Central African Republic preps for peace talks as regional troops arrive

Amid a weak truce, CAR officials and rebels are preparing to negotiate in Gabon as South African, Chadian forces arrive to secure the Central African Republic's capital. What are the prospects for peace?

Luc Gnago/Reuters
South African and Central African soldiers patrol a street in Bangui, Central African Republic, Tuesday.
Ben Curtis/AP
President of the Central African Republic François Bozize speaks to the media at the presidential palace in Bangui, Central African Republic, Tuesday.

With a fragile truce keeping rebels around 50 miles from the capital city and peace talks set to begin in nearby Gabon, it was all about the arrivals and departures in Central African Republic (CAR).

On Monday, leaders from the Seleka rebel coalition – which has captured vast swaths of the country since last month and now stands perilously close to the capital, Bangui – jetted out of their jungle stronghold on a UN plane to Gabon for broad negotiations that are set to start sometime this week and include members of the political opposition and civil society.

At the same time, embattled President François Bozize, whose resignation is now a key rebel demand, shuttled to neighboring Congo-Brazzaville to meet his counterpart and lead peace mediator Denis Sassou Nguesso.

Meanwhile, coming from the opposite direction were some 400 South African troops, dispatched by President Jacob Zuma over the weekend on the heels of other fresh deployments from regional armies, most prominently Chad, to try to secure Bangui.

While both the rebels and government have said they are serious about talking peace, observers are skeptical about what progress can be made.

What started out as a disagreement over poor conditions in the Army and unkept government promises quickly spiraled into a full-blown rebellion, as formerly opposing rebel groups came together.

As the rebels snatched town after town, Mr. Bozize – who himself seized power in a coup in 2003 – quickly went from bullish to desperate, sacking his son as defense minister, promising to form a unity government with the rebels, and saying he would not stand for reelection.

That, though, may not be enough, and the rebels have called for Bozize, whom they accuse of excluding opposition groups and monopolizing power, to go immediately.

“We should expect those talks to drag on as the negotiations agenda still needs to be defined, ” says Thierry Vircoulon, Central Africa project director at the International Crisis Group think tank. "Some issues such as the departure of the president raised by the rebels will be contentious and some of the parties may try to gain time."

Even if Bozize does eventually step down, the marriage of convenience between the rebels is shaky, and there is no guarantee that the alliance would not splinter.

Years of rebellion and lawlessness

More fundamentally, however, is that whatever the outcome of peace talks, they can do little to deal with the underlying problems in one of Africa's most impoverished and dysfunctional states.

Mineral-rich in theory but cripplingly poor in reality, CAR has been wracked by years of rebellions and lawlessness. Almost two-thirds of its 4.5 million inhabitants live below the poverty line.

Seen against that background, the deployment of hundreds of troops from South Africa, Chad and several of CAR's neighbors might be just a temporary solution.

While they will undoubtedly prove more robust than CAR's feeble national Army of only a few thousand troops, they can do little more than deter rebels from crossing a red line some 45 miles from Bangui, and may embolden Bozize to try a military counterstrike.

In the statement announcing the deployment, South Africa, which already had troops training the CAR Army, said the new troops would stay till 2018 and were there “in fulfilment of an international obligation of the Republic of South Africa towards the CAR.”

That move -- and the news of the previously secret agreement -- came as a surprise to many, analysts say, and has riled the rebels.

“Suspicion is rife about the South African involvement because people struggle to see what kind of interests South Africa has to defend in such a country whose governance and democratic record is so low,” Mr. Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group says. “Given the fact that the South African military deployment is not part of a peacekeeping force but is done on the basis of a security bilateral agreement, this is interpreted as a clear show of force in favor of President Bozize by the rebels.”

Chad stepping up its involvement as part of regional force already on the ground, however, is no surprise. Troops from CAR's northern neighbor backed Bozize's 2003 takeover and Chadian rebels have used the country's sparsely populated hinterland as as a base.

Will France get involved?

One country that seems set not to get involved this time round is former colonial master France.

Since nominally handing over the reins in 1960, France has repeatedly weighed in alternately to help prop up or oust a succession of Central African regimes, and currently has around 500 soldiers stationed in Bangui.

But with attention currently focused on the much more ominous conflict Mali, French President François Hollande has made it clear that those troops are just there to protect French nationals.

While a quiet Christmas news period has seen a brief spotlight on one of Africa's most neglected conflicts, it seems likely that a stalemate rather than a solution will become the status quo.

“At the end of the day, the deployment of these foreign troops demonstrates that the African governments do not want a new coup in Bangui and a change of power by force at this stage,” Vircoulon says. “They are providing a security safety net to a regime that cannot defend itself anymore, as the fast offensive of the rebels showed.”

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