Bangui was a mission too far, says former Joint Operations Chief of Staff


Retired Major General Ashton Sibango has said South Africa’s mission to the Central African Republic that ended in the death of 15 soldiers was far-fetched, complicated and expensive, and suggested an investigation into South Africa’s involvement in the country and compensation for lives lost.

In an open letter to Cyril Xaba, Chairperson of the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Defence on 22 June, Sibango notes that the “hard and painful heart feelings and traumatic memories are still fresh in the hearts and minds of those who were involved and those subsequently affected,” by the events of March 2013 that culminated in the Battle of Bangui.

South Africa and the Central African Republic entered into a cooperation agreement in 2006. In 2007 the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) formalised defence cooperation with Central African Republic armed forces through a Memorandum of Understanding. This agreement, renewed on 31 December 2012, authorised the deployment of 85 SANDF members and covered training for CAR’s armed forces and protection of the CAR president. South Africa would also assist in implementation of Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration and Security Sector Reform.

In January 2013 the SANDF sent an additional 200 soldiers to the CAR after a coalition of rebel groups under the name of Seleka renewed fighting in late 2012, with President Francois Bozizé requesting international assistance to help with the rebellion. Between 22 and 24 March 2013 Seleka rebels clashed with South African troops as the rebels marched towards the capital Bangui, unchecked by African Union, Chadian and French forces. South African troops were caught in an ambush, but acquitted themselves well, killing or wounding an estimated 700 rebel fighters, for the loss of 13 SANDF troops (two later died of their injuries).

Operation Vimbezela, the South African National Defence Force’s military assistance to the country, ended in 2013 after Seleka rebels overthrew Bozize. By this time the SANDF had trained 1 181 soldiers. Over five years, Vimbezela cost more than R246 million; R4.5 million of equipment was lost or written off after the Battle of Bangui.

Sibango, formerly Chief of Staff of the SANDF’s Joint Operations division, noted that widows and partners of the fallen soldiers wrote to President Cyril Ramaphosa in March this year to ask for help. “It would appear that all still leaves much to be desired,” he wrote, adding that closure is needed on the Central African Republic mission “in order to pave a smooth way for similar future engagements”.

Years after the Battle of Bangui ended South Africa’s involvement in the Central African Republic, there remain questions around the mission. “Constitutional and legislative protocols seem to have been flouted,” Sibango wrote.

“Whether or not the contents and protocols were flouted to camouflage unsound reasons behind the employment of the members of the National Defence Force for reasons of peace capacity building and later protection force contingent with extended mandate with the view to smuggle it through Parliament, but by the looks of things, somehow, unconventional methods might have been employed by National Executive to flout the constitutional processes. Nevertheless, our troops were there to serve what was officially believed to be worthy of national interests.”

Sibango said South Africa’s assistance to then President Francois Bozize “was a mission too far, marred with complexities and lack of understanding the political dynamics at play…the results of which became so expensive to our troops.”

According to the retired general, information about the threat posed to South African troops by Seleka rebels was ignored or dismissed and no South African National Defence Force commanders were subsequently called to account.

Calls for compensation

There has been little compensation for those wounded in the Battle of Bangui – “the only testimony of the compensation pay out was for one of them [South African soldiers] who hired private lawyers to pursue the claim and another individual who is personally pursuing his compensation is being offered a lousy forty seven thousand [Rand]. This is actually mind boggling for the…Department of Defence which [is] supposed to have taken full responsibility to collectively deal with issues of compensation of our troops from the battlefield.”

Sibango wrote that issues of compensation for all casualties from the battlefield should have taken a year and a half to two years at the most. “In the open letter to the President, the widows and partners had acknowledged the receipt of money purported to be compensation from the government for the loss of their beloved ones. But a two hundred thousand rand, for example, is ridiculous and laughable to equate closer to any compensation that is able to sustain the families of the affected, in this regard, to say the least. Two million for each of the fallen soldier and a million for each of those who sustained permanent disabilities would, for example, be a better consideration which would neither enrich the families nor making the Republic bankrupt in the process, but would enable the affected families and members to cope with their prevailing circumstances going forward.”

Sibango added that there are international yardsticks (for example, United Nations and African Union Missions) on compensation for troops fallen in the mission area from where South Africa could have made use of as benchmarks.

There are, according to Sibango, numerous questions for military leadership to account on, including failure to provide logistical support and reinforcements; failure to provide administrative support in the aftermath of the battle; lack of oversight; the loss of prime mission equipment; and reports of gross violation of international protocols regarding the treatment of South African soldiers by Seleka rebels.

“One has a general sense of the opinion of the public which appears to be harbouring a feeling that there is loud deafening silence with elements of secrecy and evasiveness when it comes to dealing with the erstwhile mission in Central African Republic,” Sibango wrote. “The matter has to be scrutinised and dealt with at the National Legislative and Judiciary levels, respectively, without fear or favour. Otherwise, the Constitution of the Republic would be reduced to a mere book of drama by the untouchables.”

Sibango suggested a Multi-Departmental Investigation Task to look at issues around the Central African Republic mission including national interests and the logic behind the mission; legislative protocols, the experience of the military mission, cost of the mission, accountability, gross human rights violations and compensation of soldiers and affected families. Recommendations would then be drawn up.

“Who knows what the future may bring for the Republic given the serious developing security situation in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, without choice,” Sibango asked, highlighting the need for an inquiry into the Central African Republic mission.

African Defence Director Darren Oliver said Sibango’s letter “contains a number of excellent points and serious questions about what happened in Bangui, especially the mission rationale, intelligence warnings, and decisions of senior leadership. An independent inquiry would be a good thing.”