Assessing the Sentencing of Former Central African President Bozizé to Life Imprisonment

Media reports revealed on September 22, 2023, that the exiled former Central African Republic (CAR) president Francois Bozize was sentenced to life imprisonment with “forced labour, notably for conspiracy, rebellion, and murder”.

Francois Bozize, who seized power in the CAR in 2003 but was overturned a decade later, was sentenced in absentia, alongside his eldest son, Jean-Francis Bozize, and 20 other co-defendants, including prominent rebel leaders.

According to research, Bozizé started his political journey as a military officer and became a political leader, which provided him with insights into the dynamics of power in CAR and the context in which he assumed the presidency.

He served in various roles within the Central African armed forces, and his entry into politics was later marked by a coup in March 2003 when he led a rebellion against then-President Ange-Félix Patassé. This coup was part of a series of political and military upheavals that CAR had experienced over the years. Bozizé’s rebellion was fueled by allegations of corruption, mismanagement, and political repression under Patassé’s rule.

Following the successful coup, Bozizé assumed control of the CAR and declared himself president. Subsequently, he organised presidential elections in 2003, which he contested as a candidate. It’s important to note that his victory in these elections was marked by controversy and allegations of irregularities. Nevertheless, François Bozizé was declared the winner and officially assumed the presidency in 2003.

Bozizé’s path to power, characterized by a coup and a contested election, set the stage for a tumultuous period in CAR’s history, marked by political instability, armed conflicts, and humanitarian crises. His presidency, which lasted until 2013, faced numerous challenges and allegations of human rights abuses.

A trail of allegations

Towards late 2021, there were widespread allegations and accusations against Bozizé for his involvement in violence, including murder and crimes against humanity. Some key allegations against him during his time as president and afterward include rebel uprisings and political violence. François Bozizé himself came to power through a coup in 2003, overthrowing then-President Ange-Félix Patassé. His ascent to power was marked by violence and armed conflict.

During his presidency, CAR experienced multiple instances of political violence and conflict, including clashes with rebel groups. One of the notable rebel groups during this period was the Séléka coalition, which accused Bozizé’s government of corruption and human rights abuses.

Another allegation is the reports of human rights abuses from international organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. These abuses included extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, and forced displacement. Most of these allegations were part of a broader pattern of violence and instability in CAR during Bozizé’s rule.

However, despite going into exile in 2013 after being ousted from power and returning to CAR in 2019, violence and instability were renewed in the country. He was accused of backing armed groups in an attempt to regain power, further exacerbating the conflict and displacement of civilians. This led to clashes between his alleged supporters and government forces.

Complexities and the Doctrine of “Tit-for-Tat”

Bozizé himself came to power through a coup in 2003 and faced opposition throughout his time in office. As tensions escalated, various rebel groups, including the Séléka coalition, emerged in response to his leadership. The Séléka coalition in CAR was formed by various rebel groups, and its leadership evolved over time. The coalition emerged in late 2012.

The roots of the conflict lie in the final years of the government of former President Ange Félix Patassé, who came to power in elections in 1993 and was overthrown in a military coup by Francois Bozizé, who served as army chief of staff then. In his ten years of leadership, Patassé reportedly faced a number of military coups and mutinies, which caused severe ethnic tensions in the military since the mutineers accused Patassé of favouritism and tribalism. The Presidents of Burkina Faso, Gabon, Mali, and Chad brokered the Bangui Agreements, a peace agreement between Patassé and the mutineers, in response to a series of military uprisings that occurred. They also supported the deployment of the Inter-African Mission to Monitor the Implementation of the Bangui Agreements, MISAB (Mission de surveillance des accords de Bangui), a 500-person regional African peacekeeping force.

Before then, in May 2001, former President André Kolingba, who had lost power to Patassé in the 1993 presidential elections, sponsored an unsuccessful military coup, which set off a series of events that ultimately led to Patassé’s removal. After the coup attempt, the president accused his Army Chief of Staff, François Bozizé, of involvement and fired him on October 26, 2001. Bozizé rallied troops to resist his sacking, but was ultimately forced to leave for exile in southern Chad. These events deeply split and weakened the CAR armed forces—the Central African Armed Forces (Forces Armes Centrafricaines, FACA)—dividing it between Patassé and Bozizé loyalists.

