The Central African Republic (CAR) has been riven with political conflict between the Seleka rebel coalition and the government forces since 2012. The conflict is now drawing in religious and extremist groups, terrorising civilians.
To stabilise the politically and socially devastated country Gabon deployed 450 soldiers to the capital, Bangui, in 2016, within the framework of the United Nations mission in the Central African Republic, known as MINUSCA. Gabon soldiers have been active in CAR since 2003.
Gabon is small in terms of its territory, population and army (around 6,700 soldiers, according to the author’s own statistics based on information from Gabon’s defence ministry), so it relies on defence diplomacy to establish itself in the regional game of influence.
Just as Gabon’s military interventions allow the country to carry some weight in the geopolitical arena, Gabonese officers also derive some individual personal benefit from it – converting war capital into a political career.
Contributing to peacekeeping operations actually helps the Gabonese army reach high ranks of the national political system’s hierarchy. The history of Gabon’s military involvement in the Central African Republic thus brings to the fore the political use of such engagements at both the national and individual level.
The peace missions entrusted to Gabonese soldiers put their officers at the heart of diplomatic negotiations, turning high-ranking officers into military diplomats who become experienced in political negotiations and defence diplomacy.
Operations in Central African Republic
Gabon is relying on defence diplomacy to remain present in the regional geopolitical game of influence (except for the struggle against Boko Haram in which it does not partake directly). The reverse is true in Congo-Brazzaville and in Chad.
From 1997, Gabonese troops were deployed in the Central African Republic as part of the Inter-African Mission for Monitoring the Bangui Agreements
In November 2002 Gabon was involved, alongside other Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea and Chad, in the Multinational Forces for Central Africa deployed by the Central African Economic and Monetary Community. In July 2008, the Mission for the Consolidation of Peace in the Central African Republic replaced this operation, this time mandated by the Economic Community of Central African States, in which 500 Gabonese soldiers also took part.
Finally, starting in December 2013, Gabon has contributed to the International Support Mission to CAR (MISCA) under African leadership, whose Gabonese Colonel, Patrice Ostangue Bengone, is in charge of the police component. Under the banner of the United Nations, the involvement of Gabon is well in line with this long-standing military action.
Gabon also engages with the diplomatic corps, for instance within the UN Mission in CAR and in Chad created in September 2007. Several high-ranking Gabonese officers hold political responsibilities within this force (notably Commandant-Major Jean Bernard Nguema Bilong and Lieutenant-Colonel Guy Claude Ndong Edou).
Today, some 500 Gabonese conscripts take part in the UN force in CAR, backed up by the French Force of Operation Sangaris. But beyond this, it’s notable that the Gabonese soldiers employed these last ten years in the Central African Republic have taken on a political role that clearly exceeds their military expertise.
The field: a political resource
The political role of the Gabonese army amounts to a national ability to stabilise zones affected by war, turning Libreville into a valuable mediator in the resolution of the crises plaguing the region, in particular under the regime of Omar Bongo (who died in 2009).
Several factors explain why demotivated troops might seek to stop fighting in regional operations. Poor equipment, a chronic lack of military intelligence and failing human resources policies are only too real. The troop has to face the hostility and mistrust of native populations towards what locals call these “dressed-up bodies” (a popular expression meaning military corps in CAR).
A certain number of Gabonese officers who take part in peace operations in the Central African Republic use this experience for their personal gain, converting it into a political resource aimed at an international or national political career.
Such is the case as far as Brigadier-General Auguste Itandas Bibaye is concerned. He was a Commander of the Multinational Force of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC) in the Central African Republic from 2004 until 2008. This former Head of Staff of the Gabonese armies under the presidency of Ali Bongo Ondimba, who resigned at the height of post-electoral tensions in August 2016, was the former Special Head of Staff of Rose Francine Rogombé, the acting president in 2009.
Gabonese General Jean-Claude Ella Ekhoga’s professional career is similar, alternating between the military and the political fields. Former Commander of the Multinational Force of CEMAC from 2003 to 2004, Ekhoga was the former advisor to President Ali Bongo Ondimba on Defence affairs. Prior to reaching the presidency of the Republic, he was also head of the Military Cabinet of Ali Bongo, then Minister of Defence for his father, Omar Bongo.
Overall, 3% of Gabon’s political elite has a military background. For example, Jean Claude Ella Ekhoga was Ali Bongo’s chief military office when he was in the defence. General Alioune Ibaba was president adviser for president Ali Bongo.
In Gabon, regional peacemaking operations appear to the officers and soldiers who partake in them as a window of political opportunity, at least for the conscripts whose diplomatic role is far more influential in the global process of conflict resolution. The is the case in the Central African Republic.
This article was published in collaboration with the academic project “Guerre et Po” (War & Politics)