Djotodia: Central Africa’s rebel boss-turned-president

Michel Djotodia speaks during a press conference on March 29, 2013 in Bangui, Central African Republic.  By Sia Kambou (AFP/File)

Michel Djotodia speaks during a press conference on March 29, 2013 in Bangui, Central African Republic. By Sia Kambou (AFP/File)

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AFP) – Rebel leader Michel Djotodia, who has become the newest president of the Central African Republic after seizing power in a bloody coup, is a single-minded former civil servant who spent many years in the former Soviet Union.

The interim appointment by the country’s transitional council on Saturday is likely to give some much-needed legitimacy to Djotodia, who had already declared himself president after his Seleka rebels seized power in Bangui on March 24.

The enigmatic strongman — who is the Christian majority nation’s first ever Muslim head of state — was born in 1949 but his precise date of birth is unknown and details of his life are sketchy.

After several years as a civil servant and diplomat he turned to rebellion and founded an armed movement in 2005, two years after ousted president Francois Bozize seized power in a coup.

“He’s somebody very determined. When he decides on something, he goes all the way. When he gives his word, he keeps it,” said a rebel in the Seleka coalition who has been with Djotodia for many years, but asked not to be named.

“On the other hand, this quality is also his weakness. He can be rigid and often refuses to accept being contradicted when he has made a decision,” the rebel added.

Born in the Vakaga region if the north of the Central African Republic, Michel Am-Nondroko Djotodia underwent training in the Communist school of centralised economic planning when he lived in the then USSR for 14 years.

On his return, he served in the ministry of planning before going to the foreign ministry, where he was named consul to Nyala in neighbouring South Sudan, which was then an insurgent part of Sudan before independence.

In 2005, Djotodia joined the rebellion against Bozize, an army general who seized power in a coup in 2003.

He became a founder member of the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), which merged several small groups and marked the start of the emergence of many rebel forces.

But two years later, Djotodia went to Benin to join forces with Abakar Sabone, head of the Movement of Centrafrican Liberators for Justice (MLCJ), a group that had signed peace accords with Bozize.

Arrested by the Benin authorities at the behest of Bozize’s regime, Djotodia spent several weeks in prison.

While abroad, Djotodia lost control of the UFDR to Damane Zakaria, who also signed peace accords with the Bozize regime.

By 2012 and back home, however, Djotodia succeeded in rallying his former supporters and helped found Seleka — which means “alliance” — in June.

Members of Seleka, which first launched an offensive in December before signing up to a peace deal with Bozize’s government in January, proved themselves to be masters of strategy and communications.

The rebels — with Djotodia himself wearing camouflage battledress — attended the peace talks in the Gabonese capital Libreville in a position of strength after seizing a string of towns, chasing away poorly trained and equipped government troops without a fight.

The accord gave some Seleka members government posts, but the regime failed to free people the rebels regarded as political prisoners, provoking the latest offensive.

Djotodia has said he will keep his word and respect the Libreville peace accords.

He initially announced he would rule by decree for three years but has since vowed to hold “free and transparent elections” within 18 months.

“I understand the significance of the mission you have entrusted me with. I will spare no effort to ensure the success of the transition that has just begun,” Djotodia said in his first official speech as head of state.