Libya’s Sabha Oasis: Former Qaddafist Stronghold Becoming Regional Center of Insecurity

Andrew McGregor

April 19, 2013

During the rule of the late Mu’ammar Qaddafi, Libya’s Sabha Oasis was an important regional security center, dominating Libya’s remote Fezzan region and the ancient trans-Saharan trade routes that connect sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean coast. The Libyan airbase and garrison at Sabha gave Qaddafi a military presence in a region that contains most of Libya’s considerable oil wealth as well as a remote center for nuclear weapons development and rocket testing.  The presence of many Qaddafist loyalists in Sabha (including members of Qaddafi’s own Qadhadhfa tribe) made it the last major center to be taken by rebel forces in the campaign to depose Qaddafi. Today, roughly a year-and-a-half after Qaddafi’s death, Sabha’s strategic importance has actually increased due to the insecurity that prevails in southwestern desert.

Sabha FortressSabha Fortress

To cope with the rampant insecurity that allowed the deadly Islamist attack on Algeria’s In Aménas gas plant to be mounted from southwestern Libya, Sabha was one of several southern regions declared a closed military zone in December, 2012, with temporary closures to border crossings with Niger, Algeria, Chad and Sudan (see Terrorism Monitor, January 25).

Sabha – The Disputed Oasis

Located some 500 miles south of Tripoli, the town of Sabha, with a population of roughly  200,000, is dominated by a massive Italian-built fort (Fortezza Margherita, but now known as Fort Elena),  a legacy of Italy’s brutal occupation of the Libyan interior in the early 20th century. Most residents belong to Arab or Arab-Berber tribes, but the Tayuri and al-Hijra neighborhoods belong to members of the Tubu, an indigenous Black African tribe following a semi-nomadic lifestyle in what is now southern Libya, northern Chad and northeastern Niger. Though famed for their traditional fighting skills, the Tubu of Sabha occupy cheap fire-blackened cinder block housing that provides witness to the bitter inter-communal battles that have plagued the oasis town since the Libyan revolution. The Tubu make up only 10 to 15% of Sabha’s population, which also includes a number of Tuareg and migrants from Sudan, Chad and Niger who were encouraged to fill jobs in Libya’s oil economy. 

Stripped of citizenship by Qaddafi and denied basic services such as medical care and education by Libyan administrators ordered to treat all Tubu as undocumented aliens, the Tubu see an opportunity to normalize and legitimize their historic presence in southern Libya through specific inclusion in Libya’s new constitution. Earlier this month, the Tubu attempted to educate other Libyans and foreign delegates about the Tubu by holding the first-ever “Festival for Tubu Heritage and Culture” in Murzuk, southwest of Sabha. While the event was attended by a number of members of the GNC, official foreign representation was limited to the Turkish consul and a UN delegate (Libya Herald, April 8).  For the Turkish consul, his arrival marked something of a symbolic return to the region: Ottoman troops were beginning to establish posts in the Tubu regions of the Sahara in the early 20th century prior to being withdrawn after the Italian invasion of Libya in 1912.

A group of Tubu fighters under the leadership of Niger-based militant chief Barka Wardougou (who became close to Tuareg rebel groups in Niger in the last decade) took Murzuk from its loyalist garrison in August, 2011 (Ennahar [Algiers], August 20, 2011). Wardougou and his militia remained in southwestern Libya after Qaddafi’s overthrow (Jeune Afrique, May 17, 2012).

Who Will Control the Borders?

