Rebellion in the Old French Empire: Hollande’s commitments increase in Africa

The Central African Republic (CAR) has become the latest African country forced to confront a rebellion within its own borders. Following Ansar Dine’s romp through Mali in the past year and the seizure of Goma in DR Congo by the M23 Movement in November 2012, the Séléka Coalition has gone as far as seizing Bangui, the capital of CAR, and ousting President François Bozizé.

CAR is a former French colony which existed under the name Ubangi-Shari between 1903 and 1960. As in many African colonies in Europe, economic development was stifled amongst the indigenous population, divide-and-rule tactics strengthened European rule and weakened African unity, and CAR citizens were forced to fight for France during the World Wars.

A military camp in Ubangi Shari - a popular destination for indigenous Africans under French rule
A military camp in Ubangi Shari – a popular destination for indigenous Africans under French rule

France has retained close ties with many of its former colonies, nevertheless, initiating trade and institutional ties that have aided development in a way the colonial regime never did. However the legacy of colonialism has left the CAR unstable and successive administrations have resorted to authoritarianism, corruption and nepotism to maintain order and their own rule.

The rebellion that has resulted in the capture of Bangui began last December but was itself a continuation of the Central African Republic Bush War (2004-2007) during which rival factions sought to overthrow the corrupt Bozizé, who had taken power via a military coup. French forces have been deployed in Mali to great affect, with the radical Islamist rebels being forced to retreat to the northern wastelands of the country and away from the country’s urban areas. Nevertheless, I pointed out in an earlier post the inherent dangers of French involvement in Mali. Francois Hollande set a precedent that he has been forced to extend in CAR; namely, France will intervene militarily in its former colonies to protect its interests.

French military strength has proved successful in Mali - but bigger challenges may await
French military strength has proved successful in Mali – but bigger challenges may await

France has maintained a garrison of some 250 soldiers near Bangui Airport for some time. During the Bush War, the French government supported Bozizé against the rebels. However, Bozizé’s increasingly erratic and unstable rule, plus his pandering to China, has seemingly turned the French off him. When the latest rebellion began in December the French forces in the CAR did not respond, declaring the issue to be none of their business. However since Bozizé’s fall and exile they have backed the Séléka Coalition against the remaining army loyalists of the old regime, who are also thought to have close ties with China. Indeed, an additional 200 French troops have now been sent to the CAR.

French involvement in the CAR has already caused diplomatic friction with India, after two Indian nationals were killed in Bangui during a botched operation by French forces. Whilst the departure of Bozizé may not be mourned by the French, it does leave their own national interests vulnerable. The Séléka Coalition, which has already suspended the CAR’s constitution, needs to be won over to prevent Chinese influence in Africa from increasing further. European leaders’ dealings with Africa tend to be hindered by moral scruples that are not shared by the Chinese. The French will have to forgive any excesses the Coalition may engage in, something they proved unwilling to do with Bozizé.

Whilst the pro-government intervention in Mali resulted largely from a concern about the spread of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, French intentions in the CAR are undoubtedly more selfish. The CAR is a nation of extensive, unexploited natural resources, and France covets a lucrative economic partnership that could be eclipsed by canny Chinese negotiators.

Untapped diamond fields are just one of the prizes up for grabs in the CAR
Untapped diamond fields are just one of the prizes up for grabs in the CAR

Ensuring a government favourable to French interests is crucial. Imperialism lives on. But France faces the prospect of getting overstretched in Africa. Should more powerful rebel groups (particularly those supported by terrorists) gain ground in larger, more historically sensitive, countries such as Algeria, then the French will have a dilemma.

They could employ a consistent foreign policy of intervention that could have repercussions of a drawn out war, just as America has suffered in the Middle East. Or they could refrain from acting and be accused of hypocrisy, thus threatening their relations with other former French colonies or rebel groups alike who could feel deserted and thus take unfavourably to French interests. And there are many countries in which this dilemma could emerge.

French arrival in Timbuktu welcome but it may be too late

French forces have continued their seamless northwards progress through Mali, capturing Gao on the weekend and now poised to retake Timbuktu, one of the Middle Ages’ preeminent cultural centres. I wrote recently about the dilemmas posed by French intervention in their former African colonies. Nevertheless, the swift advance of French troops in their bid to oust the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine from North Mali has potentially served a crucial historical purpose.

French progress in Mali has been aided by militant withdrawals
French progress in Mali has been aided by militant withdrawals

A major centre of Islamic learning and academia between the 13th and 17th centuries, Timbuktu is (hopefully) home to vast collections of priceless tomes, treatises and creative arts, all painstakingly preserved in a series of vaulted libraries. Ansar Dine is known to have burnt many important works, some held at holy shrines, although the extent of the damage is unknown. It might just be possible that the French arrival has secured the future for some of the many books and manuscripts stored in underground vaults throughout the city.

Timbuktu was once seen as a golden city in the heart of barbarous Africa
Timbuktu was once seen as a golden city in the heart of barbarous Africa

Removing Ansar Dine from Mali’s cities is one thing; defeating the group across the vast desert landscapes and dry plains is another challenge altogether. As Al-Shabab has shown in Somalia, the tactical withdrawal of militant forces from the cities to the countryside has obvious benefits. Firstly, the poor rural areas often serve as potential recruiting grounds for militants, whose promise of food and glory is enough to convince many a starving person. Secondly, militant cells can move more fluidly in rural areas and are unconstrained by having to defend strategic checkpoints in towns and cities. Rather than engaging in the conventional warfare which has seen them defeated by trained armed forces in the past, Al-Shabab has resorted to more traditional terror tactics. Namely, indiscriminate bombings of civilian centres, hijackings and armed robbery.

It is very possible that Ansar Dine will pursue a similar policy, clear in the knowledge that armed confrontation with French forces can only result in their defeat. Given this, the security of Timbuktu and Mali’s other urban centres is far from assured. Whilst the country’s historical and cultural heritage has been offered succour by the French arrival, the days of fear and threat are still not over for those people dedicated to maintaining the riches of Timbuktu.

It is to be hoped that the French are in this for the long haul.