Rebels capture Central African Republic: Now can they govern it?

A rebel alliance in the Central African Republic seized the capital city of Bangui Sunday and toppled the president. But that doesn't mean political stability will follow. 

Elise Foucaud, ECPAD/AP
In this Mar. 22 photo, provided by the French Army, French soldiers arrive at Bangui airport, Central Africa Republic. Rebels overthrew Central African Republic's president of a decade on Sunday, seizing the presidential palace and declaring that the desperately poor country has "opened a new page in its history."

Just over two months after signing a power-sharing deal aimed at halting their lightning advance, rebels in the Central African Republic captured the capital city of Bangui Sunday, forcing President Francois Bozize to flee and opening the way for them to proclaim a new government. 

Looting broke out in the city as Mr. Bozize fled to neighboring Cameroon. Rebels claim that the president backtracked on their January deal, which included setting up a unity government and freeing political prisoners. 

While spokesmen for the various factions of the Seleka rebel coalition – a word that simply means “alliance” in the local Sango language – proclaimed victory, the group's leader Michel Djotodia has apparently assumed power and set about appointing a government.

But already the alliance – which launched its latest offensive in December over claims it was excluded from power by Mr. Bozize's nepotistic rule – is looking shaky, with representatives of other factions within the rebel coalition saying their aim was not to capture office but to pave the way for elections to be held in eighteen months.   

“The January peace deal was contested from the beginning by some Seleka factions and, in the recent weeks, they voiced their discontent so loud that they managed to persuade the political leadership of the movement to get back to their December goal: taking power," says Thierry Vircoulon, project director for central Africa at International Crisis Group, an international NGO based in Belgium.

“This clearly demonstrates where the real power is within Seleka: The military commanders dominate the political leadership," he says. "This is a source of concern as the Seleka does not seem to have a political program or even the first page of a political program." 

International reaction, meanwhile, ranged from cool to condemnatory.

Former colonial power France – which has repeatedly intervened in CAR since independence in 1960 but refused to prop up Bozize this time – dispatched several hundred additional troops this weekend to protect French citizens and President François Hollande called on rebel leaders to “remain calm." 

Meanwhile the African Union lashed out at the rebels, on Monday suspending CAR from the organization and saying it was imposing sanctions on Seleka's leadership.

But continental leaders have already been left embarrassed and bruised by their failure to check the rebels' advance and reinforce CAR's feeble national army.

In January, South African President Jacob Zuma sent 200 troops to bolster a regional force aimed at halting the rebels, but they have proven largely ineffective – with at least 13 South African and three Chadian soldiers killed either by advancing rebels or fleeing government troops in the latest assault on Bangui. The remaining South African soldiers were said to be waiting for safe passage out of the country.

For the rebels, capturing power and kicking out Bozize was the easy part. Trying to rule their vast, dysfunctional homeland will prove a lot tougher.

Despite huge mineral deposits, CAR remains cripplingly poor and has been wracked by years of rebellions and lawlessness. Almost two-thirds of its 4.5 million inhabitants live below the poverty line, and the country ranked 180th of 186 countries on the most recent United Nations human development index. 

It is also a country where the gun has frequently proven more effective than the ballot box in winning power – Bozize himself snatched the presidency in a 2003 coup. 

With squabbles over the spoils of victory likely to intensify, Seleka's marriage of convenience looks likely to face severe strain.

“Seleka's unity seemed to be in disarray a few weeks ago and is going to be tested very much in the coming weeks,” Mr. Vircoulon of the ICG says. “It remains to be seen if the Seleka can be something else than another predatory rebellion and lead to an effective and inclusive government.”

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