Special Report

War Spreads in the Sahel

French intervene again with U.S. support.

By 12.11.13

As a public figure in the Central African Republic, President Francois Bozize did pretty well, staying in power from 2003 to 2013 and getting out with his life and, one cannot say with certainty but with a fair presumption based on precedent, a stash sufficient to keep him happy in West African and French exile.

In perhaps an indice of his country’s unimportance in the grander scheme of things, he is far less known, if known at all, than one of his predecessors, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, a weirdo who, after distinguished service in the French army, thought he was Napoleon Bonaparte. He proclaimed himself emperor and killed his opponents, including schoolchildren who disdained the school uniforms he ordered up for them. He pretty well ruined his country, already a basket case due to the policies of his predecessor David Dacko, but at least he got to be emperor for a while and he caused some embarrassment to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing by making the then-Finance Minister of France a gift of diamonds. Bokassa had been deposed by French paratroopers and, on his way to French exile, he told the story to journalists. Giscard survived the scandal and was elected president, then survived imputations that his administration tried to muzzle the press when it continued to investigate the story.

Bokassa lived in France for a while, where he had acquired real property, but, like Napoleon at Elba, he thirsted for lost power, glory, and went home to face his accusers. They sentenced him to death, commuted the sentence, and he lived in various levels of delusion until his death in the late 1990s. He was not forgotten: Bozize called him a patriot and a strong enforcer of law and order.

He would know. On the other hand, he had only himself to blame for thinking he could avoid the fate of every other big man in this country, although at one point there was a peaceful transition of presidential power in which an election of sorts played a part. In any case, the French were having no part in rescuing him. It was not until the Muslim-dominated Seleka (“coordination”) of northern C.A.R. militias entered Bangui and forced Bozize to make a run for it that President François Hollande realized that, once again, France had no alternative to doing its duty. The impression was confirmed when the Seleka leader, Michel Djotodja, though himself a Muslim, admitted he had no control over his militia, who occupied themselves in looting, rapine, and murder.

South Africa sent a small contingent to Bangui to reinforce French troops who were holding the airport, but as violence spread and Christian militia formed to defend their neighbors and families (the region is predominantly Christian; Bokassa and Bozize both claimed to be Catholics), Hollande (Catholic) made the decision to go in big, or relatively big, getting the appropriate green lights (U.N., African Union) and the promise, confirmed by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Monday, of American air support, at least for transport. The first of our Africa Command’s mighty Hercules were scheduled to land in Bangui yesterday with a contingent from Burundi. Which would be fitting in a poetic way, as Nelson Mandela, after leaving the presidency of his country after just one term (a rare if not unique gesture in African politics), helped mediate a peace among contending factions — tribal groups, really — in that little Great Lakes country.

The whole awful story would be a tragic farce, ghastly for people and soldiers trying to save them, but fundamentally of zero importance to anyone outside the contours of the country, except that it confirms once again the reality of an Islamist assault on sub-Saharan Africa. The Muslim militia in C.A.R. may, for all anyone knows, be uninterested in sharia and jihad; it certainly would be par for the level of culture in this woebegone country. But while there is a humanitarian cover to the French expedition, just as there was in Libya in 2011, the Islamist threat all across the Sahel is the military focus of French strategy. The broader economic and cultural influence of France in these regions matters as well, but the military problem is primary. In this regard, the operation in C.A.R. is functionally comparable to the successful intervention in Mali last year.

Remaining to be seen is how well cooperation among the several players in these wars-of-containment (savage wars of peace, as Kipling called them) develops. American air power, African rifles to supplement the shock troops of French Foreign Legion, and airborne battalions came together rather well in Mali. AFRICOM continues its multi-year, multi-country mission of training Africans to defend Africa. 

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.