The so-called battle of Bangui cost 13 SANDF soldiers their lives. PHOTO: BOOK

The Wrong Side of History|

The following is an edited extract from the book published by Penguin Random House South Africa titled “The Battle of Bangui: The Inside Story of South Africa’s Worst Military Scandal Since Apartheid” by Warren Thompson, Stephan Hofstatter and James Oatway.

Two days later, on 8 January 2013, peace negotiations got underway in Libreville, the capital of nearby Gabon and birthplace of François Bozizé. While the Seleka rebels had agreed to the negotiations at a summit on 21 December 2012, long before South Africa hatched any plans to send a ‘protection force’, the rebels had not ceased their advance until they reached Damara on 2 January.

The negotiations didn’t last long. In effect, the strongmen of the region – Idriss Déby of Chad and Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville, with some help from Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea – forced Bozizé and Djotodia to come to a compromise in record time.

The agreement they reached on Friday 11 January allowed Bozizé to see out his presidential term ending in 2016, but he was precluded from seeking a third term. He was forced to form a unity government with the opposition and rebels, hold parliamentary elections within a year to replace the National Assembly, and release all political prisoners. Both sides agreed to a ceasefire that would take effect almost immediately.

The rebels undertook to lay down their arms and withdraw from all occupied towns and cities. All militias would be dissolved and armed groups confined to mutually agreed locations. Only regional peacekeepers would remain in the country to provide security for implementing the plan; all other foreign troops had to be withdrawn gradually.

This last clause naturally applied to Colonel William Dixon and his men too. In fact, one of the main rebel demands at Libreville had been the withdrawal of ‘the mercenaries from South Africa’. In this they had the support of the other regional powers, who were angry that Bozizé had asked South Africa to send elite combat units to the CAR without consulting them.

Bozizé’s justification for doing so was that Dixon’s force had been sent in compliance with a long-standing bilateral military cooperation pact with South Africa. This argument did not hold water. As we have seen, the agreement was updated at the last minute while the rebellion was already in full swing to allow the SANDF to send reinforcements authorised to use force to defend allies and civilians under imminent threat. This was a far cry from the original agreement to help train Bozizé’s troops.

In any event, no one in the region was fooled. During one of our visits to Bangui, Adjudant-chef Sadou, the Cameroonian army officer serving as a peacekeeping commander in the CAR, showed us photos of some of the combat weapons the SANDF had brought to the CAR since the Mbeki era. ‘These were for fighting, not training,’ he pointed out. South African troops ‘were sent to protect Bozizé’s interests’, Sadou concluded, echoing what other informed commentators, including CAR opposition leaders and a French diplomat, had told us.

Eric Massi, the erstwhile Seleka leader and oppositionist, told us the regional powers were wary of Zuma flexing his military muscle in their backyard. ‘They didn’t want Zuma to be the big leader of Africa. His wife was already [chair] of the AU, so together they had a lot of power,’ he explained, referring to Zuma’s ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who was regarded as a Zuma ally. ‘When South Africa sent soldiers, it became a huge problem. Soft power would have been fine, but not hard power – no.’6

The peace summit in Libreville concluded with Bozizé inviting rebel and opposition leaders to return with him immediately to Bangui so that the new unity government could be in place the next day. ‘God is great. He has spared us from the grave,’ he told reporters after arriving at Bangui airport from Libreville on the Friday evening. ‘I will finish my term, which ends in 2016.’ In reality, his tenuous hold on power hung from a South African thread.

An hour after the summit ended, the UN special envoy to the CAR, Margaret Vogt, sounded a note of caution to the Security Council in New York. She warned of deep divisions within the armed forces and political leadership, sparked in part by rumours that Bozizé would change the Constitution to seek a third term.

The Libreville accord was bound to unravel unless the reasons for the failure to implement previous peace deals were addressed. One was that fighters in the north-east were unlikely to benefit from disarmaments.

Moreover, the government wielded virtually no power there. That the rebels had succeeded in overrunning half the country was due less to their military prowess than the ‘depth of decay’ in Bozizé’s army, she pointed out. ‘The army had lost cohesion and the will to fight; many of the soldiers simply dropped their weapons and melted into the bush.’

This, then, was the fighting force that Dixon was relying on to help him ‘clobber’ the rebel hordes intent on taking the capital.

* The book was developed with the support of the Money Trail Project (www.money-trail.org) and is published by Penguin Random House SA. It costs R320 and will be available in bookstores this week. For more information, see: https://battleofbangui.com/

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