muttering darkly about how incumbent African Union (AU) Commission chair Jean Ping was a stooge of Paris, and had failed to prevent France and other Western powers from riding rough-shod over the AU in African conflicts such as those in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire. He had to be replaced by South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma who would bring some liberation movement spine and muscle to the AU Commission to ensure its independence and keep meddling Western powers at bay.

Then came Mali where ‘France had to come in to save that country’, because ‘one region couldn’t handle the situation’ as Zuma himself put it at a joint press conference with Hollande in Pretoria. That region was of course the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which was supposed to send in troops to stop the incursion against Bamako by jihadist and Tuareg separatists from the north, but couldn’t get its act together in time. Instead France’s Operation Serval did the job. That embarrassed the AU, which vowed at its summits in January and May this year to create an interim intervention force to handle such crises, pending the establishment of the African Standby Force, which remains firmly on the drawing board.

Now, regardless of such good intentions, history is repeating itself, in essence, in CAR. After Seleka took over in March, the relevant regional organisation, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) also decided to send in a stronger peacekeeping force than the Mission for the Consolidation of Peace in Central African Republic (MICOPAX), the one that had failed to stop the toppling of Bozize. Its mandate was to maintain order while a political transition unfolded, culminating in democratic elections within 18 months.

In July the AU decided to transform MICOPAX into the broader continental force, the International Support Mission in the Central African Republic (MISCA). Meanwhile, though, Seleka has become a major part of the problem rather than the solution, plundering, raping and killing civilians, prompting Michel Djotodia, the country’s de facto leader, to disband the coalition.

Hollande and Zuma said at the press conference that Fabius had reported to them that the political and humanitarian emergency in CAR was threatening to spill over into the wider region and was becoming a religious conflict. This reflected the fact that the mostly-Muslim Seleka rebels had instigated violence against Christians. Zuma stated the obvious that the transition to elections was not going to happen. And so CAR needed ‘urgent intervention. And we are agreed with President Hollande, we need to do something, all of us’, adding that ‘we have to act quickly’.

Both Zuma and Hollande, however, stressed that the intervention in CAR would have to be by a regional force established under the auspices of the UN and with the support of the AU. Hollande said it was not up to France to replace a regional force but to accompany, support and train it. He also added, rather pointedly though, that ‘as stated by President Zuma, we find that when conflicts arise, there is no immediate response from an African force already established. That is what we have unfortunately seen in Mali and that’s what we have to note again in CAR’.

Zuma nonetheless enthused that ‘I’ve been very happy today that President Hollande has clearly said he’s going to be there to support our efforts. Whatever we do, France will be there. And I’m sure that will be highly welcomed…’.

So what will actually happen, and when? France’s ambassador to the UN Gerard Araud spoke to journalists on 10 October after the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 2121 on CAR. The resolution contemplates the possibility of MISCA itself being transformed into a UN peacekeeping operation but Araud stressed that the Security Council was consulting laboriously with the AU about what support the UN could provide, trying very hard to avoid creating the impression that it was usurping Africa’s prerogative to tackle its own problem in CAR.

But when asked about France’s own role, he suggested it could be modeled on its Operation Unicorn in Côte d’Ivoire, the force which preceded the UN peacekeepers into the country – as French forces have preceded any possible future UN peacekeepers into CAR. And the troops of Operation Unicorn robustly fought alongside, though separately from, the UN, for instance using attack helicopters to knock out the artillery of President Laurent Gbagbo who refused to leave office after being defeated in elections.

It’s not hard to envisage that, as in Mali, the ECCAS–AU–UN consultations will drag on so long that France will eventually act alone in CAR. And will South African soldiers march alongside the French to bring peace to CAR, despite all of the government’s suspicions of French meddling in Africa? After he withdrew the SANDF from CAR following the death of 13 soldiers in a clash with Seleka rebels in March, Zuma suggested he would return as part of a regional force if asked.

In the press conference with Hollande, Zuma seemed to be confirming that willingness, saying ‘we have committed ourselves that we are going to be ready to be part of the solution to help CAR come back to its normality’, and ‘certainly we will be there’. An official in the Presidency was more reticent though, saying South Africa’s possible participation was still being discussed. But even if their soldiers do not eventually march in step in CAR, France and South Africa are clearly working closely to stabilise the country.

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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