South Africa’s Deployment to the CAR


President Zuma’s decision to deploy South African troops to the Central African Republic (CAR) is an interesting one that may – and ‘may’ is the key word here – be an indication of what role the government sees for South Africa in Africa in the future.

The first question that the deployment raises is why?

The immediate answer to that is the one given by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), to protect the training and assistance team that is already in the CAR. The alternative would have been to pull them out, which would have shown South Africa running away from a problem in a fellow African state with which we have a defence memorandum of understanding (MoU). Not a pretty picture, and not likely to either enhance Ms Dlamini-Zuma’s position in the African Union or strengthen South Africa’s case for a permanent African seat on the UN Security Council.

Another consideration will have been that greater instability in the CAR is not in South Africa’s best interests, and were the rebels to topple the Bozize government by force and simply seize power, that would hardly be likely to result in stability in the near- or even medium term.

There is nothing to suggest that they would be able to immediately co-operate to put a functioning and stable government in place. There is certainly no track record of the various groups – and their various factions – being able to work together; in fact it would seem that it was a break-away faction of the Convention de Patriotes pour la Justice et la Paix (CPJP) that set the scene for the current fighting, with attacks on Sibut, Damara and Dekoa on 15 September – less than a month after the CPJP had signed a peace agreement with the government. Much more likely would be a period of squabbling and strife while various factions of the three main groups each try to grab power.

That would not be good for the image of the AU or the AU Commission, for South Africa’s image as a regional power, for South African business interests in the CAR, or for the people of the CAR – and that is probably the order of priorities in political minds.

Worse, greater instability in the CAR would almost inevitably result in the Lord’s Resistance Army being able to step up attacks in the north of the DRC and probably also to resume its attacks in Uganda. There would also be a real risk of the Allied Democratic Forces being able to rebuild their guerrilla capability in the north-east of the DRC and to resume attacks against Uganda. Such attacks, in turn, would inevitably see Uganda again intervene in the DRC, and that would impact on Rwanda’s actions there.

None of that would be good news for the DRC, for the SADC or for South Africa as a major player in DRC peace efforts over the years. And, of course, as a fellow member of the SADC, South Africa has security obligations towards fellow members.

Finally, following so quickly on the M23 offensive in the DRC and the mutiny and rebel successes in Mali, yet another rebellion is simply not good news for Africa as a whole, and the government may have wanted to make the point that it understands this and that it is willing to take a stand.

So, assuming that South Africa wants to be a regional player and be taken seriously, there are some good reasons for the decision to intervene in the CAR.

Why, then, such a small force?

The force that has been deployed – essentially Special Forces and a reinforced company of paratroops – is strong enough and well enough armed to protect our training and assistance teams and to carry out an opposed extraction if that becomes necessary, and to provide a secure foot on the ground to allow the insertion of a stronger force if needed. At the same time it is not so large a force as to appear to be a firm commitment to protect the government of President Bozize regardless, or so large as to present an extraction problem if that became necessary. An ‘elegant sufficiency’ one might say.

The thinking may well also be that even this quite small South African force deployed to Bangui, taken together with the 600 French troops and 760 troops from Central African countries, will suffice to serve as a deterrent to the rebels simply entering Bangui and toppling the government by force.

It is, in fact, only the foreign forces in the Bangui area that can prevent a simple seizure of power: The admittedly very small and poorly equipped CAR army would seem to have simply pulled back from towns without serious fighting and even sometimes before the rebels arrived. Nor do MICOPAX, the Central African peacekeeping force in the CAR, or the initial Chad Army contingent seem to have done any better.

But the full Central African Multinational Force (FOMAC) contingent of some 760 troops, strengthened and stiffened by the presence of 600 French troops who can call on fighters from Chad, and by the presence of South African paratroops with the possibility of the full parachute battalion group being deployed, perhaps even with some Rooivalk attack helicopters in support, presents an entirely different situation. The rebels have demonstrated some good operational thinking and good logistics, but it is doubtful whether they have the strength, the weapons or the stamina for a real fight, and it is not likely that they are stupid.

While the initial South African deployment is quite small, it presents the threat of follow-on forces being deployed, and so its impact may be much more significant to the outcome of this crisis than its modest strength would suggest. Certainly the rebels’ virulent response to the deployment suggests that they have taken the point.

There is, of course, another reason for deploying a small force: The South African Army is already over-stretched and has no troops to spare, and the Air Force’s transport capacity is grossly inadequate, making the entire venture dependent on chartered aircraft, which is not a comfortable thought for any planner or strategist.

What might be the implications of this deployment?