Despite playing a leading role in the expulsion of Qaddafist forces from Libya’s southwest and the southeastern Kufra Oasis region, Libyan Tubus continue to be treated with the suspicion normally associated with pro-Qaddafists. When Sa’adi al-Qaddafi threatened to return from his Niger exile in February, 2012 to lead a new uprising in cooperation with elements of the Libyan military against the “gangs” who controlled Libya, attacks quickly began on Tubu residents of Kufra who were suspected (without evidence) of supporting Sa’adi’s plans for counter-revolution (Jeune Afrique, May 17, 2012; al-Arabiya, February 11, 2012; al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 15, 2012). For now, the Tubu continue to guard the border regions of the southwest, though partly out of self-interest – infiltration by Islamic extremists and narco-traffickers would challenge traditional Tubu control of local smuggling routes. The Tubu are already engaged in a struggle for control of these routes with their local rivals, the Awlad Sulayman Arabs. The Tubu and Awlad Sulayman fought a vicious battle using automatic weapons, rockets and mortars in Sabha in March 2012. The clashes left at least 50 dead and over 160 wounded (Libya Herald, March 28; Tripoli Post, March 29; for the battle, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, April 6, 2012).

In Sabha, incendiary rumors that the Tubu minority are about to take over the city often find a ready audience amongst the Awlad Sulayman and Awlad Abu Seif Arabs. Many Tubu are similarly convinced that the Awlad Sulayman intend to take control of the entire southwest region. Operating under the nominal direction of the Ministry of Defense, Tubu militias remain in control of several sensitive areas in southwestern Libya, including the southern al-Wigh airbase and parts of the Murzuk oil-fields. Calls from the militias for funding and equipment to control the borders have largely fallen on deaf ears. The Tubu not only know the physical terrain, they also know the location of unmarked minefields along the Libyan-Chadian border, deadly relics of the prolonged struggle between Chad and Qaddafi’s Libya for control of the uranium-rich Aouzou Strip.

Return of the Qaddafists

The continued presence of Sa’adi Qaddafi across the border in Niger also contributes to the destabilization of the region. A group of armed men attacked a Sabha police post on April 12, killing a police guard and two others before seizing vehicles and arms from the station.  The next day, over 20 individuals described as supporters of the Qaddafi regime were arrested. According to the head of Sabha’s military council, Ahmad al-Atteibi, the men had confessed to having been infiltrated from abroad with the purpose of setting up a base in the south (SAPA, April 13; News24, April 14). Another police source claimed the assailants were veterans of the Libyan Army’s 32nd Mechanized Brigade, a well-trained, well-armed and highly loyal unit under the direct command of Khamis al-Qaddafi (a son of the Libyan leader who was killed in a NATO airstrike in late August, 2012 (Libya Herald, April 14). Two vehicles belonging to the attackers were later recovered by the Zawiya Martyrs’ Brigade, a militia hailing from the Berber-dominated Nafusa Mountains of western Libya. Libyan border police also reported arresting a group of Libyans entering the country from Egypt with a large quantity of pro-Qaddafi literature for distribution in Sabha (Libya Herald, April 13).

Libya has been applying intense pressure on Niger to extradite Sa’adi to Libya to face war crimes charges and it is expected that the former soccer player and Special Forces commander will join other members of the Qaddafi family in Oman rather than wait to be returned to an unhappy fate in Libya (al-Shabiba [Oman], March 26; Times of Oman, March 26).

Securing the South

The apparent inability of local security forces to resist attacks on their posts prompted a joint emergency meeting of Libya’s government and the ruling General National Congress (GNC). The meeting was attended by the highest levels of Libya’s administration and security services in an effort to find a solution to the ongoing challenges to government authority in the south (Libya Herald, April 14).

Security forces and militias from northern Libya dislike serving in the south, partly because there are no additional benefits offered to persuade them to serve there. Deployment orders from the Libyan Army command continue to be treated as requests by most of the Libyan militias.  Most are unable to cope with the isolation and severe climate of the vast desert expanses south of Sabha, leaving the region largely in the hands of local tribal militias, smuggling bands and roving groups of extremists who may have already established bases in the deserts.

The smugglers, who specialize in arms, fuel, vehicles, subsidized food, narcotics and human trafficking, are usually at least as well-armed and organized as the security forces tasked with their elimination. With under-equipped local security forces often going unpaid for months at a time, it has become much easier to simply purchase free movement through Libya’s ungoverned southwest. Efforts to inhibit the smugglers’ operations can invite retaliation; on March 30, a well-armed smuggling group angered by attempts to restrict their activities attacked the Sabha headquarters of the southern military region command at the Sabha airbase, killing two officers and wounding three other soldiers (Libya Herald, March 30; PANA, April 2).

