Mystery Shrouds Rise and Aims of Rebel at Helm of Central African Republic

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A portly sexagenarian, Michel Djotodia had dressed for his coup d'état, donning desert camouflage, a turban and sandals like those of the rebels in his region of the Central African Republic.

Mr. Djotodia, a wily opportunist who has had many occupations but has rarely if ever been called a soldier, in late March rode with a rebel convoy through Bangui, the capital, just hours after President François Bozizé had fled.

Mr. Djotodia's men pried open the front gate of the Ledger Plaza hotel, a newly inaugurated five-star palace financed by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator, as guests cowered inside. He inquired about a room.

Hours later, Mr. Djotodia, whose name was little known in Bangui and whom few analysts viewed as a figure of much political consequence, proclaimed himself president.

Changing his fatigues for dark dress suits, he continues to maintain his hold on that title, despite an outcry from governments around the world that have refused to recognize him as a legitimate head of state.

There is also a growing chorus of grumblings among his rivals, critics and the thousands of soldiers and mercenaries now roaming -- and often pillaging -- the streets of the capital.

Under pressure from regional leaders, Mr. Djotodia has created a transitional council, which on Saturday designated him interim president. The council is also to oversee the governing of the country until elections in about 18 months. But Mr. Djotodia has refused to renounce his claim to power, and much as his sudden rise seems a mystery, so, too, do his intentions.

"We are completely in the void," said Marcel Mokwapi, who leads an association of newspaper editors in Bangui.

Mr. Djotodia hails from Vakaga Prefecture, in the forested savanna of the country's northeast, an isolated region at the borders with Chad and Sudan where the Central African Republic's Muslim minority is concentrated. If he maintains his hold on the presidency, he will be the nation's first Muslim leader and the first from the northeast.

The mix of ethnicities in his region differs from that in Bangui. Inhabitants have long been subjected to discrimination, and occasional violence, and have been treated by the political leadership in the capital as "foreigners," said Louisa Lombard, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied the area.

"They feel like they've been totally abandoned," Dr. Lombard said, and that resentment is a foundation of the rebel coalition Mr. Djotodia helped to form last year, called Seleka.

There is little electricity or running water in the area, she said; the region also lacks police posts or health clinics. What roads exist are little more than dirt tracks, and the area is largely cut off from the rest of the country during the rainy season.

"It's hardship, quite simply, that drove us to take up arms, that's all," Mr. Djotodia told Radio France Internationale last month. "It's hardship that commands us." Repeated attempts to interview the self-proclaimed leader were unsuccessful.

Mr. Djotodia is said to have spent a decade studying in the Soviet Union, beginning in the 1970s; he married and had two daughters there before returning with fluent Russian, Dr. Lombard said. He also speaks French and Sango, the country's official languages, and Gula, his ethnic language.

He worked in the tax administration in the 1980s and twice ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Parliament. He became involved in the diamond trade in the north, though in what capacity remains unclear, Dr. Lombard said.

Having cultivated a relationship with Jean-Francis Bozizé, whose father, François, seized power in a 2003 coup, Mr. Djotodia was appointed as the Central African consul in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur State in Sudan.

His predecessor as consul was a sheik, an important religious leader under whom he had once worked; Mr. Djotodia's maneuverings to take over the job were seen by many in the northeast as a breach of propriety, Dr. Lombard said.

"There's some mistrust toward him," she said, though he is not particularly well known even in his home region. "What people knew about him was that he wanted some more political power for himself."

Mr. Djotodia's willingness to cross a Muslim sheik may prove a comfort to those who have worried that he harbors anti-Christian leanings; aides to Mr. Djotodia say he will lead as a secularist.

While serving as consul, Mr. Djotodia fell out with Mr. Bozizé, "very likely" because he felt he was not moving quickly enough up the government hierarchy, said Thierry Vircoulon, project director for Central Africa for the International Crisis Group.

In 2006, Mr. Djotodia helped found an armed group, the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity, which joined an uprising against the government. The group's grievances were largely unspecific; Dr. Lombard said she suspected that Mr. Djotodia simply felt that rebellion might be a simple path to political power.

Mr. Djotodia effectively served as the rebel group's political representative, she said, while his co-founder, Damane Zakaria, called him the group's "intellectual."

During the fighting, he was arrested in Benin at the behest of Mr. Bozizé; the rebellion was put down with the aid of French forces in 2007, a peace accord was signed, and Mr. Djotodia was released from prison in 2008.

He emerged from relative silence at the end of last year, when he helped to construct the rebel coalition that drove Mr. Bozizé from power. Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries were critical to the rebels' success, and their presence can most likely be credited to Mr. Djotodia, analysts say.

It is not altogether clear that he had always intended to seize power for himself, however, and he may in fact have been a reluctant putschist.

After peace talks in January, Mr. Djotodia was made vice prime minister of a unity government under Mr. Bozizé, and "he looked pretty satisfied," said Mr. Vircoulon, the analyst. Some coalition members may have been unhappy with the arrangement, however, and insisted on a coup.

"His problem was basically that his people disagreed with him," Mr. Vircoulon said.

Nor has Mr. Djotodia managed to appease the country's political class with his recent government appointments. There have been accusations that he has given too many posts to northerners from the rebel coalition.

At the peace talks in January, Mr. Djotodia criticized Mr. Bozizé for a "clannish" approach to governance, said Bruno Hyacinthe Gbiégba, a lawyer and human rights leader who served as an observer at the negotiations.

"What he abundantly criticized in the former regime, he's in the midst of doing the same thing," Mr. Gbiégba said, though he added, "Since it's the beginning, he has time to change course."

Analysts have sounded a less optimistic note, citing a history of uprisings and coups in the Central African Republic.

"There is always that potential there," Dr. Lombard said. "And that can also have an effect on the way that people govern."

At a recent news conference, Mr. Djotodia insisted the nation would soon be entirely under his rule, though violent infighting has already taken hold among the rebels.

"My men are in the midst of securing the upcountry," he said. "We are capable of doing it, of securing the whole Central African territory, the whole country."

Benno Muchler contributed reporting from Bangui, Central African Republic.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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