The CAR crisis: Who’s who and why | Part Two

23 December 2013 | Tom Hardy

This is the second part of a two-part analysis by Tom Hardy of the actors and interests in the current crisis in the Central African Republic. Tom recently completed five years in the French Foreign Legion and is currently working on his MA dissertation at King’s College, London. His research focuses on France’s contemporary relationships with its former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa. Read Part One of the analysis on the crisis in CAR here. 

France and its interests

After receiving authorisation from the UN Security Council on 5 December, France rapidly deployed 1,200 troops to the Central African Republic.

After receiving authorisation from the UN Security Council on 5 December, France rapidly deployed 1,200 troops to the CAR, bringing its forces in-country to 1,600.With Mali (where around 4,500 French troops were deployed in January), the move marks France’s second major intervention in sub-Saharan Africa this year. French troops’ immediate objectives in the operation, baptised ‘Sangaris’, are, as stated by President François Hollande, to halt the violence within “a short period” and to “disarm all the militias and groups that are terrorising the population”. On a ‘lightning’ visit to Bangui a few days later, Hollande added “France, here in the CAR, seeks no interest for herself… France comes to defend human dignity”.

If immediate humanitarian objectives can be accomplished (relatively) rapidly, France will win support for its actions, not least among Central Africans. As in Mali, Hollande has sought to present French objectives in uniquely humanitarian terms, expressly denying that France is pursuing other, more selfish interests. But while humanitarian concerns made headlines in the run up to the UN vote – notably including Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’ warning in late November that the country was “on the verge of genocide” – France also has strategic objectives in the CAR that it cannot deny.

As I stated in Part One of this analysis, Paris’ greatest fear is that if the CAR is allowed to become another Somalia it could affect far more important French interests in Africa. Since before the intervention in Mali, Western officials and commentators have been describing an ‘arc of instability’ that traverses the Sahel from Somalia in the east to Mauritania in the west; if left unchecked, they claim, the region could become a staging area for terrorist attacks on Europe. Hollande cited this as a justification for intervention in Mali; but in both Mali and the CAR, there are also far more immediate interests for France. Nearby are Congo-Brazzaville, where the French oil company Total recently invested $10bn and expects to be producing 140,000 barrels a day by 2017; Gabon, in which Total retains significant interests; and Niger, from where French nuclear giant Areva extracts a third of the uranium necessary to power France’s 58 domestic nuclear reactors.

France’s resource interests in the CAR itself hardly justify a direct intervention. There is uranium, petrol, diamonds, copper, gold, iron, and rich forests, but much of it is in conflict zones; moreover, the oil wells at Gordil are now exploited by China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), and the Bakouma uranium mine, though run by Areva, is not currently in production. But the country has always been of great strategic significance for France, and its central position in Africa has meant that the former colonial power has remained deeply involved in the CAR’s affairs since independence. The relations between France’s President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and the CAR’s Jean Bédel Bokassa were a source of much controversy in the 1970s, with France paying for Bokassa’s opulent coronation in 1976, only to depose him in a coup in 1979. France kept two large bases in the CAR which remained crucial to its military posture in Africa until the 1994 debacle in Rwanda, which precipitated a partial restructuring of France’s Africa policy and the closure of the bases in 1997.

French and American military interest in the region has increased steadily in the last five years, but until this year represented small operations and were usually carried out by special forces, such as attempts to rescue French hostages and kill or capture members of groups such as Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). But when Islamist groups in Mali linked up with Tuareg groups and overran most of Mali, coming within a few kilometres of the capital in January, France decided to escalate. Again with UN authorisation, it conducted a large-scale air and ground campaign and quickly retook most major towns in the north and northeast. That intervention was also justified, by Hollande, in humanitarian terms. Mali, like the CAR, represented only minor material interests for France. But both occupied strategic positions in a region in which France’s interests are obvious. The CAR is a point of conjuncture of a number of regional conflicts at various stages of intensity; the Doba oil fields in southern Chad, which fund the Chadian military and President Idriss Déby’s ‘strategy of regime survival’ amidst ongoing high-intensity internal conflict; Darfur in Sudan, the effects of which are too numerous to list here; a nascent civil war in South Sudan, ongoing conflict in the Ituri region of Congo-Kinshasa, and the continued activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

