Fighters from the Seleka rebels stand at the headquarters in the northern Bangui suburb of Boeing, an area near the Mpoko International Airport of Bangui in February. Thirteen South African troops were killed in a stand-off with the Seleka outside Bangui a year ago. Picture: Reuters

Remembering the loss in the CAR of 13 of our soldiers, proves that South Africa must decide it’s role in Africa, says Helmoed Römer Heitman.

Johannesburg - One year ago this weekend, 280 South African soldiers came under attack by several thousand well-armed rebels at Bangui in the Central African Republic (CAR).

After an ambush of a patrol on March 22, the main force was attacked the next day. Fighting finally ended when the commander of the Seleka rebels proposed a ceasefire, having lost many of his armed vehicles and far too many of his troops – 800 or more plus many wounded.

With the CAR army having melted away and the Central African Community Force (Fomac) having stood aside, 280 South Africans alone could not prevent the fall of Bangui even had that been their mission.

With no reinforcements, 13 killed, 27 wounded and short of ammunition, the commander agreed to the ceasefire.

Seleka occupied Bangui, and the South African force moved to the airport to await orders, having fought outstandingly against a vastly stronger and better armed foe.

Pretoria promptly deployed forces to restore the situation – Special Forces, Rooivalk attack and Oryx transport helicopters – to Gemena in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), 180km from Bangui, paratroops to Entebbe in Uganda and Gripens to Kinshasa.

That was an impressive effort for a small defence force dealing with a theatre of operations 3 500km from home, and that counter-strike would have crippled Seleka’s forces, already badly mauled, and forced their leaders out of Bangui.

But the AU and the Community of Central African States rolled over and decided to give Seleka a chance to prove themselves to be “nice guys”. South Africa was not going in alone without follow-on forces to stabilise the city, and so withdrew its troops.

The result is the CAR today – a failed state with more than 1 000 civilians killed and thousands driven from their homes, and 2 000 French and 6 000 African troops failing to restore any semblance of order, while the UN plans a 12 000-strong peacekeeping force.

There has been much speculation, but the reality is that, whatever other reason there might have been, there were real strategic reasons to intervene.

Most importantly, South Africa needs a stable region in which to develop and expand its economy. The collapse of a state on the periphery of the SADC, particularly one adjacent to the fragile DRC, would inevitably bring instability, a reduction in foreign capital investment, in economic development and in South Africa’s ability to export to its closest and most profitable market.

Simple national self-interest or Realpolitik?

The developments since March last year have driven home that point: The CAR has imploded and aggravated instability in the region, including guerrillas supplied through the CAR and operating from the DRC against Uganda. Not good news for the SADC or the Great Lakes region. Nor is it for South Sudan, which now has a hostile Sudan to the north and a failed state to the west, and which is itself one of the buffer states on the SADC periphery.

Second, South Africa wants to be a leader in Africa and could not afford the impression of running away. Thus the decision not to withdraw the training team in the CAR and to deploy a small force to protect it or cover its withdrawal if necessary.

There was the chance that an actual commitment of troops, together with the French troops protecting the airport and the reinforced multinational Fomac, would give the rebels pause – which it did.

They did not rush Bangui.

The troops fought magnificently and executed their primary missions, undeclared and declared. Their deployment was a factor in causing Seleka to negotiate and when Seleka reneged they covered the evacuation of the training team, which did not suffer one casualty.

The casualties the protection force suffered were the fortunes of war, always a chance-driven undertaking. Nevertheless, Seleka toppled the government and plunged the CAR into catastrophe: precisely what Pretoria had hoped to avoid by deflecting rebellion into negotiations.

What led to that outcome?

First, the forces that were supposed to prevent Seleka seizing power, did nothing. Fomac simply stood aside and let them pass through their positions; the Chad contingent, or parts of it, seem to have changed sides and the CAR army mostly melted away, although some fought on for several weeks.

