This past Sunday, March 24, 2013, the President of the Central African Republic, François Bozizé, was deposed by the rebels of "Seleka" (a name meaning simply "Alliance"). It’s difficult, from a distance, to see much reason to regret Bozizé's departure; the NY Times describes the country under his "rule" as essentially ungoverned, with the nation's mineral wealth largely untapped and its people caught in dire poverty. Nor is his departure in any strong sense a blow to democratic principles; the ejected President took power via a coup of his own back in 2003, and then won what the Times calls "questionable votes." But it's also not clear how admirable the rebels are, though they clearly had good reason to be dissatisfied with Bozizé. Their leader, Michel Djotodia, himself a former civil servant, immediately suspended the constitution for the three years, according to another NY Times report.
Whether the change of power will in any way address the country's important problems remains to be seen. What we do know is that the latest coup was far from bloodless. The Washington Post reports that the former President has escaped to neighboring Cameroon and requested asylum in Benin, but meanwhile, according to another NY Times report, 78 bodies have been found in the streets of Bangui, the Central African Republic’s capital.
That total probably doesn’t include another 13 people who died in combat – 13 people who were soldiers in the South African National Defence Force. 27 more South African soldiers were injured, according to the South African Mail and Guardian. South Africa's secretary of defense, Sam Gulube, says that the South African troops fought bravely, trying to stem a rebel advance, though there are also suggestions that they were under-equipped and under-manned.
But the most important issue is, how did they get there in the first place? One way to rephrase that question is to ask why South African troops were trying to stem this rebellion at all. To that question there are some troubling possible answers. There are indications that South Africa’s ANC leaders turned their attention to the Central African Republic in part because of potential business deals that would have benefited ANC figures or even the ANC itself.
But perhaps the troops’ presence there had nothing to do with any politicians’ self-interest, and was simply an effort by South Africa, a “regional power,” to help calm troubled waters in another African state. (For reports indicating that the UN asked South Africa not to withdraw its troops early this year, even after a shortlived agreement between the government and the rebels had called for their withdrawal, see here and here.) But if the reasons for South African troops' presence were disinterested, they may still have been unwise. So we might ask, who decided that sending troops to the Central African Republic was a wise policy? (There are, after all, a lot of troubled waters in Africa to be calmed.)
The answer to this last question is: the President, joined perhaps by his Cabinet. South Africa’s constitution – so vigilant and liberal on many issues – is by no means strict in its regulation of the President’s power to deploy troops abroad. This is a subject I've written about, most fully in a chapter of the treatise Constitutional Law of South Africa. (The chapter isn't freely available online, but for an earlier version, see here.) In fact, the President needs no specific Parliamentary approval whatsoever to "authorize the employment of the defence force ... in fulfillment of an international obligation." (South African Constitution, section 201(2)(c).)
South African troops have been in the Central African Republic for years, but President Zuma extended the agreement with the Central African Republic that was the basis for their presence in December 2012, and South Africa then sent an additional 200 troops in January 2013, despite the already-deteriorating security situation. While that reinforcement evidently was reported to Parliament early this year, and provoked some controversy at the time, no news story I’ve seen has indicated that Parliament ever did approve this intervention.
South Africa does not yet have, as far as I know, any equivalent to the US War Powers Resolution, which at least requires Congressional approval of US troops’ entry "into hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances" if the troops remain on the scene for more than approximately 60 days. But it’s not clear that such a statute would have meaningfully restricted the South African President’s power either, since it’s possible to debate elaborately when hostilities are in fact "clearly indicated by the circumstances."
It’s also possible, it appears, for South African missions – like American ones – to “creep,” since the troops in the Central African Republic were sent there to "build capacity" of local forces but wound up attempting to repel a rebel assault. The Mail and Guardian, reporting on the mission's history, quotes an observer in South Africa who notes that "Just last week Bozizé had a meeting with President Zuma here in South Africa ... There's some suggestion he was here to plead for help to defend his government in the face of an imminent attack."
Military power is very hard to regulate through a constitution, as ample U.S. experience makes clear. It is sad to see this point again confirmed in South African experience as well. And it's difficult not to see the deaths of these South African soldiers as singularly pointless.