The Arab-Berber Qadhadhfa, who were regarded as Qaddafi loyalists during the rebellion, have also engaged in deadly clashes with the generally anti-Qaddafi Awlad Sulayman tribe, who experienced rough treatment from the former dictator after he suspected them of planning his overthrow. Libyan army Special Forces units under Colonel Wanis Bukhamada were deployed to stop these tribal battles in early 2012. Bukhamada has since survived assassination attempts in both Sabha and his hometown of Benghazi.


The task of securing southern Libya from Islamist militants, narco-traffickers and arms-traders depends greatly upon efforts to reform Libya’s security services, most notably the National Liberation Army. However, with most former rebels preferring to remain under arms with their rebellion-era militias, such efforts have been painfully slow in obtaining results. Northerners dislike military service in the south and enduring suspicion of Tubu motives prevents the GNA from supplying this group with the arms, funds and equipment they need to secure the borders. As clashes with their Arab neighbors continue, Tubu goodwill towards post-revolutionary Libya is rapidly diminishing, as is the potential for this group to assume security tasks in southern Libya that few others are qualified to carry out. The In Aménas attack is a potent reminder of the necessity of securing the strategic Sabha Oasis and the rest of southwestern Libya before well-armed Islamists fleeing the French-led intervention in Mali can set up new operational bases in the region.

This article was first published in the April 19, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Somalia’s al-Shabaab Targets Turkish Nationals in Mogadishu

Andrew McGregor

April 19, 2013

A series of terrorist attacks in Mogadishu on April 14 may represent a last-ditch attempt by the leadership of the Salafi-Jihadist al-Shabaab movement to prove it is still capable of taking the Islamist insurgency to the new federal government in the face of growing internal dissent and expulsion by African Union troops from its lucrative holdings in Mogadishu and the southern port city of Kismayo. The specific targeting of Turkish nationals in one of these attacks also demonstrates al-Shabaab’s rejection of Turkey’s growing influence in the rebuilding state.

Turkey SomaliaThe Taliban-style attack on a busy courthouse in downtown Mogadishu on April 14 began with a car bomb exploding at the building’s gate, followed by as many as nine men in Somali army uniforms firing automatic weapons as they rushed in. At least three of the gunmen blew themselves up with suicide vests while the remainder were killed in a three-hour firefight with Somali security forces and Ugandan AMISOM troops (Reuters, April 14). Twenty-two others were killed at the scene, most of them soldiers.

At roughly the same time, a vehicle packed with explosives targeted Turkish vehicles in an AU/Turkish Red Crescent convoy on the airport road, killing a Somali driver and injuring three Turkish aid workers (Andalou Agency [Ankara], April 15; Mareeg Online, April 14). A Shabaab spokesman contacted a pro-Islamist website to confirm the attacks in Mogadishu were carried out by al-Shabaab’s “Special Forces” (Somali Memo, April 14). Al-Shabaab spokesman Shaykh Ali Mahmud Raage also told a French news agency that the attack on the courthouse was “a holy action which targeted non-believers who were meeting within the court complex. We will continue until Somalia is liberated from invaders” (AFP, April 14).

There are reports that Somali investigators believe the deceased leader of the courthouse attackers was a Canadian citizen who left Canada for east Africa four years ago (Toronto Star, April 14; National Post [Toronto], April 15). This news follows reports that as many as four young Canadian citizens were involved in the deadly attack by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on foreign workers at the In Aménas gas plant in January.

The attacks in Mogadishu continued the next day, with a roadside bomb failing to kill the district commissioner of Mogadishu’s Heliwaa District as he drove to work (Shabelle Media Network, April 15). Security sweeps on April 15 detained hundreds of young men in the capital on suspicion of being al-Shabaab operatives (, April 15; AFP, April 15). Somali president Hassan Shaykh Mohamud described the attacks as “nothing but a sign of desperation by the terrorists, who’ve lost all their strongholds and are in complete decline right across Somalia” (Mareeg Online, April 14).