Second, South Africa had its own failings. Pretoria’s diplomatic presence in the region, and thus its understanding of local dynamics, was inadequate and it “believed its own advertising”. It took the AU and the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (Cemac) seriously, only to find both fail miserably.

Defence Intelligence, while it had warned of trouble for some time and was correct in its initial assessment of Seleka, did not pick up the change from ragtag rebels to well-armed, well-led guerrillas.

There were two failures to pass on critical information – that Seleka had resumed attacks on March 12 last year, and a French warning that Bangui would be attacked and that Fomac would not fight.

That left the protection force out on a limb, too small and too lightly armed and equipped. There were few support weapons, no protected vehicles and no air reconnaissance to provide warning or build a clear picture.

But the key problem was the lack of airlift – partly the result of naiveté in 1996/98 when the government was persuaded that the Defence Force would never operate outside South Africa, one result being the disposal of half the existing transport aircraft and partly the result of a belief that the answer to strategic mobility was to charter aircraft or ships when needed.

Even the initial deployment of just 280 troops and a few light vehicles required chartering aircraft.

Not surprisingly, once Bangui was under attack, no one could be found to fly vehicles and equipment there and the South African Air Force lacked the aircraft to do so quickly enough.

There were other mistakes. The SANDF has no air-transportable combat vehicles, and has too few linguists; the force should have had a Department of International Relations and Co-operation official to liaise with the CAR government and the French embassy in Bangui, and the reception of the returning soldiers was little short of disgraceful, redeemed only by the outstanding efforts of some officers.

There have also been failures since. How is it that the medals for this outstanding action were awarded almost a year after the battle? That should have taken place as soon as the last wounded soldier could be on parade, even if in a wheelchair and with a drip.

All of the soldiers should have been there and all of them should receive a campaign medal.

Corporal Molatelo Nkoana was particularly heroic. It is important to remember how she spent two days leading her colleagues out of an ambush, saving a high number of lives.

And why did Susette Gates, the civilian official who showed such presence of mind and courage on her first international deployment, receive only a certificate? The defence force could have petitioned the president to award a civilian medal for bravery.

The defence force has taken note of lessons learnt: Key officers who were in Bangui assisted with training the battalion for the Monusco Force Intervention Brigade in the DRC and are training the battalion that will relieve it. There is nothing like combat experience to make troops pay attention.

Also, the Chief of Joint Operations, Lieutenant-General Derrick Mgwebi, made it clear that what the battalion headed for the DRC wanted, it would get, even if that was not part of its normal equipment, and he made sure that was so.

The battalion also has air support – three Rooivalk attack helicopters – and enough Oryx transport helicopters to provide mobility and casualty evacuation capability. Its capability was stiffened by incorporating a paratroop company, Special Forces, with hard-earned combat experience, and forward air controllers to direct not just the Rooivalk attacks and the battalion’s own mortar fire, but also the attacks of Monusco’s Mi-35 attack helicopters and the fire of the Tanzanian artillery.

Beyond that, senior South African officers were placed with every commander of the major Armed Forces of the DRC formations involved, to advise and to ensure co-ordination, which has boosted the self-confidence of the Fardc commanders, their staffs and their troops.

There have also been serious debriefing sessions, including one by the Military Health Service, for which the surgeon-general demanded everyone be “brutally frank”, and “brutally frank” they were.

Looking forward, the need for airlift has also been taken aboard and the charter myth finally exploded. As Mgwebi puts it, if we are going to go in, we need to do it “in double quick time” and that demands having our own transport aircraft.

The real lesson of Bangui is the need to decide on South Africa’s role in Africa – a regional security role commensurate with our economic strength and our need for a stable neighbourhood; or a focus on border security, hoping that someone else will deal with any crises in sub-equatorial Africa.

Either way, a decision is needed. We paid with 13 lives to make that clear. It would be criminal to have wasted them.

* Helmoed Römer Heitman is an independent defence analyst and is the South African correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly and several other periodicals.

The Star