Sunday, March 24, 2013

President Michel Djotodia?

When the Union des Forces Démocratiques pour le Rassemblement (UFDR) announced its presence by capturing CAR's northeasternmost town, Birao, at the end of October 2006, a few people starting working their sat phones, each declaring himself to be the leader. There was Abakar Sabone, formerly best known as a Chadian recruiter of men-in-arms who'd helped Bozize take power in 2003 but became disgruntled with his former ally over a perceived lack of proper payment for his services. There was Damane Zakaria, a counselor in Tiringoulou who was with the men on the ground. And there was Michel Djotodia, who few people knew much about at all.

Sabone and Djotodia were in Cotonou, Benin at the time, and they were locked up at Bozize's request. Though they were eventually released, they were both somewhat sidelined during the peace process, and for the next few years whenever anyone asked who was the leader of the UFDR, it was General Damane's name that was put forward.

It was Damane who I got to know while doing research among the UFDR in Tiringoulou in 2009-2010. Nevertheless, I was curious about this Djotodia fellow, so I frequently asked about him as well. Overall, the impression I got was of a polyglot, intelligent guy with outsize political ambitions. He made it into my dissertation, but only in the form of a long footnote:


"People in Vakaga [prefecture] remember [Djotodia] as a prolific practitioner of extraversion. He went to the USSR to study and ended up living there ten years, marrying, and fathering two daughters, and
then finally returning to CAR with “ten diplomas” and fluency in a number of languages, which made him useful when it came to representing the UFDR to foreigners and media. People in Tiringoulou tell of one day, long before the rebellion, when a plane of Russian hunters unexpectedly arrived. Upon hearing Djotodia’s rendition of their language, declared him not Central African but Russian and brought him along for their tour of the country. He had political aspirations, and he pursued them fervently. Twice he tried to become a deputy, and twice he failed. The highest post he attained was Tax Director. He also worked to become close to the Sheikh Tidjani, spiritual leader for many in the buffer zone, who lives in South Darfur. At the time of the UFDR’s first attack, he, like Sabone, was in Benin, where he had friends from his Russia days. Like Sabone, he was jailed in Cotonou for his role in the insurgency. But then he becomes harder to track. He had a falling out with the Sheikh when he tried to convince the president’s son to name him consul to Sudan in the Sheikh’s place (though technically Sudanese himself, the Sheikh occupies this post as a result of the respect and legitimacy he enjoys throughout the region). The break in this relationship has made it harder for him to claim to represent people in the area. Damane said that he had pushed him out when Djotodia had attempted to make an alliance with Charles Massi, another sidelined politician aiming for power through the form of insurgency. Whatever the specifics of his fall, people described it as a function of his failure to properly negotiate alliances. This diplomatic capability is central to maintaining power in a place of plural authorities. People surmised that this “intellectual” is now trying his luck somewhere far away."

Well, now we know a bit more about what Djotodia was up to. He has been in Nyala, in South Darfur, cultivating working alliances with the remnants of Chadian rebel groups that have been hanging out in the area. It was these fighters from the Chad/Sudan/CAR borderlands who became the military backbone of the Seleka rebel coalition that first threatened the CAR capital, Bangui, in December. (The UFDR fighters I knew -- tough guys, but a bit ragtag, especially compared to their counterparts in places like Chad or Sudan -- could have put up a decent fight against the CAR armed forces on their own, but the "Chadians" were what made them so unstoppable.)

And through these alliances, Djotodia has come out on top. Hearing the stories of his ambition during my research, I almost felt embarrassed on his behalf -- he seemed like a Jamaican bobsledder convinced he'd win gold. And yet here he is, ten years after Bozize took power, getting ready to move into the presidential palace. Here's hoping he lives up to his intellectual reputation and does a better job than his predecessor. Goodness knows Central Africans have suffered far too much already.

18 comments:

  1. good piece, but am wondering what made the country so interesting for you to conduct the research. Thank you for the education anyway.

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  2. Interesting piece indeed, thanks for explaining the situation in CAR, which helps me understand the background stories between the players struggle for power.

    Manu

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  3. Please tell us your long story ...

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    1. Once all of this has calmed down a bit...

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  4. Thanks a lot for this! It's been difficult yo find hood info about Djotodia.

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  5. Very interesting and informative. Had little knowledge of this Djotodia fellow. His story seems to parallel that of other African leaders who rose to power seemingly out of nowhere...through conflict. You should have have written this BBC piece....

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-21938297

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  6. Good piece indeed from Louisa, very informative even for someone like me originally from CAR never heard of this Djotodia. Unfortunately only Africa can still produce this type of so called "Chef d'Etat" out of nowhere... to be continued Louisa!

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  7. Bravo to you for the documentation that's so lacking everywhere. I look forward to reading more of your work. Keep it up!

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  8. Dear Louisa,

    An interesting piece. Could you say a bit more, perhaps, about the specifc nature of these "plural authorities"? How do NE CAR, SW Sudan and South Chad relate? I am aware that here, as elsewhere in Africa, state borders mean less and that states are sometimes weak. But I lack the specifics here :-)

    BR
    Erling, Denmark

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    1. If you're interested, I can share some papers with you on the topic. Email me at louisa.lombard@gmail.com.

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  9. I happen to have been living with Mr and Mme Djotodia and their daughter fo several years at the same hostel in Moscow.in the 80-s. Incredible it was for me to hear all of a sudden about the latest events. Never heard of TWO daughters - I know (and loved dearly but one) - well, Michel himself knows better how many daughters he has, but I`m almost sure she`s not by his official Russian wife (my acquaintance). I`m trying now to recollect what he was like - he certainly was clever and sly.

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    1. That's fascinating! I would love to discuss more. You can reach me at louisa.lombard@gmail.com. As for the number of kids he has, my guess it's by now more than two, but I'm not sure whether he's still with that Russian wife. (I can't imagine she accompanied him for diamond mining in Bria...) Do you happen to know?

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    2. As far as I know she`s living in Germany or Holland. She had a business of her own in the 90-s - brought second-hand cars to Russia and bought and resold goods in Germany. She probably is a German citizen by now. Last time we met by accident in our native town about 1993.

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    3. I don't suppose you know what Michel Djotodia's religious persuasion is/was?

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  10. Great Article. Good research too, from an American?Almost all american researchers and academics dont care and dont want to care about obscure and little known lands like CAR and others including mine Eritrea, Africa's North Korea. There are tons of matterials and books about IRAQ, CHINA, BURMA, IRAN etc, but hradly anything about hermit lands like CAR,Eritrea Equatorial Guinea or any other minions. Thanks lady louisa and hope you will look in to Eritrea....one day!

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  11. Hi Louisa do you remember Gisele and Edgar from Bangui? We moved to Niamey due to the civil war. Great piece as english speaking world needs more information about the actors if this bloody tragedy.

    Edgar

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    1. Of course! Happy to hear from you and to know you're all safe. How is that beautiful son of yours, and when will I see you all in the States?

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