Divisions within al-Shabaab became public on April 6, when an open letter to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri from a leading Shabaab member was published on jihadi websites. Penned by Shaykh Ibrahim Haji Jama “al-Afghani” (a.k.a. Abu Bakr al-Zayla’i), the letter reaffirmed the movement’s allegiance to al-Qaeda, but outlined growing differences between Somali members of al-Shabaab and foreign fighters who are accused of failing to abide by the Shari’a code  (Africa Review [Nairobi], April 18).

A veteran of fighting in Kashmir and Afghanistan, al-Afghani also cited the failed leadership of Shaykh Ahmad Abdi Godane “Abu Zubayr,” who has replaced many capable military and religious leaders with members of his own Isaaq clan from northern Somalia. Al-Afghani (himself an Isaaq) asks for al-Zawahiri’s guidance as the movement stands to lose everything if the losses endured under Godane cannot be reversed: “We have witnessed an obvious drawback in the achievements of the mujahideen. Ten states were under the rule of the movement four years ago, which came with the possession of huge human resources and the sympathy of our Muslim people. Now, the jihadi spirit has receded and the motives for creation and production have been destroyed” (, April 15). Al-Afghani goes on to complain that the movement’s internal divisions are now being exposed on social media such as Twitter.

With al-Shabaab having turned to terrorist methods since being driven from the capital by Somali and AMISOM forces in August 2011, Somali president Hasan Shaykh Mohamud warned that after al-Shabaab was defeated, “they changed their war tactics and we want all Somalis to prepare themselves for a new war against al-Shabaab. I know it will be costly, but we need to exercise our patience until we crush them” (Hiraan Online, April 15).

The attack on the Turkish aid workers appears to imply a rejection of Turkey’s growing engagement with Somalia. The attack also confirms al-Shabaab’s takfiri ideology and dispels speculation that Somalia’s Islamist militants might take a more open view to development assistance from a country with a Muslim majority.

The ground-breaking August, 2011 visit to Mogadishu by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was widely seen as a sign of Somalia’s return to the international community and his pledges of Turkish reconstruction assistance represented a show of support from fellow Muslims. Somalis used to ineffectual UN relief and reconstruction efforts run from offices in Nairobi have marveled at what Turkish aid and development workers have accomplished in less than two years on the ground in Mogadishu. Temporary hospitals with Turkish doctors serve the community, schools have been built (which incidentally offer Turkish language courses), the airport reconstructed, streets cleared of debris and students sent to Turkey on scholarships (Reuters, June 3, 2012). Somali police officers are already graduating Turkish police academies and an agreement on military training is in place (Today’s Zaman, November 9, 2012). Turkey’s interests are not related solely to aid, however; strong efforts have been made to revitalize and legitimize Somalia’s business community, much of which has operated without permits, regulation or taxation through years of political chaos. A series of reforms will be required before commerce and financial transactions with Turkey’s well-organized business community can begin.

Chaille-LongColonel Charles Chaillé-Long

Ottoman contacts with Somalia go back to the mediaeval period and intensified in the 19th century when the Egyptian Khedive sought to expand his empire (under Ottoman suzerainty) into the Horn of Africa, establishing short-lived bases at Kismayo and Barawe (Brava) and going so far as to send an exploratory mission up the Juba River under the command of a British naval officer, McKillop Pasha, and two American Civil War veterans, Colonel Charles Chaillé-Long and Lieutenant Colonel William H. Ward.

Ankara has also pledged increased levels of aid to autonomous Somaliland and is hosting and facilitating a new round of reconciliation talks in Ankara between the unrecognized breakaway state and the rest of Somalia. Turkish investors have initiated a number of economic projects in Somaliland and Turkish oil exploration company Genel Energy PLC is planning to begin operations in the region (Today’s Zaman, April 14; Anadolu Agency, April 15).