However, Bozizé led another rebel onslaught against Patassé on October 25, 2002, shepherding his rebel forces to the outskirts of Bangui, the nation’s capital. Patassé, unable to rely on his depleted army, enlisted the aid of the Congo Liberation Movement (Mouvement de libération du Congo, MLC), a group of Congolese rebels that primarily operated in the southern CAR territories bordering the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Abdoulayé Miskine (real name: Martin Koumtamaji), a Chadian-born leader of a mercenary group that primarily served in northern CAR, was also recruited by him. In addition, Libyan soldiers helped Patassé. In 2002 and 2003, major murders and rapes were conducted by both Bemba’s MLC soldiers and Miskine’s mercenary group.

Countries neighbouring CAR—Chad, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Cameroon—all took an active part in the political sagas of the nation, but France, the former colonial power, still exerts sway over who leads the country. Conflicts in the neighbouring countries of Sudan, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo also had an impact on the CAR, with rebel groups and government forces freely exploiting isolated rural areas as back headquarters or for military operations. It is on record that instability mainly increased because of the huge flow of small arms that occurred, especially in the northern CAR.

Beforehand and since then, towards the pronouncement of this recent sentence by the court, the United Nations and other international organisations have been involved in efforts to address the crisis and hold perpetrators accountable.

But one of the most serious allegations against Bozizé is his association with human rights abuses and violence committed by his security forces. Those actions were documented by international organisations, as the pursuit of justice and accountability for these alleged crimes is an essential step in addressing the country’s long-standing challenges and fostering lasting peace and stability.

Negative impression

While the ruling is of utmost importance and will serve as a deterrent to other African leaders with similar spirit, the decision seems to carry several negative implications, both domestically and internationally.

First and foremost, such a sentencing can deepen political polarisation and unrest within the country. The incarceration of a former head of state, particularly one who may still have a significant following, can be seen as a politically motivated move. This perception can lead to protests, demonstrations, and even violence, as supporters of the former president may view the trial and sentencing as a miscarriage of justice. In this way, the stability of the country can be further undermined, creating a cycle of political turmoil.

Two examples of the above analysis were the cases of Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast and Hissène Habré of Chad. In 2011, former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo was arrested and later transferred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to face charges of crimes against humanity related to the post-election violence in 2010–2011. His arrest and trial were highly controversial, with some of his supporters viewing them as politically motivated. His acquittal in 2019 further fueled tensions, leading to protests and sporadic violence. On the part of Hissène Habré, the former president of Chad, who was sentenced to life in prison too in 2016 by a special tribunal for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture during his rule from 1982 to 1990, while the verdict was celebrated by many as a landmark moment for international justice, it also led to protests and unrest in Chad, where some perceived it as foreign interference.

Additionally, on the international stage, sentencing a country’s leader, either former or ruling, may harm the country’s reputation and diplomatic relations. This negative attention can result in diplomatic isolation, sanctions, or a reduction in foreign aid and investment, all of which can have severe economic and social consequences for the country.

A lesson for Africa

While sentencing African leaders to life imprisonment by a court is posed with some sort of negativity, the decision often serves as powerful reminders of the importance of accountability, the rule of law, and the protection of human rights.

A cursory look at past occurrences speaks volumes about the promotion of accountability. When African leaders are held accountable for their actions, regardless of their position or stature, it sends a strong message that impunity will not be tolerated. This promotes a culture of accountability where individuals in power understand that they can be held responsible for their actions, fostering a sense of justice within societies. Thus, Bozizé’s conviction demonstrates that African leaders could be held accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Bozizé’s conviction is yet another reflection of the prosecution of Hissène Habré, the former president of Chad, for crimes against humanity, serving as a warning to other leaders that they could face justice for their actions.

Hence, the conviction of African leaders acknowledges the suffering of victims and provides them with a sense of justice; it recognises their right to redress and reparations, which can help in the healing and reconciliation process for affected communities.

In conclusion, it is pertinent to state categorically that people in CAR and throughout Africa should note that the conviction of African leaders through fair and impartial judicial processes carries profound lessons. By taking note of these lessons, Africans can work towards building more just and equitable societies where leaders are accountable to their constituents, human rights are upheld, and the promise of justice is a reality for all.

Educator, writer and legal researcher at Alafarika for Studies and Consultancy.

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