PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma met regional leaders at a summit in Chad on Thursday to tackle the violence and instability in the Central African Republic (CAR) where 13 South African troops were killed by Seleka rebels last month.
Scores of people have died in clashes between armed groups and in outbreaks of looting and extreme lawlessness since the rebels seized the capital Bangui on March 24, the day after the South African soldiers died in a nine-hour battle.
"The CAR is like a wound in the heart of central Africa. We have to mobilise to put an end to this recurrent situation," host President Idriss Déby of Chad said on Thursday at the opening of the one-day summit of the Economic Community of Central African States (Eccas). "Armed bands loot, hold to ransom and racketeer the population."
The CAR, one of Africa’s worst-run states after decades of coups and rebellions, was represented in N’Djamena by Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye, a generally respected technocrat. The de facto head of state, Seleka leader Michel Djotodia, was not invited to the summit and has not been recognised by the African Union, because he took power by force of arms.
"We cannot have a president who declares himself a president and put(s) aside the constitution, parliament and the judiciary. We are saying, let us bring back the constitution ... So that’s the kind of a meeting we are going to be attending," Mr Zuma said before the summit.
But Mr Djotodia was elected interim president by a national transitional council, which is acting as a constituent assembly in line with regional demands. The Seleka chief is allowed to rule for no more than 18 months before elections.
"The summit will want Mr Djotodia to agree to stay for the 18 months but guarantee that he will not be a candidate for president in the elections after the transition period," said CAR-watcher David Zounmenou of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.
Even if Mr Djotodia gives that promise, will he keep it?
Eccas is arguably the feeblest of Africa’s regional economic communities, reflecting the condition of most member states even though they include oil exporters such as Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of the Congo.
Several of the presidents attended the summit but the final list was not immediately published.
The regional military power, in very relative terms, is Chad. Mr Deby said on April 14 that he would withdraw his contingent of up to 2,000 troops from Mali, where they have been the key African force backing French troops against Islamist insurgents.
The situation in Mali had stabilised, he said.
At Thursday’s summit Mr Deby said the 500-strong Eccas force deployed in the CAR, called Fomac, was "insufficient to do the job".
Analysts said a decision to beef up the intervention force in the CAR was one possible summit outcome but it was unclear who would pay and whether Mr Djotodia’s armed supporters would accept it.
Mr Tiangaye appealed on Tuesday to former colonial power France and Fomac "as impartial forces" to take the lead and secure the country. When they seized the capital last month Seleka rebels overthrew then president Francois Bozize, a leader who enjoyed good relations with South Africa’s government after seizing power in 2003. He is in exile.
Referring to the violence in the country, Mr Deby told the summit that Seleka "is an organisation that lacks unity and the initiative of a command (structure)".
Last weekend, more than 20 people were killed in clashes in Bangui. At least 37,000 people have fled the fighting, with "tens of thousands" more forced to abandon their homes, according to the United Nations.
With Sapa-AFP and Bloomberg