While engagement with Somalia promises access to resources and new markets for Anatolian industries, Turkey’s growing involvement in places such as Libya and the Horn of Africa is part of a larger Turkish geo-political offensive in the African continent that is part of Ankara’s vision of Turkey as an advanced non-Western state ready to embrace its Ottoman heritage (with conditions) and resume its place as a vital and important international player. However, the targeting of Turkish nationals displays al-Shabaab’s determination to impose its own version of a Salafist theocracy on Somalia regardless of economic realities and the desperate conditions endured by many Somalis.

This article was first published in the April 19, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Chad Withdraws from Nothern Mali as Planning for UN Force Begins

Andrew McGregor

April 19, 2013

Chad has begun the withdrawal of its expeditionary force of roughly 2,250 troops from northern Mali as the conflict enters a new stage. According to Chadian president Idris Déby, the “man-to-man fighting” against armed Islamists in the Ifoghas Mountains is over and the Chadian army does not have the ability to conduct operations against guerrilla forces: “Our troops will return to Chad. They have accomplished their mission. We have already withdrawn the heavy support battalion. The remaining elements will return to the country gradually” (TV5 Monde, April 13).

Chad Mali 1France is also intent on withdrawing most of its forces in the region. A draft resolution before the UN Security Council calls for the creation of an 11,000 strong UN peacekeeping force (aided by 1,440 police) that could relieve French forces and assume responsibility for security in Mali by July 1 if major combat operations were completed by that date (AFP, April 15). The new mission will be known as the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). President Déby has indicated that Chad will respond positively if it receives a request from the UN for participation (AFP, April 14). UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is said to favor an additional Special Forces formation drawn from a single Western nation (the unspoken preference is France) that would be tasked with counter-terrorism operations in parallel with the operations of the UN peacekeeping mission (Jeune Afrique, April 8).

The UN force would likely absorb the mostly inactive African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA), a force largely drawn from states belonging to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). On April 9, a senior Pentagon official warned the existing African intervention force was “completely incapable” and would likely be unable to deter al-Qaeda and its allies from retaking northern Mali once French forces pull out (France24, April 10). Most of the AFISMA units remain in southern Mali due to shortages of transportation, food, equipment and even boots. The troops also lack training in desert warfare, making their deployment highly risky (Jeune Afrique, April 8). EU trainers have begun work in Mali but it is expected to be months before training graduates can take the field. A new UN mission may include a deployment from Burundi, whose troops have been honing their combat skills in battles against Somalia’s al-Shabaab for several years now as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Tensions have been reported in northern Mali’s Kidal region between the Chadians and members of the rebel Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), a largely Tuareg group that guides French forces operating in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains and provides security in Kidal in the absence of regular Malian forces, who are prevented from entering Kidal as the price of the MNLA’s necessary cooperation.  The MNLA suspects the Chadians are encouraging the arrival of Malian regulars to help facilitate their own withdrawal. The Tuareg separatists have warned they will fire on any Malian regulars who approach the Kidal and Tessalit regions where the MNLA still holds sway. An armed confrontation between the Chadians and the Tuareg rebels was reported to have been narrowly averted on April 13 when a Chadian officer ordered his men to avoid provocations as they were confronted by MNLA protestors in front of the Chadian camp (Xinhua, April 16). The MNLA members said they were angered by the panic of Chadian troops who opened fire on civilians in Kidal immediately after a suicide bombing in the Kidal market that killed three of their comrades and injured four others (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], April 13; RFI, April 12; April 13). The blast brought the number of Chadian dead in the French-led military intervention to 36.

Chad Mali 2Chadian Forces in Northern Mali

Chadian claims to have killed al-Qaeda terrorist chieftain Mokhtar Belmokhtar during a battle in the Ametetai Valley on March 2 have yet to be verified in the absence of any evidence, but Chadian claims took an odd turn last week when President Déby explained the AQIM leader’s remains had been destroyed in an explosion: “We have proof of [Belmokhtar’s] death. We couldn’t film it because he blew himself up after the death of [AQIM commander] Abu Zeid. He wasn’t the only one. Three or four other jihadists [also] blew themselves up in despair…” (AFP, April 14; for Chad’s original claim, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, March 8). For the moment, the Chadian claim appears to rest largely on the evidence of prisoners taken in the battle.

