The President flees the country as the ‘Séléka’ Coalition storms into the capital amid a deepening humanitarian crisis.
Rebels from the Séléka Coalition have stormed the capital, Bangui, overthrown the president and occupied the presidential palace. The March 24th coup took place against a backdrop of worsening humanitarian conditions in many parts of the country, with access to affected populations severely restricted, said the UN.
The rebels quickly named Michel Djotodjia as the new head of state. Djotodia, who said it was the rebels collectively who had chosen him, was one of the five Séléka ministers in the power sharing government where he holds the key post of First Deputy Prime Minister for National Defence.
French President Francois Hollande, who has sent hundreds of troops to Bangui, urged restraint, asking the rebel fighters to respect the people. Hs confirmed that President Francois Bozize had fled CAR and was believed to be in the DR Congolese town of Zongo. Other unconfirmed reports said he was in Cameroon. He was thought to have fled early on March 24th. The rebels had demanded Bozize step down, saying he broke several agreements.
France, the former colonial power, said it was sending more troops to Bangui to bolster its force of 250 already there, saying they would protect French citizens.
Health workers said Bangui was in chaos, with their work hampered by frequent power cuts. The Red Cross said hospitals were struggling to cope with the flow of people injured in the fighting. Amy Martin of the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA told the BBC that looting was widespread.
As the African Union (AU) responded with an instant condemnation (which spells immediate sanctions for the coup leaders) and was joined by the US, the UN and regional power-broker Chad, Nelson Ndjadder, a spokesman for one of the factions that make up the Séléka coalition, said CAR could now move into a transition towards a democratic election. “With the taking of Bangui and the departure of Bozize, the main objective of our struggle has been realised,” he said. “Central Africans must meet around a table to decide the path for their common future.”
On March 25th the AU went on to suspend the CAR and also announced targeted sanctions, including the freezing of assets, against seven top members of the rebel coalition.
The US expressed deep concern about what it called a serious deterioration in the security situation in the country. ”We urgently call on the Séléka leadership which has taken control of Bangui to establish law and order in the city and to restore basic services of electricity and water. We also urge all parties to allow for unhindered humanitarian access,” the US State Department said in a statement made available to PANA.
Séléka, a loose coalition of five rebel groups whose name means ‘alliance’ in the Songo language, first launched their rebellion in December, saying that the government had not honoured a 2007 peace deal whereby fighters who surrendered would be paid. After weeks of fighting in which tens of thousands were displaced, the rebels agreed to join a power-sharing government drawn from rebel leaders, the civilian opposition and Bozize loyalists. The deal, known as the Libreville agreement, was brokered by the Economic Community of Central African States (CEEAC).
The power-sharing government was led by Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye, a former lawyer and member of the civilian opposition. But in mid-March the rebellion flared up again over rebel demands that political prisoners be freed. Séléka spokesman Eric Massi said by telephone: “The current prime minister remains in place and the cabinet will be slightly reshuffled,” adding that the Libreville agreement would be respected.
A few days before the coup, on March 20th, the UN Security Council condemned Séléka attacks in the area of Bangassou and the surrounding region, “and the threat of a resumption of hostilities.”
“Séléka now controls three-quarters of the country,” said Margaret Vogt, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for CAR, several days before the capture of Bangui. She added that rebel members of the government of national unity – which parties agreed to form in the January peace deal – had decided to withdraw from the government and had gone “back into the bush.”
South African Casualties
A South African peacekeeping force of 400 troops, in CAR to support government troops and as military trainers, suffered casualties but failed to stop the rebel advance. President Jacob Zuma confirmed that 13 South African troops had been killed and 27 others wounded during the rebel onslaught.
There were unconfirmed reports that the remaining South African soldiers in the CAR were seeking safe passage to the airport.
South African National Defence Union spokesman Pikkie Greeff issued a statement saying President Zuma should have withdrawn South African troops when CAR President Francois Bozize failed to honour a peace agreement signed in January with the rebels.
“The president should have withdrawn our troops at the very moment Bozize dishonoured his obligations in this respect,” Greeff said.
CAR, which has a population of about 4.5 million, has been hit by a series of rebellions since independence from France in 1960. Bozize came to power in a coup in 2003 but won subsequent elections in 2005 and 2011.It is one of the poorest countries in Africa, despite its considerable mineral resources.
The rebels’ taking of the town of Bangassou on March 12th had already led to a reduction in humanitarian access to populations in need of assistance, effectively cutting off a major hub for humanitarian actors’ access to the southeast, affecting 300,000 people already suffering from six years of LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel group) attacks.
On March 15th, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) warned that renewed fighting was threatening the civilian population in the southeast and compromising UNHCR’s access to refugees and internally displaced people.
“With the rainy season fast approaching and very poor road infrastructure, [access] will reduce even more, especially to the more remote regions of the southeast and northeast of the country.”
As of March 12th, the Séléka offensive had, according to OCHA, left some 175,000 people internally displaced, with at least 29,000 others seeking refuge in neighbouring Chad and in the Democratic Republic of Congo. An estimated 166,000 children were also out of school. These numbers could increase following the taking of Bangui.
Commenting on the impact of the current crises in CAR, Special Representative Vogt said, “At the best of times, the record in CAR was not good, but it is exponentially worse.” (PANA 24/3; IRIN 25/3)
Cracks in Séléka quickly became apparent. The rebels named Michel Am Nondokro Djotodjia as the new head of state. Djotodia, who said it was the rebels collectively who had chosen him, was one of the five Séléka ministers in the power sharing government where he holds the key post of First Deputy Prime Minister for National Defence. The speed of the rebel advance, and the fact that they succeeded in pushing past the South African troops stationed in Bangui suggests they were well-armed, and possibly benefiting from the support of neighboring nations – either Chad, or Sudan or Gabon might have provided the rebels with arms and logistical support. Djotodia rejected the claim. “If we picked up arms, it’s not because we were pushed by this or that person,” he told RFI. “It’s poverty simply put that pushed us to pick up arms — that’s all.”
In Paris, Nelson N’Jadder, the president of the Revolution for Democracy, one of the rebel groups belonging to the Seleka rebel coalition said that his fighters do not recognize Djotodia. There was never a consensus around appointing Djotodia as their overall leader, he said.
N’Jadder said that rebels had been pillaging people’s homes in Bangui, including the homes of French expatriates. He claimed that those doing the pillaging were mostly Djotodia’s men. “We came to liberate the people, not to steal from them. This is shameful. Unacceptable,” he said.
Séléka’s official spokesman in France is Jean-Paul Bagaza.
The coalition is made up of various pre-existing rebel groups including:
- Union for Democratic Forces for Assembly or UFDR (Union des Forces Démocratiques pour le Rassemblement) led by Michel Djotodia
- Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace or CPJP
- Democratic Front for the Centrafrican People or FDC led by Abdoulaye Miskine
These factions were subsequently joined by other leaders. How they are funded is not clear.