On the positive side the decision to intervene has:
• Demonstrated that South Africa is willing to put its money where its mouth is, which will stand Pretoria in good stead in the AU and at the UN.
• Demonstrated that South Africa is able to make up its mind and act decisively (the request for help came on the 29th, the decision was taken on the 30th, the defence minister was in Bangui on the 31st and the troops deployed on the 1st and 2nd).
• Demonstrated that, despite its dire financial position and operational over-stretch, the SANDF is able to respond promptly and quickly when required (undermined somewhat by having had to charter the transport aircraft, but still a useful point to make).
• Demonstrated the ability by government and the SANDF to make the best of a not very good situation by deciding on a hedged deployment – strong enough to perform the primary mission and to make the desired point, able to be reinforced if necessary, but small enough not to present a critical challenge to the Army.

All of that will serve to strengthen South Africa’s position in Africa and when it speaks of or for Africa in international bodies, and that is to the good.

On the negative side:
• Taking an ‘elegant sufficiency’ approach is always a bet that carries some risk. The rebels may not take the hint, in which case the force will be too small and will either have to be evacuated or reinforced. The former would be embarrassing, but that can be overcome; reinforcement, on the other hand, might prove impossible if charter aircraft cannot be found in sufficient numbers to do the job properly. That would not just be embarrassing, but would very publically expose the SANDF as a ‘paper lion’, able to roar and posture, but not bite.
• Another risk lies in the questionable loyalty of the CAR Army. What happens if it mutinies, as did that of Mali, or changes sides? That would make reinforcement even more complicated.
• The MoU has been extended for five years. Does that mean a commitment to deploy troops for five years? If so, in what numbers? The SANDF is already three infantry battalions short of what it needs to sustain the DRC and Darfur deployments and cover the border – assuming a demanding 1 in 4 deployment cycle rather than the UN standard of 1 in 6. Adding yet another battalion-strength commitment without substantial additional funding would break the Army.
• Any extended and expanded deployment must also only be considered in the context of what is a very complex situation: The CAR does not only present the challenge of government versus rebels, but the additional challenges of other guerrilla groups; Chad-based guerrilla groups that venture into the CAR as the whim takes them; the role of Sudan in perhaps supporting such groups; the activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army; and the fact of Ugandan and other African forces and US Special Forces operating in the eastern part of the country, hunting the LRA.

So there are some real risks involved in this deployment, but while they are real, none of them are very high, and none of them need be fatal – to the contingent or to South Africa’s standing, with the partial exception of a failed reinforcement attempt, from which it would take a long time and a lot of effort to recover.

Considering the positive and potential negative implications, the overall verdict should, arguably, be a favourable one, but only on the assumption that South Africa actually does intend to accept the role of regional power. If that is not the case, we are wasting effort and money and risking our troops for no good reason.

If South Africa does intend to accept that role, then the government must find the moral courage to fund the Defence Force accordingly, to provide the additional units and the airlift and sealift that such a role will demand.

To be fair, South Africa is playing a substantial role: Two battalion-plus peacekeeping deployments and the commitment of a frigate to the Mozambique Channel, and having previously actually sustained three simultaneous battalion-strength deployments (DRC, Darfur and Burundi) for a decade, as well as a short-term battalion deployment to the Comoros (in 2006) and several smaller deployments. South Africa has also provided troops and aircraft for election support in the DRC and Mozambique as well as in other countries.

Perhaps more importantly, South Africa has shown the willingness to act promptly and independently – not just in Lesotho in 1998 when there was a potential threat of instability on its own immediate border, but also in Burundi and now the CAR. Burundi and the 2006 Comoros deployment also demonstrated the willingness and the ability to deploy at very short notice.

But all that must be seen in perspective. As the former AU Commission head pointed out to South African officials a little time ago: “You are a country of 50 million people; with by far the largest economy in Africa and the 26th largest in the world; and you have two battalions deployed. Burundi has an entire brigade deployed”.

He might have added that Ghana has four battalions deployed on peacekeeping missions, Ethiopia a brigade in Dafur and a half-brigade in South Sudan as well as forces in Somalia; Kenya a brigade in Somalia and a battalion in South Sudan, Nigeria a brigade in Darfur and a half-brigade in Liberia, and Uganda a six-battalion brigade in Somalia.

With South Africa’s economy accounting for at least a third of the economic activity in all of sub-Saharan Africa, it is not unreasonable that others expect more of us. But that brings us back to the key decisions that government must take: Who are we, and what responsibilities are we willing to accept? And are we willing to be serious about those and fund a Defence Force able to meet the commitments we make?