Chadian troops remain in the Central African Republic (CAR), where Chadian units tasked with defending the capital of Bangui from Seleka rebels stood down when the rebel force advanced in March, allowing them to seize the capital and engage in a two-day firefight with South African troops the rebels believed were helping to prop up the regime of President François Bozizé.

Bozizé now blames Chad for his downfall and claims his security forces observed 40 Chadian battle-wagons reinforcing the the Seleka rebels who took the CAR capital of Bangui on March 24-25 (RFI, April 4). A Chadian spokesman denied the claims: “No Chadian special forces were in the CAR. It is only in the imagination of Bozizé … He is somebody who was in power for 10 years and did not set up an army that could resist that small rebellion which came to seize power in a few hours” (RFI, April 8). By coincidence or otherwise, Seleka’s battle with the South African military forces in Bangui worked in favor of Chad and France, both of whom felt their traditional influence in the region was threatened by Bozizé’s growing relationship with South African business and government interests.

Asked about perceptions that Chad is using its military strength to become a regional power, Chadian Information and Communication Minister Hassan Silla replied: “We do not have any vision of invading Africa. But today, Chad is solicited by the world as a result of its effectiveness, due to its defense and security forces, which proved their mettle against traffickers and terrorism” (RFI, April 9).

This article was first published in the April 19, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

South African Military Disaster in the Central African Republic: Part One – The Rebel Offensive

Andrew McGregor

April 4, 2013

While international attention focuses on efforts to deal with the fallout from Mali’s military collapse and subsequent coup, a rebellion and coup in the Central African Republic (CAR) involving some of the main actors in the Mali crisis (including France and Chad) has garnered less attention, but may have equally important implications for the future of African security efforts, particularly those relying on the declining capabilities of the South African military.

South Africa CARSouth African Dead Return

In a series of skirmishes and battles from March 22 to 24 with a large force of Seleka rebels in the CAR capital of Bangui, a force of roughly 250 South African paratroopers and Special Forces personnel suffered 13 killed and 27 wounded, putting an effective end to the South African military presence in the CAR. The number of prisoners in Seleka hands has not been confirmed, but is rumored to be as high as 40 (SAPA, March 26). In a development similar to one of the grievances that led to last year’s military coup in Mali, South African troops complained of being provided with insufficient ammunition, contributing to their losses in the fighting with rebels (SAPA, April 1). The South Africans’ heaviest weapons appear to have been rocket launchers and 107mm mortars.

The rebel attacks followed the overthrow of President François Bozize and it is believed the rebels were angered by what they perceived as the South Africans’ role in helping Bozize escape the capital. Bozize is reported to have fled to neighboring Cameroon with some members of the Presidential Guard, where he is awaiting news on which African country is prepared to shelter him. One of Seleka’s main demands prior to their capture of Bangui was for the withdrawal of the South African troops, whom they regarded as “mercenaries” preserving the rule of a corrupt ruler.

The South Africans were present in Bangui under the terms of a 2007 Memorandum of Understanding in which the SA soldiers would engage in a capacity-building mission to help the CAR with the implementation of a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process designed to absorb former rebels into the Forces armées centrafricaines (FACA) (Sowetan [Johannesburg], March 26). Some of the South African troops in Bangui were deployed to protect what the South African National Defense Union (SANDU), which represents South Africa’s troops, described as South African commercial interests in Bangui (Johannesburg Times, March 27).

