By Patrick O'Connor
After deploying several hundred troops to the Central African
Republic late last month, the French government has overseen the signing
of a peace agreement between President François Bozizé and leaders of
the rebel militias that had threatened to overrun the capital, Bangui.
As well as agreeing not to nominate for another term as president
after 2016, Bozizé has sacked his government and appointed
rebel-nominated Nicolas Tiangaye as prime minister. Tiangaye will soon
establish a so-called national unity government ahead of fresh
legislative elections next year.
The political realignment underway is being driven by the French
government, which aims to reassert control over its former resource-rich
colony and counter China’s growing economic and diplomatic influence.
The operation in the Central African Republic forms part of a wider
drive by US and French imperialism to bolster their strategic domination
over Africa through direct military interventions. The latest involves a
French-led ground offensive in northern Mali and the stationing of US
drones and French troops in neighbouring Niger.
Bozizé, a former army general, appointed himself president in 2003
after leading a coup that was backed by the French government. He
subsequently depended on French support to maintain power in the
impoverished and chronically unstable country. In 2006 and 2007, French
military forces stationed in the country launched air strikes and ground
attacks on rebel militias, halting their threatened takeover of the
capital and overthrow of the government. Last December, the loose
coalition of anti-government militias known as Seleka (“alliance” in the
Sango national language) launched a renewed offensive, capturing
swathes of territory in the country’s north and east.
The French government responded by more than doubling its existing
250-troop deployment in the Central African Republic to nearly 600. But
unlike in 2006 and 2007, Paris refused to back Bozizé against the
rebels. French troops—together with those in the Central African
Multi-National Force that was formed between several neighbouring
states—instead secured the capital from a further rebel advance while
the French government demanded peace negotiations.
The January 11 deal, signed in the west African country of Gabon,
involved Bozizé making the first significant political concessions of
his 10-year autocratic presidency.
The French government is developing new political mechanisms in the
Central African Republic (CAR). US diplomatic cables, published by
WikiLeaks, detailed the breach in relations between Paris and the Bozizé
regime. Several cables in 2009 revealed French hostility toward various
obstacles that were placed before French corporation Areva as it
attempted to secure the rights to mine uranium at a site in the
country’s south. On June 17, 2009, US ambassador Frederick Cook
dispatched a cable, “French-CAR relations seriously strained,” that
concluded: “Bozizé may believe that he has successfully rendered himself
the least of the evils in the CAR political landscape. He thus appears
to imagine himself indispensable to his neighbours and the French, an
assumption that AmEmbassy Bangui believes may be badly mistaken.”
Another cable sent five months later was headed “Growing Chinese
influence in the CAR evident.” It detailed the extent to which both
American and French interests were losing ground to Beijing, which was
“ramping up its military cooperation, public diplomacy and development
efforts.” The cable noted that whereas there were only four resident
diplomatic agents in the American embassy in Bangui, the Chinese embassy
had about 40 employees. It added that approximately 40 CAR military
officers were being trained in China every year, compared to the two or
three officers who went to the US and 10-15 to France.
Making clear the predatory calculations behind the US and French
presence in the Central African Republic, the cable referred to the
country’s “rich untapped natural resources” and warned: “With French
investments moribund and French influence in general decline, the
Chinese are likely positioning themselves as the CAR’s primary
benefactor in exchange for access to the CAR’s ample deposits of
uranium, gold, iron, diamonds, and possibly oil.”
The US ambassador also cautioned that Bozizé “is welcoming this
relationship as an alternative to more restrictive relations with the
French and the West” and would likely “increasingly embrace the Chinese
as an alternative to the French and other Western benefactors.”
On December 27, Bozizé gave a speech in which he hinted that French
opposition to the earlier issuing of oil exploration contracts to
Chinese corporations was behind the crisis. “Before giving oil to the
Chinese I met with [oil company] Total in Paris and told them to take
the oil,” he declared. “Nothing happened. I gave oil to the Chinese and
it became a problem.”
According to Voice of America, at the same time that Bozizé signed
the power-sharing agreement on January 11, he declared that he would
“work to strengthen ties with China, and to promote oil exploration and
Bozizé likely remains in power only due to the absence of any viable
alternative for the imperialist powers. The Seleka rebels are a
fractious coalition, comprising various militias with different agendas.
Some of the militias were formed by supporters of former President
Ange-Félix Patassé, some purport to represent the country’s Muslim
minority, while others were organised by different tribal communities,
defending themselves against Bozizé’s brutal security forces. It is
unclear whether all the militias will accept the terms of the January 11
deal, which involves the rebels relinquishing control of the towns they
captured to government forces.
Any breakdown of the so-called peace agreement could quickly trigger a wider intervention by France and the US.