Michel Djotodia: Central African Republic rebel leader

A Soviet-trained civil servant who turned into a rebel leader, Michel Djotodia has finally achieved his long-held ambition of becoming leader of the Central African Republic (CAR).
Rebels in Central African Republic.  Net photo.
Rebels in Central African Republic. Net photo.

A Soviet-trained civil servant who turned into a rebel leader, Michel Djotodia has finally achieved his long-held ambition of becoming leader of the Central African Republic (CAR).

He declared on 25 March that he would rule by decree after his forces stormed the capital, Bangui, ending President Francois Bozize’s decade-long rule.

“He had political aspirations, and he pursued them fervently,” says US anthropologist Louisa Lombard, who has studied the CAR conflict.

“Hearing the stories of his ambition during my research, I almost felt embarrassed on his behalf - he seemed like a Jamaican bobsleder convinced he’d win gold,” she adds, in a blog titled “President Michel Djotodia?”.

Yet, Mr Djotodia - some seven years after playing a key role in the launch of the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR) rebel group - is now in power.

“He’s somebody very determined. When he decides on something, he goes all the way,” AFP news agency quotes an unnamed rebel leader as saying.

Born in 1949 in the north-eastern town of Vakaga, according to a report in the Cameroon Tribune newspaper, Mr Djotodia led the UFDR into a coalition with other rebel groups last year to form Seleka, which spearheaded the offensive to overthrow Mr Bozize.

For Mr Djotodia, this was sweet revenge: Mr Bozize’s rebel forces had toppled his political boss, then-President Ange Felix-Patasse, in 2003.

Mr Djotodia had served in Mr Patasse’s government as a civil servant in the ministry of planning after studying economics in the former Soviet Union.

‘Cultivating alliances’

According to Ms Lomard, he ended up staying for 10 years in the USSR, where he married and had two daughters.

He became fluent in several languages, “which made him useful when it came to representing the UFDR to foreigners and the media,” she says.

“People in Tiringoulou [in CAR] 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,” she adds.

Mr Djitoudia also worked in CAR’s foreign ministry and was named consul to Nyala in neighbouring Sudan’s Darfur region, Ms Lombard says he used his time there to cultivate alliances with Chadian rebels 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 Bangui in December,” she says.

“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,” she adds.

Mr Djotodia’s forces overran Bangui about two months after Seleka signed a peace accord with Mr Bozize, in talks brokered by regional leaders in Gabon.

Under the accord, Seleka agreed to serve in a unity government, led by Mr Bozize, until elections in 2016.

Mr Djotodia took the post of defence minister - though he had minimal influence over the army which Mr Bozize continued to control.

Accusing Mr Bozize of running a parallel administration and failing to release political prisoners, Seleka withdrew Mr Djotodia, along with three of his colleagues, from the government about a week before launching an assault on Bangui.

As Mr Bozize fled to Cameroon, Mr Djotodia announced that elections would be held in three years, suggesting, in an interview with Radio France Internationale, that he would run for the presidency to legitimise his rule.

“I did not say that in three years I will hand over power. I said that in three years, we are going to organise free and transparent elections,” he said.

It is a remarkable change in the fortunes of a man who had been jailed in Benin in November 2006, for using the country as a base for his rebellion against Mr Bozize.

According to rights group Amnesty International’s 2009 report on CAR, Mr Djotodia and another rebel leader Abakar Sabone were detained without trial in Benin for more than a year, before being released at Mr Bozize’s request as part of yet another regionally brokered peace initiative to end the conflict.

It was probably Mr Bozize’s biggest political mistake, as it opened the way for Mr Djotodia to shrewdly play the dual role of peace-maker and rebel leader until he finally seized power in Bangui.


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