Dear readers – please find below a commentary written by Matt Solomon, a student at Fordham University School of Law. The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Open Society Justice Initiative.
The March 2013 coup in Central African Republic (CAR), removing President François Bozizé from power and forcing him to seek refuge out of the country, is the fourth such violent transfer of power in the country’s post-independence history. This time it was a young coalition of rebel forces, the Séléka, angry over a perceived breach of a ceasefire agreement, who led the charge. The ousted leader is no stranger to armed coup; after all, ten years ago Bozizé himself muscled his way to power, pitted against former President Ange-Félix Patassé’s motley force that included the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), a group that was allegedly commanded by International Criminal Court (ICC) defendant Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo. In this way, this year’s coup is another in a long line of violent upheaval in a country where international accountability mechanisms are struggling to make headway.
With a rotating cast of heavily armed characters, CAR’s political stage has seen decades of turmoil, joining the fates of ousters and oustees alike, largely without accountability for the accompanying violence. The latest leading actor, Michel Djotodia, declared himself interim president and promised to hold elections in 18 months. They have since been postponed until 2016. In the period leading up to the coup, and in the months since Djotodia has assumed power, his forces have been accused by Human Rights Watch and others of summary executions, rape, pillage, and other serious crimes. In this way—whether or not the transfer of power leads to sustainable, democratic governance—the atrocities committed by forces under his control place Djotodia in the company of Patassé, Bozizé, and their violent forebears.
By the time of the 2002-2003 coup that led to Bemba’s indictment, then-President Patassé had already put down at least four army rebellions. In 2001 Patassé accused Bozizé, who was his chief of staff at the time, of supporting a recent coup; when Patassé called for his arrest, Bozizé fled to Chad. With the support of the Chadian military, he regrouped and set up back across the border in CAR. Patassé’s position with the national army was weakening, so when Bozizé and his supporters launched an attack on the capital in 2002, Patassé had to call on outside help from Libya and DRC (including Bemba’s MLC). Heavy fighting ensued, and Bozizé’s forces were expelled north of the capital. During this period, the MLC is alleged to have committed the crimes against humanity for which Bemba now stands trial. On March 15, 2003, while Patassé was out of the country, Bozizé took the capital and the presidency. Patassé never returned.
The ensuing relative peace was short-lived. Soon after Bozizé’s assumption of power, Djotodia’s Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR) instigated the 2004-2007 “Bush War,” a fitful civil war that ended with a Chad-brokered peace agreement. Djotodia ended up in jail and, after laying low following his release in 2008, helped form the Séléka alliance in September 2012 to renew his anti-Bozizé campaign. After months of fighting and another tenuous peace agreement with the government, signed January 11, 2013, Djotodia was named to a Ministry of Defense posting. The ceasefire lasted mere weeks, and the Séléka, this time allegedly with the help of Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries, quickly took control of the palace and forced Bozizé into exile.
During and since the fighting that led to Bozizé’s fall, the Séléka groups are alleged to have committed serious crimes including unlawful killings, rape, torture, and pillage. In March, the Security Council issued a statement condemning the coup and the ensuing violence and looting. Since then, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay announced a fact-finding mission to document ongoing violations, and on August 1, after a visit to the country, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonović reported on State institutions “close to collapse,” security “virtually nonexistent,” and dire humanitarian conditions.
In addition to the accompanying violence in both situations, there are significant connections between this year’s upheaval and the coup ten years ago that landed Bemba in The Hague. Both Bemba’s MLC and Djotodia fought against the same man, Bozizé, who himself has been accused of serious crimes. The now-former president has been accused of presiding over indiscriminate violence against civilians during the 2003 coup, and recent witness testimony at the ICC has echoed these allegations. The new CAR government has issued their own arrest warrant, accusing Bozizé of murder, crimes against humanity, and other serious crimes during his ten-year presidency. He is currently in exile in Cameroon.
In both the 2003 and 2013 situations, loyalist and rebel forces received help from surrounding countries. In 2002-2003 Chadian mercenaries joined CAR and the MLC rebels in the violence, leading to then-president Patassé’s exit. This time around, Bozizé has accused Chadian and Sudanese forces of supporting the coup, which killed several South African forces, among others, in the CAR capital Bangui. This shows how CAR is intertwined with its neighbors, and that peace in CAR depends in part on broader regional stability, and vice versa.
As it stands now, the situation is bad and getting worse. According to the UN, since December 2012 an estimated 1.2 million people in CAR have been “cut off from essential services,” and 37,000 have fled the country. Even with the assistance of the UN presence in CAR (BINUCA), it is likely that without the assurance of enforceable international justice, the cycle of political instability and widespread destitution will continue until the next coup.
Human Rights Watch has called on ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to continue to monitor the ongoing abuses, and African civil society groups have explicitly called for ICC investigation into these alleged crimes against humanity. Pursuant to the CAR’s self-referral in 2005, the Prosecutor is authorized to investigate any crimes under the Court’s jurisdiction dating back to 2002. To this end, Bensouda said on April 22 that the situation is “under close scrutiny,” and that she “will not hesitate to prosecute those responsible” for the violence. As the casualties mount and destruction continues, it’s clear that national court systems—to the extent that they exist—are ill-equipped to handle it themselves.
Bemba’s trial in The Hague sends a message to current and would-be rulers of CAR—as well as to outside forces that defend or oppose them—that political legitimacy can only be achieved through democratic elections, and not through widespread and indiscriminate violence. Now, again, with no end to the renewed violence in sight, the Prosecutor should consider moving from monitoring to focused investigation, lest the cycle repeat once more.