South Africa's Involvement in the Central African Republic

5 MINS READMar 29, 2013 | 10:15 GMT
South African soldiers in Bangui on Jan. 10

Pretoria’s recent deployment of forces to the Central African Republic was not motivated by a need to defend a core national security interest or demonstrate its military capability; rather, its objective was likely to secure its position as a regional guarantor of security by offering protection to the country's leaders. Pretoria has extended similar offers to other African leaders in the past in an effort to advance its status as a regional power. This selective deployment of force offers Pretoria a more tempered approach to foreign involvement than launching a full-scale intervention against rebel forces, a capability it carefully safeguards for nearby threats.

A Stratfor source in South Africa reported March 27 that the South African National Defense Force will likely relieve South African troops already in the Central African Republic to increase Pretoria's existing military presence in the country and to make up for casualties incurred in Bangui during a coup mounted by Seleka rebels. As of March 28, 200 new troops reportedly have been positioned in Entebbe, Uganda, to support the South African mission in Bangui, and unconfirmed reports claim that more are on their way.

Central African Republic

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In January, prior to the temporary cease-fire between the Central African Republic and Seleka rebels and the resumption of clashes in March, South Africa deployed an estimated 200 paratroopers as part of a bilateral security agreement between Pretoria and the government of then-President Francois Bozize. While defending Bangui during the Seleka rebels' final advance on March 23-24, 13 South African troops were killed, 27 were wounded and one went missing in action.

This is not the first time South African forces have been used to protect politicians in other African countries. Troops were unilaterally deployed in Burundi from 2001 to 2009 to serve as a protective force for politicians trying to restore peace and security after the genocide of the 1990s. Similarly, South Africa has mediated in rebellions in Libya and the Ivory Coast, though those governments declined Pretoria's offer to provide their leaders with safe exits.

The forces that South Africa deployed to the Central African Republic were insufficient to attack and defeat Seleka rebel forces, which are estimated to number as many as 5,000 fighters. Given that the South African contingent was in Bangui for two months and likely received intelligence on the strength and location of the rebels, its objective likely was not to defeat the rebellion; if it had been, South Africa would have deployed a larger number of troops. In addition, Pretoria would have sent forces more appropriately suited to the task of launching an intervention, such as armored units, attack helicopters and strike aircraft, all of which are in the South African military arsenal and would have been able to fight beyond the confines of the capital.

It is thus much more likely the South African force was sent to help protect Bozize. South Africa's troops reportedly managed to fight off an alleged coup attempt from within the Central African Republic army before rebels seized control of the capital. Pretoria could argue that its forces deflected the rebels' advances long enough to permit Bozize to escape the country unharmed.

While other rebellions in the region, such as those in Mali, Somalia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, prompted high levels of involvement by multinational military forces trying to maintain stability, the Central African Republic did not receive the same level of assistance. No international or regional military force intervened in the Seleka rebellion to the extent that South Africa's force did. Though France has traditionally protected Bangui from rebel threats and maintains a military presence in the capital, its efforts during the rebellion were limited to guaranteeing the security of the international airport. Chad, which supported Bozize in his rise to power and has typically been his protector, sent a contingent to the Central African Republic that engaged in several skirmishes with rebels in December 2012. However, when rebels pushed through to the capital in March, the Chadian forces stood down, as did Central African peacekeeping forces.

South African forces have stated that they are not withdrawing from the Central African Republic, apart from evacuating casualties. Since looting is no longer being reported, the need for an external force to uphold law and order has been minimized. Therefore, the troops' continued presence in the country indicates that they will probably act as a protection force for a political settlement going forward. Though it is possible that Pretoria could try to retake Bangui from rebel forces, such a move would require a more substantial troop commitment and the cooperation of the French forces, which still control the capital's international airport. France has not shown any interest in such a maneuver and is not permitting any other military forces — including the South African troops — to access the airport except to evacuate casualties.

Pretoria's goal in involving itself in the Central African Republic conflict is likely political. It does not have a substantial economic interest in the country: Bangui does not supply labor or commodities to Pretoria, and South Africa's consumer good suppliers and mining companies are not active in the Central African Republic. What mineral resources the Central African Republic does contain — diamonds, gold and uranium — are available in South Africa and in more reliable neighboring countries with established trade linkages. Pretoria also has no track record of using its military to protect private concessions. (For example, it did not participate in looting the Congo during its civil war in the late 1990s, when the collapsing Mobutu Sese Seko regime exchanged mining concessions with southern African countries for troop reinforcements.) Finally, Bangui is not a historical ally of South Africa's ruling African National Congress, and security threats in Bangui pose no threat to South Africa.

Therefore, Pretoria's likely objective is to establish itself as a regional leader and increase its status. With other regional players showing little interest in getting involved in the conflict, the Central African Republic's Seleka rebellion has presented Pretoria with an opportunity to boost its influence in the continent.

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