As long as there is instability in the region, French material interests in sub-Saharan Africa will be threatened. That the region, or any country in it, falls into the hands of anti-Western forces – as was almost the case in Mali – is thus unthinkable for France. But interventions in the region are politically problematic for France. Mali, former French colonies and the interventions are the latest in a long list. As noted above, France has remained closely involved in the affairs of its former colonies, primarily through formalised military and economic ties, but also through personal and informal relations between French presidents and African leaders whose democratic credentials have, more often than not, been highly questionable. Since the 1990s, when the darker side of France’s African relations came to the fore with high-profile investigations into France’s role during the Rwandan genocide and the ELF affair in France, there have been increasing calls in France for Franco-African relations to be ‘normalised’ and for ‘parallel diplomacy’ – wherein deals were done between French and African leaders outside of any parliamentary or public control – to be ended. Both Nicholas Sarkozy (president between 2007 and 2012) and Hollande have proclaimed the end of what is colloquially known in France as ‘Françafrique’, but both have discovered that changing the nature of Franco-African relations is a lot easier said than done. Hollande, who proclaimed in 2012 “the time of Françafrique is over”, has since presided over two major interventions in France’s former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa.

President Hollande of France insists interventions in Mali and CAR are absolutely motivated by humanitarian reasoning.

President Hollande of France insists interventions in Mali and CAR are absolutely motivated by humanitarian objectives. Photo: Fred Dufour – AFP

Part of the problem is that France’s Africa policy appears confused. Hollande has denied that interventions Mali and the CAR are about anything beyond humanitarian objectives, using France’s military position in Africa to aid populations in need until African forces are in a position to look after their own security. But an independent security capability in sub-Saharan Africa is not something that will be achieved in the foreseeable future. Even if thousands of trained troops become available for peacekeeping operations – Hollande offered France’s aid to train 20,000 African soldiers a year on 8 December – African nations will still lack essential logistical capacities – such as heavy airlifting – without which peacekeeping operations cannot practically take place. Africa still needs France and, for the foreseeable future, the world will still need France to remain in Africa – otherwise Mali and the CAR would have been allowed to descend into chaos. But France’s interests in the region cannot be denied. Mindful of the fact that protecting people is far easier to sell than protecting investments, Hollande has publicly denied France’s vested interests in Africa – but, in doing so, leaves French policy in Africa looking at best confused, and at worst disingenuous.

Chad and its interests

Issouf Sanogo - AFP

Issouf Sanogo – AFP

Chad – along with France – supported François Bozizé in 2003, when the former army Chief of Staff took power in a coup, and for most of the ten years of his rule. Like France, Chadian forces directly supported Bozizé during his time in power, including providing soldiers for the presidential guard. And, again like France, Chad has been a major contributor to successive regional stabilisation operations in the CAR. But in early 2013 – again, mirroring France – Chad publicly stated that it would not defend Bozizé, and Chadian troops were withdrawn as Séléka advanced on Bangui, effectively sealing Bozizé’s fate. From a July analysis by the Governance and Social Development Resource Centre:

“In January 2013, Chad blocked the Séléka rebels at a town 70km from Bangui (considered the red line). However, a few months later, Chad supported the coalition which took over Bangui, despite Chadian President Idriss Déby’s claim that Chad did not interfere in CAR’s internal politics.”

Chadian troops formed a major part of the French-led campaign in Mali earlier this year, and Chadian President Idriss Déby, in power since 1990 despite ongoing challenges to his highly authoritarian rule, seems to be attempting to position his forces as a regional power with himself as mediator. Under Déby, Chad has retained very close ties with France – French forces have been stationed in Chad since 1986, with (officially non-permanent) Chadian bases’ role in other French operations in Africa – during the 2011 Libyan campaign, for example, and lately in Mali – causing Chad to be nicknamed France’s aircraft carrier in the desert’. French troops have also been invaluable to Déby; when a rebel advance overran the capital, N’Djamena, in 2008, French logistical assistance permitted the Chadian army to repel the advance.