Referring to reports that South African president Jacob Zuma ordered the deployment against the advice of Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and senior military staff who were instead urging the withdrawal of the small training mission in Bangui, Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko noted that the CAR was one of the most corrupt states in the world: “The key question that needs to be asked is: why did South Africa need to lose lives to defend this president?” (SAPA, March 27; Business Day Online [Johannesburg], March 26). The opposition has called for a “comprehensive investigation” into the debacle in Bangui, but the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has retorted that this is not the time to score “cheap political points” and has promised that South Africa “will not turn our backs when our neighboring countries need our assistance” (AFP, March 26; link2media [Johannesburg], March 27).

Chadians in CARChadian Troops in Bangui

As the rebels made their final advance on Bangui, France sent an additional 350 troops to the CAR to strengthen the existing force of 250 soldiers (mostly Legionnaires) and protect the roughly 1200 French citizens in Bangui (AFP, March 26; RFI, March 24). The rebel offensive met little resistance from FACA forces and Chadian troops based north of the capital at Damara. Bozize called on Chad for military assistance in early December, but the Chadian troops sent to the CAR did not make a stand against the southwards advance of the Seleka rebels, which was only halted when a peace agreement (the Libreville Accords) was reached in January.

It was Bozize’s failure to implement the accords, particularly the clause relating to integration of former rebels into the CAR military, that led to Seleka’s final march on Bangui. A Seleka spokesman, Colonel Christian Djouma Narkovo, said military resistance collapsed quickly after the rebels entered the capital. The Colonel added that the rebels had clashed three times with the South Africans: “We took their arms and even took prisoners. They laid down their arms and are now in their barracks.” Colonel Narkovo also asked the French and Chadian forces in the capital to assist in bringing a halt to four days of looting and related chaos in Bangui that was fueled by a power blackout and radio silence that began on March 23 (RFI, March 24). Three Chadian soldiers were reported to have been killed in the confused fighting in the capital (RFI, March 24). Two Indian nationals were killed by French troops guarding the Bangui airport when three cars approaching at high speed ignored warning shots (AFP, March 26). The fall of the Bozize government has also forced the suspension of the CAR-based hunt for Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony by the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) and U.S. Special Forces teams (Daily Monitor [Kampala], April 3; AFP, April 3)

Zuma’s decision to send a force of 400 men to ostensibly guard a group of 25 military trainers who could have easily been otherwise withdrawn can only be interpreted as an effort to bolster the CAR regime. In the end, only 200 troops were actually sent, though they were not provided with air support, medical services, armored personnel carriers, logistical support or an evacuation plan. Since the mission was mounted on a unilateral basis, the South Africans had no-one else to call on if things went bad. Two days after the battle in Bangui the South African Air Force put its Saab Gripen fighter-jets on standby, but the warplanes were reported to lack the weapons needed to carry out an attack (SAPA, March 26). The remaining South African contingent in Bangui remains under French protection in a barracks near the Bangui Airport, where they await an extraction mission by the South African Air Force.

This article was first published in the April 4, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

South African Military Disaster in the Central African Republic: Part Two – The Political and Strategic Fallout

Andrew McGregor

April 4, 2013

The motivation of South African president Jacob Zuma for the South African military deployment in Bangui is uncertain; as a South African business website points out, the Central African Republic (CAR) is outside South Africa’s economic sphere of influence as it belongs to the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS – chaired by Chadian president Idris Déby) rather than the South African Development Community. Trade between the two nations is virtually non-existent though rumors of South African mining interests in the CAR persist (Business Day Online, March 26).

Martin ZigueleMartin Ziguele

According to CAR opposition leader Martin Ziguele, the head of the Movement for the Liberation of Central African People (MLCAP):

President Jacob Zuma was dragged along into this wasp’s nest mostly by South African businessmen, who were naturally interested in mining activities in Central Africa. They truly dragged President Zuma into, it should be said, a trap. Because all countries in the sub-region had more intimate knowledge than South Africa on Central Africa’s political realities and the conditions for a real exit from the crisis (RFI, March 26).

