Two years ago, the SANDF unexpectedly found itself fighting the Seleka rebels outside Bangui. Helmoed Römer Heitman looks back.
Two ago, a small South African force unexpectedly found itself fighting a much stronger force of Seleka rebels outside Bangui in the Central African Republic (CAR).
They fought so effectively, the Seleka commander proposed a ceasefire rather than suffer more casualties. Running out of ammunition and lacking the strength to stop Seleka taking Bangui, the South African commander agreed.
The outstanding performance of his force will stand South Africa in good stead in the future, making others reluctant to clash with our troops.
But there was a cost: 15 soldiers were killed and others wounded.
This first important question is: Why did we deploy troops to Bangui?
There indeed has been much noise around the question, with many believing it was simply to protect business interests. Yet there were good strategic reasons:
The CAR has a 1 550km border with the DRC, a SADC member with enormous economic potential but which is also fragile. South Africa and the SADC could not afford a failed state on the DRC border.
The SANDF training team in the CAR would be at risk. Simply withdrawing would create a perception of running away at the first sign of trouble, hardly appropriate to the role expected of South Africa.
There had been recent coups in Mauretania (2008), Niger (2010) and Mali (2012) and civil war in Cote d’Ivoire (2010/11). Yet another coup would not help attract investment to Africa.
But after two decades of under-funding, the SANDF lacked the troops and the airlift to deploy what was really needed – a full combat group with air support.
The decision was to deploy a small force of paratroops and special forces to protect the training team or cover its extraction, announce a somewhat larger deployment and hold a similar contingent in reserve.
The mission was also to stiffen the CAR army if necessary.
The concept seems to have been to demonstrate an intent that would give Seleka a pause, given that they also had to consider 250 French troops protecting the airport and 740 of the Central African Community Fomac stabilisation force.
Seleka did pause and even took part in negotiations leading to the Libreville Agreement with the Bozize government.
The primary mission to protect the training team was achieved, not a single member being hurt, but Bangui fell to Seleka, with disastrous consequences. So what went wrong?
There were several failings, most of them not failings by South Africa.
First, Seleka did not honour the Libreville Agreement, using the time instead to build up its military strength.
By March 2013, its force had changed from 1 200 ragtag, lightly armed irregulars to more than 7 000, including experienced mercenaries and troops from at least one neighbouring country and with 50 new “technicals” – bakkies mounted with heavy, 14.5mm machine guns.
When Seleka advanced, Fomac simply stepped aside instead of holding the “Red Line” at Damara as their commander had vociferously promised.
Betrayed by Fomac, the CAR military largely disintegrated, although elements did fight sporadically.
What went wrong on the part of South Africa?
Believing in the Libreville Agreement, South Africa did not deploy armoured vehicles and reconnaissance aircraft, leaving its force without protected mobility or early warning capability.
The training team commander refused to fall under command of the protection force and was less than supportive, causing real problems.
There was no Department of International Relations and Co-operation support for the commander in Bangui.
The radical improvement in Seleka’s force was not detected, nor the attacks at Gambo and Bossangoa on March 12 that broke the ceasefire.
A French warning that Seleka would attack and that Fomac would not fight also did not reach the force commander or the operations room in Pretoria.
The lack of airlift meant South Africa could neither quickly reinforce nor extract its troops.
The result was that 280 troops with mainly light weapons and no armoured vehicles, found themselves facing attack by about 3 000 rebels, now competently led and supported by “technicals”, 30mm automatic grenade launchers and 73mm recoilless guns and with more to follow.
Only the skill and courage of the South African troops forced Seleka to propose a ceasefire.
The situation could have been restored. The reserve was quickly deployed to jumping-off points at Gemena in DRC and Entebbe; Rooivalk and Oryx helicopters were deployed to Gemena and Gripen fighters to Kinshasa.
But South Africa lacked the troops to follow up, and the leaders of the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (Cemac) were too timid and refused to act, choosing to give Seleka time to “prove itself”.
The events since March 2013 speak for themselves on that choice.
Then, some Cemac leaders apparently had the audacity to ask President Jacob Zuma for troops to stabilise Bangui for Seleka.
According to one official, he had “a visible sense of humour failure” and said if the Libreville Agreement was not going to be enforced, South Africa would have no further involvement.
Perhaps surprisingly for some, a lot went right at Bangui, however.
The president, for example, was decisive throughout a crisis that would have seen many other political leaders fail.
A request for assistance was received on December 29; he was briefed on the 30th; the Minister of Defence was in Bangui on the 31st; the first troops arrived on January 2.
After Seleka attacked, he deployed the reserve and air support, ready to restore the situation. When Cemac proved pusillanimous, he made a clean break.
The SANDF moved very briskly indeed, given entirely inadequate force strength and airlift capacity.
The protection force acquitted itself outstandingly, forcing Seleka to propose a ceasefire and protecting the training team, and individual members of the training team also did well.
Command and control worked as it should: force and mission commanders were appointed and – for the first time in this writer’s memory – were left alone to do their job without interference.
The minister of defence spent the critical hours in the operations room without interfering, but helping decisively at key points.
What were the lessons learnt?
The obvious ones are not to go into a situation with a force too small or too lightly armed to deal with what comes its way; also, the SANDF lacks the airlift to conduct crisis response missions. Whether that will be translated into a lower political profile or increased defence funding, remains to be seen.
But the fundamental lessons have been learnt, albeit within the limits of what is practicable at current strength and funding levels.
The SANDF contingent with the Force Intervention Brigade in the DRC is a combat group and has a useful mix of support weapons and specialised personnel.
That combat group is supported by Rooivalk attack and Oryx transport helicopters.
All units going to the DRC undergo five weeks of practical training by officers who were at Bangui.
The force earmarked for the AU’s new rapid-response force, ACIRC, additionally includes armour, artillery and fighters, with provision for naval elements if the force is deployed to a coastal, lake or riverine theatre.
There seems to be a determination that we will not again deploy a small, lightly armed force and put our trust in others.
One lesson not fully learnt, seems to be the need for adequate airlift. There is still an infatuation with aircraft that lack the necessary payload and range, and no one seems quite willing to accept how many aircraft will be necessary.
The bottom line of Bangui is thus positive. There were sound strategic reasons to deploy; the top command structure was decisive and did not interfere with the mission and force commanders; the troops and the officers performed extraordinarily well; and the SANDF is implementing the lessons of Bangui to the extent it can.
* Helmoed Römer Heitman is a military expert and a member of the former Defence Review
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Media.