Understanding the 2013 Coup d’état in the Central African Republic
Author: Yuki Yoshida
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 01/17/2014
Military coup d’état has been a common form of regime change in post-colonial African states, and the Central African Republic (CAR) is no exception. Since the independence from France in 1960, the stability of the CAR has repeatedly been disturbed by five successful military coups including the most recent one in March 2013. The coup was in fact expected to occur by the international community in January when the representative of the United Nations (UN) Mission in the CAR disclosed that the Séléka, a coalition of rebel groups in northeastern CAR, “had already seized virtually the whole of the country and were advancing on the capital.”[i] Receiving little international support to alleviate the urgent security crisis, on March 24, the Séléka expelled President François Bozizé, and Michel Djotodia, one of Séléka’s leaders, declared him the president and announced that he would stay in the position until the next presidential election in 2016. On March 25, Djotodia suspended the constitution and dissolved the National Assembly to consolidate his power. Lacking “strong civil society, organized opposition parties, free press and independent judiciary,” no stakeholder currently plays a role of check and balance to prevent Djotodia’s abuse of power.[ii] Outside the political arena, Séléka members’ indiscriminate human rights abuses are threatening safety of civilians, which undermines legitimacy of the new power holder in the eyes of both internal and external actors.
Since the coup is relatively a recent event, few systematic analyses have yet been done. The question the article investigates is: What were the primary factors that motivated the Séléka to initiate rebel movement and resort to coup? The article argues that Séléka’s rebel movement and resort to coup can be explained by political motives of some members who were once expelled by the government to seize the political power, and various grievances against the government, namely urgent security concerns outside the capital, state’s poor economic performances and Bozizé’s practice of nepotism.
Ad hoc Nature of the Séléka
The Séléka had no clear and uniform political vision due to group’s ad hoc nature. Séléka, which means “coalition” in Sango, a national language in the CAR, consists of several rebel groups including the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP), the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), the Democratic Front of Central African People (FDPC), the Patriotic Convention for the Salvation of Kodro, and the Alliance for Renaissance and Reorganization.[iii] In addition, the Séléka has also been the host to soldiers from neighboring states, such as Chad, Nigeria, and Sudan, who joined the Séléka “in the hope of benefitting from the financial gains of the rebellion.”[iv] Apparently, the Séléka as a rebel coalition was only formed September 2012. The country’s northeastern region where the Séléka was formed is “geographically isolated, historically marginalized and almost stateless.”[v] Receiving little state oversight and easily obtaining weapons and resources that support the armed struggle from neighboring states, the region served as a desirable ground for the Séléka.
The Séléka was formed to address poverty and human rights abuses in northeastern region where most of the Séléka rebels were operating.[vi] However, violence the Séléka engaged before and after the coup can be labeled as uncontrolled, except some selected targets, suggesting its low degree of organization. The Séléka had resorted to indiscriminate killing of civilians when they entered Bangui, the capital of the CAR, in December 2012 to prepare for the attack on the Bozizé regime.[vii] After they overthrew the government, the Séléka intensified human rights abuses, such as rape, torture, and summary execution and massively committed looting and pillage. In addition to the indiscriminate violence, the Séléka also specifically targeted members of the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) and summarily executed them to weaken state security apparatus that had already revealed its incapability.
Séléka’s indiscriminate violence has been criticized externally and internally, which has had de-legitimizing effects on the coalition. The Security Council on the following day of the coup “strongly condemned the recent attacks and the seizure of power by force in the Central African Republic on 24 March 2013 by the Séléka coalition, as well as the ensuing violence and looting.”[viii] The Séléka has also not gained popular support because of the highly anarchic situations and serious humanitarian crises that continue to threaten lives of thousands of local populations. Just as the Bozizé regime, the Séléka is already facing legitimacy crisis due to its lack of will and capability to govern the country.
