02 Apr 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
Francois Bozize is one of a dying breed of African 'big men' who treat the government purse as a private piggy bank, writes Tony Leon
IN HIS eulogy for Richard Nixon in April 1994, his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, spoke of the former US president as someone "who stood on pinnacles that dissolved into precipice". On this account, President Jacob Zuma and his government had a very Nixonian patch this past week. Hosting the Brics summit, on the one hand, is a high-water mark of the country’s international clout. On the other, the return of 13 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers in body bags symbolises a continental overreach of tragic proportions.
Overreach is probably being too diplomatic. Bungling strategic incoherence might be more accurate. But this at least suggests a sort of boy scouts’ innocence, such as preserving the peace in conflict-torn central Africa, as the purpose behind South Africa’s latest foreign misadventure. But even this premise is at odds with "capacity building", which apparently was the purpose of our deployment in this benighted part of the world.
But our political masters and mistresses might wish to take a leaf from the Nixon-Kissinger partnership. Over time, most Americans could not understand why their conscripts were being sent to die on the foreign and inhospitable fields of Vietnam, all in the name of preventing the "falling domino" of South Vietnam from falling into communist hands, which it ultimately did.
However, the US’s involvement in Vietnam began as "logistical and training support" for the South Vietnamese under president John F Kennedy. Then, fatally (especially for the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, which was immolated by the conflict), the involvement suffered from what military types call "mission creep". The trainers needed protection and cover, the local militia was found to be wanting, an excuse for ratcheting up the US involvement was found and fabricated (the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident) and US involvement mushroomed into full-scale war. This is something to ponder before we decide to increase the size of our force in and around the Central African Republic (CAR).
Of course, the CAR is very different from Vietnam, except that South Africa has even less strategic interests there than the US had in Southeast Asia in the 1960s. That is true unless there is some substance behind media reports that our apparently ill-equipped troops were being deployed, in part, to protect shadowy South African business interests in the CAR. But the idea of SANDF soldiers being used, and in the final instance dying, as mercenaries is so disreputable and would, if proven, snap even the endless elastic band of credibility that South Africans generally afford their rulers.
If it is disreputable or simply wrong to suggest our troops died in defence of unnamed local business interests in the CAR, what were we fighting for, or was the bloody finale in Bangui simply a disastrous case of "mission creep"?
On any explanation, and especially Zuma’s, we were fighting to maintain the rule of a petty autocrat, Francois Bozize, a president who installed himself in power via a military coup. Zuma, who has a distinguished pedigree in the fight for freedom in South Africa, used the rather curious term "bandits" to describe the Seleka rebels who ousted the unpopular president. It was all a little too reminiscent of the description of African National Congress guerillas by the National Party government as "terrorists".
Before the cloud of despondency caused by our CAR imbroglio descends too heavily upon us, consider this. Until last week, very few outside the Department of International Relations and Co-operation had ever heard of Bozize. He was an obscure, indifferent dictator, who legitimised his seizure of power with an election of apparent dubious validity in 2005. But, happily, he is also one of a dying breed of African "big men" who bestrode (and in some corners of it, still do) the continent, treating the government purse as their private piggy banks and looting and plundering their national resources.
To show how far, in fact, Africa has now journeyed along the democratic pathway, think back to a CAR dictator you will certainly recall: Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who held sway in the CAR between 1966 and 1979. Described with some understatement as an "egotistical madman", he was proven at his subsequent trial to have personally presided over judicial beatings, torture and the extrajudicial killings of his victims and was convicted of massacring 100 of his own country’s schoolchildren. His crowning infamy, forgive the pun, was to declare himself "Emperor of Central Africa" in a ceremony that nearly bankrupted his country. He, too, was overthrown in a coup.
But his subsequent criminal convictions were expunged and overturned by one of his successors, who went on to declare Bokassa "a son of the nation recognised by all as a great builder". The president who rehabilitated him, in 2010, was Bozize, our ally in the present conflict.
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