In the CAR, however, there are differences between Chadian and French policy. Chad, a country in which Muslims are a majority, has expressed concern that the French operation could provoke a mass exodus of Muslims from the CAR. A Chadian diplomat, speaking to Le Monde, described the Chadian position thus:

“This is a very delicate operation, it must not disarm some too quickly, while forgetting others. It must not be forgotten that they [the Séléka] are in power and must be worked with … The small fault of the French is that in their action, they have not taken into account the risks of revenge. It must not be that all the Muslims leave the CAR because of France.”

There are 30,000 Chadian nationals in the CAR, and Chad does not desire a massive repatriation operation. The Chadian military has stated that it will not move against Michel Djotodia – at least for now, acknowledging that it effectively enabled him to come to power and must now work with him. Chad, like France, is up to its neck in the CAR. It has provided direct military assistance to various sides in the CAR’s never-ending internal conflict, while concurrently acting as a major contributor to regional peacekeeping forces (see below). The notion of conflict of interest doesn’t have the same meaning in Africa, and doing nothing will always appear as the worst option. But as long as external forces decide the CAR’s future, its people will always be the losers.


MISCA – Mission internationale de soutien à la Centrafrique sous conduite africaine. The African Union peacekeeping mission International Support Mission to the Central African Republic.

MICOPAX – The Mission for the consolidation of peace in Central African Republic. A peace operation in the Central African Republic led by the Economic Community of Central African States.

FOMAC – The African Unions’s Multinational Force of Central Africa, which will transfer to MISCA, comprises soldiers from Gabon, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville and Cameroon.


While the peacekeeping force in the CAR has changed its name frequently since the late 1990s, its composition has essentially remained the same throughout; ground troops from the neighbouring French-speaking countries of Chad, Gabon, Cameroon, and the two Congos, with finance, equipment, training, leadership and ‘operational support’ – which has at times extended to direct involvement, including the bombing of anti-government positions by French jets – filtered through a few hundred French troops based at Boali airport in Bangui. The peacekeeping force in the CAR has always been an expression of the conflicts of interest in African power politics, with ‘peacekeeping’ often a description of varying inaccuracy for the operations taking place under its name.

When France closed its permanent bases in the CAR in 1997, then-president Ange-Félix Patassé was immediate faced by a series of army mutinies. This prompted France, then in the process of closing its bases in the CAR as part of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin’s policy of ‘neither interference nor indifference’ in the affairs of its former African colonies, to organise a regional stabilisation force which it would organise, support and fund, but not directly participate in. As seen above, the principle of non-interference has not always been followed to the letter, and the idea of ‘indirect support’ has at times meant support that is about as direct as it is possible to be. The regional force, always staffed by the same players and with France playing a key behind-the-scenes role, has often changed its spots, and has been variously under regional, African Union, United Nations, and European Union auspices. But the people on the ground have more or less remained the same, while the force has enjoyed little success in its stated objective of providing stability to the CAR. A 2011 report by the Uppsala-based Nordic Africa Institute stated:

“Regional politics is further undermined by individual interests… Thus, community activities tend to be increasingly used by political actors to demonstrate their role as legitimate rulers of sovereign states and to further defend their political interests… Current community-level responses, such as the deployment of FOMUC and MICOPAX and the setting up of the Central African peace and security architecture, indicate that such actions tend first of all to address the symptoms of insecurity and instability, but largely neglect their roots and underlying causes. They do not sufficiently consider the non-military elements of insecurity, such as structural problems that often are at the base of riots, rebellions and violence.”

The report identifies two major problems; that the force serves as a vehicle for regional heads of state – i.e. Déby et al – to legitimise their own, often contested, regimes, and that peacekeeping has prioritised addressing symptoms over causes. The second problem is one that is common to most peacekeeping operations around the world – it is pretty difficult to think about structural problems when you’re being shot at – but the first problem, that the force is essentially a means by which to play regional power politics – is symptomatic of the incestuous relations which characterise African politics, and which continue to characterise Franco-African relations. Unless the new MISCA force can distance from such problems – which, without wanting to seem pessimistic, is unlikely because regional forces could not operate without French money and support, and troops from non-French-speaking countries would have a hard time operating with any effectiveness in the CAR – these trends are likely to continue.

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