Séléka’s motivation for coup can be explained through political motives and their various grievances against the government. With regard to political motives, this coup was the “result of personal ambition and political exclusion.”[ix] Several Séléka members were former government officials who were once expelled and still seeking an opportunity to seize the power. For instance, Michel Djotodia, one of the Séléka’s leaders and current president of the CAR, was an official in both planning ministry and foreign ministry under the Patassé and Bozizé regimes. However, when Djotodia had disputes with the government about his appointment as a consul in South Darfur, Bozizé imprisoned Djotodia in Benin. Djotodia since then was seeking a chance to revenge against Bozizé who hindered his career. It is often the case in the CAR that “the armed struggle was conducted by disgraced former politicians looking for vengeance and a return to political power.”[x] Thus, the political motives of a few Séléka members to some extent played a role in this insurgency.
The grievances of Séléka members against government’s incapability to provide the basic security were more explicitly manifested than political motives. Séléka’s initial demand was the implementation of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of the armed groups and “traffickers fighting for control of diamond-producing area.”[xi] in northeastern CAR to improve regional security. Although the DDR program was planned since the 2008 Libreville agreement, the Bozizé regime has never implemented the disarmament of the armed groups.[xii]
Additionally, CAR’s dysfunctional security sector further undermined state legitimacy, creating a propitious environment for coup. The FACA has been accused of such human rights abuses as operation of illegal checkpoints, village burning, and summary execution.[xiii] Soldiers who committed human rights abuses enjoyed impunity due to absence of military tribunal or prison. Because most FACA soldiers were based in Bangui due to logistics and equipment constraints, towns outside the capital were highly vulnerable to attacks by local or foreign belligerents. Likewise, national police’s serious lack of capability has prevented them from fulfill its mandate to maintain public safety. As of 2009, there were only 1,350 police officers in the country with a population of four millions, and most of them were stationed in Bangui.[xiv] The frequent delay in salary payment makes police frustrated, and they often engage in corruption and commit human rights abuses. As a result of corruption and other indiscipline behavior, public image of the police is poor. Considering the fact that the presence of FACA and police in non-capital towns was low, it can be assumed that the threats to public safety in northeastern CAR largely unaddressed, which reinforced Séléka’s grievances against the government.
Government’s poor economic performance further exacerbated state legitimacy and contributed to fueling Séléka’s grievances. Since Bozizé took office ten years ago, the government has not promoted economic development.[xv] According to the UNDP, during Bozizé’s terms, national gross per capita income decreased from $909 in 1985 to $722 in 2012. The current average years of schooling per person is below seven years and only increased by one year since 1985. Additionally, the Séléka was also dissatisfied with the way government managed natural resources. The CAR is rich in natural resources, such as diamonds, gold, copper, tin, and uranium.[xvi] Some Séléka members demanded unconditional return of all the natural resources the government has unjustly mined, which has had a negative impact on the production. Thus, government’s failures to improve CAR’s economy and mismanagement of natural resources provided the Séléka with a justification for coup.
The Séléka was also dissatisfied with Bozizé’s practices of nepotism. During Bozizé’s second term, a number of his family members were assigned key positions in the government. His son, Francis was appointed the defense minister, and another son, Franklin became a security manager at the airport, and two other sons were given key positions in the gendarmerie. Additionally, Bozizé’s nephews were given the key positions in the financial sector, such as central bank’s director and ministers of finance and ex-mines.[xvii] Moreover, members from Bozizé’s ethnic community held other key positions, such as the heads of the presidential guard, the Central African Office for the Repression of Crime (OCRB), and some key posts in the finance ministry. This is not to say that the Séléka has completely been excluded from politics. When the transitional government was established on February 3, 2013 following the peace agreement sponsored by the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the African Union (AU), and the UN in January 2013, the Séléka was given the position of the defense minister and four other ministerial positions. However, Bozizé later abandoned the power-sharing arrangement and appointed his associates a number of key ministries, such as foreign affairs, immigration, justice, and public order. Thus, Bozizé’s skewed appointment fueled Séléka’s grievances.