On March 28, a Johannesburg daily published the detailed results of an investigation into South African business connections with the CAR that began at the same time as the signing of the 2007 Memorandum of Understanding regarding defense, minerals and energy that called, in part, for the establishment of a South African military mission in Bangui. The report identified the involvement of a number of high-ranking ANC security and intelligence figures and ANC investment front Chancellor House in an effort to dominate the CAR’s diamond-mining industry. The initiative was arranged by a well-known and controversial “fixer,” Didier Pereira, a business partner of senior ANC security figures Paul Langa and Billy Masetlha, a former head of the South African National Intelligence Agency (NIA) (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], March 28). An ANC statement denied the allegations, claiming the Mail & Guardian was “pissing on the graves of gallant fighters who put their lives on the line in service of our country and our continent” (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], April 1).

It is possible that Bozize’s growing ties with South Africa irritated Chadian president Idris Déby, who had played a major role in installing Bozize as president and had provided his personal bodyguard force until they were withdrawn last December. Bozize has claimed that the attack on the South Africans was led by “Chadian special forces” (BBC, April 3). A force of roughly 400 Chadian troops forms part of the Mission de consolidation de la paix en République Centrafricaine (MICOPAX), an international force drawn from Chad, Gabon, Cameroon and the Congo (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, January 10, 2013). South African defense analyst Helmoed Römer Heitman has noted that “the attacking force was far different from the “rag tag” rebel force originally reported: Most of them in standardized uniforms with proper webbing and with flak jackets, new AK47s and heavy weapons up to 23mm cannons.  It was also clear that many were not from the CAR, some speaking with Chad accents and others having distinctly Arabic features” (Sunday Independent, March 31).

Seleka RebelsSeleka Rebels (AFP)

Shortly before his overthrow, Bozize suggested the rebellion was an externally-fueled attempt to control the CAR’s growing oil industry, alleging the involvement of maverick American oilman Jack Grynberg, who sued the CAR government after his exploration license in the northwestern CAR was revoked by Bozize (Jeune Afrique, October 14, 2011).

Seleka leader Michel Djotodia, a Russian trained economist who lived in the Soviet Union for 14 years, has denied rumors that Seleka was supported by Chad, Gabon or Congo-Brazzaville, saying that it was “simply misery that pushed us into taking up arms” (RFI, March 25). SANDU, the soldiers’ union, has insisted that the South African government has a legal duty to arrange for an ICC indictment of Djotodia after the bodies of child soldiers were discovered among the large numbers of dead rebels after the battle in Bangui (SAPA, April 1) There are signs that Djotodia is settling in for the long-term as the CAR’s ruler; though he has pledged to hold elections in 2016 (when Bozize’s term would have expired), he has also noted: “I did not say that I would hand over power. I said that in three years I will organize free and transparent elections with everyone’s support” (RFI, March 25).

Under heavy pressure from the media and political opposition, South African president Jacob Zuma reversed his intention to keep the battered South African force in the CAR and announced on April 4 that the South African military mission would be withdrawn (AFP, April 4). France may have played a role in the decision by preventing the deployment of a stronger South African force for fear it may lead to an attack on the Bangui airport or French interests in the city (Sunday Independent, March 31). The opposition had called for the withdrawal of a force that was “deployed to defend particular economic interests near the capital on behalf of a corrupt, authoritarian and unpopular government” (Business Day Online [Johannesburg], March 25).

South Africa has traditionally been one of the largest contributors to peacekeeping operations in Africa, with current SANDF deployments in Darfur and the Kivu region of the DRC. Though the South African military remains woefully underfunded, the ANC government continues to use it as an instrument of foreign policy and a means of establishing regional influence. While the South African opposition is demanding the recall of the badly damaged and still unsupported military mission in Bangui, there are rumors that the South African military may now be planning a retaliation in order to defend the reputation and future safety of SANDF troops, potentially expanding a conflict whose true motives are known only to the senior South African leadership. The struggle for control of the CAR is further evidence of the growing military and political influence of Chad in Africa, working at times (as in Mali) in partnership with France. The current decline of South Africa and Nigeria as Africa’s military powerhouses also suggests major shifts are ongoing in Africa’s regional balance of power.

This article was first published in the April 4, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.