Meet the polygot who just took over the Central African Republic

Michel Djotodia studied in the USSR and was jailed in Benin for his role in earlier Central African Republic rebellions. Now he's in charge of one of the world's most dysfunctional countries.

AP/Joel Bouopda Tatou
Central African Republic rebel leader Michel Djotodia arrives ahead of planned peace talks with Central African Republic's government, in Libreville, Gabon, in January.

On Sunday, a loose rebel alliance known as Seleka captured Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, and sent the country's beleaguered president, Francois Bozize, fleeing to neighboring Cameroon. In his place, rebel leader Michel Djotodia reportedly assumed power and announced he would form a new government. Central African political expert Louisa Lombard has studied rebel leadership in CAR for several years, and writes of her own attempts to answer a question that has now taken on pressing international relevance: who is Michel Djotodia? 

• A version of this post originally appeared on the blog Foole's No Man's Land. The views expressed are the author's own.

When the Central African rebel group Union des Forces Démocratiques pour le Rassemblement (UFDR) announced its presence by capturing CAR's northeasternmost town, Birao, at the end of October 2006, a few different men immediately declared themselves the movement's leader. There was Abakar Sabone, formerly best known as a Chadian recruiter of men-in-arms who'd helped Mr. Bozize take power in 2003 but became disgruntled with his former ally over a perceived lack of proper payment for his services. Then there was Damane Zakaria, a counselor in the small town of Tiringoulou who was with the men on the ground.

Finally there was Michel Djotodia, who few people knew much about at all.

Mr. Sabone and Djotodia were in Cotonou, Benin at the time – locked up at Bozize's request. Though they were eventually released, they were both somewhat sidelined during the peace process, and for the next few years whenever anyone asked who was the leader of the UFDR, it was General Damane's name that was put forward.

It was Damane who I got to know while doing research among the UFDR in Tiringoulou in 2009-2010. Nevertheless, I was curious about Djotodia, so I frequently asked about him as well. Overall, the impression I got was of a polyglot, intelligent guy with outsize political ambitions.

He made it into my dissertation, but only in the form of a long footnote:

People in Vakaga [prefecture] remember [Djotodia] as a prolific practitioner of extraversion. He went to the USSR to study and ended up living there ten years, marrying, and fathering two daughters, and then finally returning to CAR with “ten diplomas” and fluency in a number of languages, which made him useful when it came to representing the UFDR to foreigners and media.

People in Tiringoulou tell of one day, long before the rebellion, when a plane of Russian hunters unexpectedly arrived. Upon hearing Djotodia’s rendition of their language, declared him not Central African but Russian and brought him along for their tour of the country. He had political aspirations, and he pursued them fervently. Twice he tried to become a deputy, and twice he failed.

The highest post he attained was Tax Director. He also worked to become close to the Sheikh Tidjani, spiritual leader for many in the buffer zone, who lives in South Darfur. At the time of the UFDR’s first attack, he, like Sabone, was in Benin, where he had friends from his Russia days. Like Sabone, he was jailed in Cotonou for his role in the insurgency.

But then he becomes harder to track. He had a falling out with the Sheikh when he tried to convince the president’s son to name him consul to Sudan in the Sheikh’s place (though technically Sudanese himself, the Sheikh occupies this post as a result of the respect and legitimacy he enjoys throughout the region). The break in this relationship has made it harder for him to claim to represent people in the area.

Damane said that he had pushed him out when Djotodia had attempted to make an alliance with Charles Massi, another sidelined politician aiming for power through the form of insurgency. Whatever the specifics of his fall, people described it as a function of his failure to properly negotiate alliances. This diplomatic capability is central to maintaining power in a place of plural authorities. People surmised that this “intellectual” is now trying his luck somewhere far away.

Well, now we know a bit more about what Djotodia was up to. He has been in Nyala, in South Darfur, cultivating working alliances with the remnants of Chadian rebel groups that have been hanging out in the area. It was these fighters from the Chad/Sudan/CAR borderlands who became the military backbone of the Seleka rebel coalition that first threatened the CAR capital, Bangui, in December.

And through these alliances, Djotodia has come out on top. Hearing the stories of his ambition during my research, I almost felt embarrassed on his behalf -- he seemed like a Jamaican bobsledder convinced he'd win gold. And yet here he is, ten years after Bozize took power, getting ready to move into the presidential palace.

Here's hoping he lives up to his intellectual reputation and does a better job than his predecessor. Goodness knows Central Africans have suffered far too much already.

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