Besides political motives and various grievances, CAR’s history of coup to transform regimes has also contributed to increased risk and actual attempt of coup. In 1965, David Dacko, CAR’s first president was expelled by Colonel Jean-Bédel Bokassa.[xviii] In 1979, Dacko with French support became the president by overthrowing the Bokassa regime. In 1981, however, Dacko was overthrown again by General André Kolingba. In 2003, General François Bozizé overthrew Ange-Félix Patassé and became the president. In most of the coups, plotters regarded the government as illegitimate, which helped them justify the illegitimate means, namely coup to overthrow the government. In the CAR, the Patassé regime was criticized for its incapability to alleviate violent protests on the streets, which seriously undermined safety of citizens and regime’s legitimacy.[xix] Bozizé’s coup to overthrow Patassé was, therefore, supported by local populations and was even later evaluated as a “good” coup. However, soon after Bozizé became the president, a civil war (the Central African Bush War) occurred in 2004 between the government and the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR) led by Michel Djotodia,[xx] which resulted in disastrous humanitarian crises. Since 2005, the presidential guard committed human rights abuses, killing hundreds of noncombatants and forcing at least 100,000 people to flee. Bozizé also did not fulfill terms of ceasefire and failed to meet imminent needs of citizen, such as demobilization of armed groups and promotion of economy growth. He was rather focusing on consolidating his position by appointing his associates the key government positions. Thus, Bozizé regime’s failures to effectively govern the country harmed state legitimacy and made coup a legitimate means to change the status quo. The Séléka decided to undertake the coup because they had political motives and grievances against the government. But, more importantly, the “coup trap” that has captured the CAR for years to date was also a powerful driving force of the coup.
In sum, the coup was undertaken largely due to Séléka’s political motives and various grievances. Some members’ political motives can partially explain the occurrence of coup. More importantly, government’s failures to provide basic security and improve economy and nepotism Bozizé practiced throughout his terms not only fueled Séléka’s grievances, but also deteriorated state legitimacy and created a propitious environment for coup. The country’s repeated history of coup also legitimized a coup to replace the ineffective government.
Currently, Djotodia serves as an interim president, but it is difficult to say that his regime is legitimate due to uncontrolled violence by Séléka members and its incapability to ensure security. In fact, residents of Bangui showed frustration against the Séléka, which continue looting in the city,[xxi] and Séléka members themselves admitted that they have failed to provide basic security. Furthermore, in order to respond to ex- Séléka’s violence, local traditional militia called “anti-balaka” has recently re-emerged, which has exacerbated the level of security and complicated the situation. The security sector remains incapable of ensuring public safety, which contributes to prevalent criminal activities throughout the country. Thousands of populations remain displaced and are facing grave humanitarian crisis.
Considering only the fact that the Séléka deposed Bozizé, the coup can be labeled as success. Yet, it was not a “good” coup because the Djotodia regime fails to provide basic security to citizens, and as of April 2013, CAR’s economic growth in rest of the year is foreseen to decline from 3.8 to 2.5 percent because of political unrest and reduction in foreign aid,[xxii] which will exacerbate political instability. It would, therefore, not be surprising that anti-Djotodia regime groups will resort to coup to “legitimately” overthrow the incumbent government in the near future.
Bio: Yuki Yoshida is a graduate student majoring in peacebuilding and conflict resolution at Center for Global Affairs, New York University. His research interests include UN peacekeeping, peacebuilding, security sector reform (SSR), human security, humanitarian intervention, and the responsibility to protect (R2P). He obtained his BA in Liberal Arts from Soka University of America in 2012. Yuki’s article on Intertribal Conflicts in Jonglei State, South Sudan: Emerging Ethnic Hatred was recently published on African Journal on Conflict Resolution.