Did Zuma Fail Africa in CAR?

South Africa’s involvement in central Africa is a public relations disaster, writes Stephanie Wolters

An excellent analysis of Zuma’s naivete in central Africa originaly published here

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I can almost hear the sniggering at this week’s Economic Community of Central African States (Eccas) heads of state summit in N’Djamena.

As Zuma walks into the room, I picture Chadian President Idriss Déby and his counterpart from the Republic of the Congo, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, exchanging knowing looks and whispering: “Poor guy. He’s new to this, and now he’s having to deal with all the fallout from the deaths of 13 soldiers. Luckily we don’t have to answer to a probing opposition, parliamentary debates, a noisy and critical media and an electorate whose votes we can’t steal.”

Poor Zuma indeed – for these are heavy encumbrances when you are caught trying to pull off an unclear military mission in a distant and geopolitically irrelevant country, in which you might have some economic interests.

These are encumbrances none of Zuma’s peers at the N’Djamena summit have to bother with.

Sassou and Déby, the two main regional players in the recent central African debacle, have both come to power violently, and have subsequently made few efforts to democratise their countries.

Both men have played a double game in the region, backing armed groups hostile to members of Eccas.

Chad, in particular, has put its soldiers in harm’s way on many occasions in order to let Déby play the role of regional strongman.

Rarely has this led to domestic scrutiny or censorship, and certainly never on the scale seen over the last two weeks in South Africa.

On the basis of this alone, Zuma’s blunder in the Central African Republic (CAR) is a massive public relations disaster for him in the region, and in the wider African community.

It demonstrates that he cannot pull off what other regional despots can, because, unlike them, he is the leader of a country that has institutions, and citizens who demand accountability and transparency from government – never more so than when South African lives are at stake.

To put it bluntly, he has made himself and South Africa look foolish and has demonstrated that when it comes to trading state resources for influence and access to riches, he cannot compete with leaders who are used to treating their citizens with contempt.

To make matters worse, he paid this high price defending Bozize, a man who violently overthrew his predecessor, and who, even by the region’s low standards, was too incompetent, corrupt and insincere to keep even the support of his closest allies.

Chadian soldiers, who had been deployed as part of a regional peacekeeping body, and whose explicit mandate was to create a buffer zone between the Seleka rebels and the Central African Army stood aside and watched the Seleka rebels take town after town until they reached Bangui.

Bozize had already lost the support of key regional allies months ago, and his refusal to apply aspects of the January Libreville peace agreement – including the withdrawal of South African military forces whom the rebels considered mercenaries – was the last straw.

Here, too, Zuma was outdone by the Machiavellian actions of his central African counterparts, all of whom have known, at least since January, that Bozize must, and would, go.

By simply stepping aside, presumably on Déby’s orders, Chad has been able to maintain the reputation of its military while ingratiating itself with the rebels.

This saves Chad having to publicly recognise the new powers in Bangui, a misstep within the existing African peace and security architecture, where the AU’s policy of no tolerance for violent accession to power officially remains immutable.

But this stance has been blurred again this week with Eccas and the AU recommending not that Bozize be restored as president, but that a “transition” council or government be formed.

Judging by reports ahead of the summit that the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) was deploying Gripen planes and combat helicopters to within striking distance of Bangui, South Africa may have thought it would be asked to assist Bozize to return.

Instead, Zuma announced all troops would be withdrawn, an announcement many felt he should have made the moment Seleka took control.

Is he disappointed the man who cost him so much now appears firmly out in the cold?

Suggestions that ANC business interests motivated the military escalation earlier this year have been widespread.

Having met some of South Africa’s dodgy fixers in Bangui in 2011, I have no doubt promises of access to lucrative resource deals played a major role in the SANDF deployment to the CAR.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with two countries that enjoy friendly relations forging close economic ties, provided the deals are made transparently and adhere to international standards.

But the fact that many of the companies alleged to be involved have links with the ruling party, coupled with high levels of corruption in the central African resource sector, means it’s unlikely the deals were above board.

I also got the feeling much less had come of South Africa’s investment than the government had hoped, and the deal benefited Bozize disproportionately.

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The bottom line is South Africa’s role in the messy end of Bozize’s regime is not just a personal tragedy for those who lost loved ones, but also a significant bruising of South Africa’s diplomatic and military standing.

It comes on the eve of South Africa’s participation in the first UN mission to have an offensive mandate, when it was deployed to track rebels in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Fortunately that mission has transparent objectives and is being conducted with the support of the UN, the AU and the Southern African Development Community.

Even so, South African soldiers’ lives will be on the line there too.

» Wolters is a journalist and researcher specialising in African conflict zones

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