Central African Republic rebel leader faces challenges

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DAKAR, Senegal -- Michel Djotodia showed up for peace talks a few months ago in camouflage and a turban as the face of Central African Republic's rebel movement. Now he has traded those fatigues for a suit as the country's new self-declared leader after overthrowing the president of a decade.

Mr. Djotodia, whose diverse resume includes studying in the former Soviet Union and working as a consul in Sudan's region of Darfur, initially signed on in January to serve as the defense minister in a unity government with his longtime nemesis, then-President Francois Bozize.

But that power-sharing deal quickly fell apart. Only two months later, Mr. Djotodia's forces invaded the capital, and he declared himself president of the impoverished but mineral-rich country for at least the next three years.

Although Mr. Djotodia (pronounced joe-toe-DEE-uh) emerged as the dominant leader of the alliance of rag-tag fighters known as Seleka, which means alliance in the local Sango language, some of his colleagues are already saying they never intended for him to single-handedly lead the country after Mr. Bozize's ouster.

"We didn't battle to get rid of one dictator only to have another," says Nelson N'Djadder, a Paris-based rebel leader who is now threatening to fight Mr. Djotodia for leadership of a nation long plagued by coups and rebellions.

Mr. Djotodia, a 60-something longtime rebel, was once a civil servant under Mr. Bozize's predecessor and worked at the Central African Republic's consulate in Nyala, located in Sudan's South Darfur state. Recent developments come as little surprise to some observers.

"He has single-mindedly always wanted to be president of Central African Republic. He has been a tremendously ambitious man," said Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at Chatham House, a London-based institute on international affairs.

"In the end, he had one vision, which was to take power and he has done that unconstitutionally now," Mr. Vines added.

Among a wide field of potential rebel leaders, he managed to position himself front and center, said Louisa Lombard, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley who has been traveling to Central African Republic for the past 10 years for research.

"I think he's mostly been successful through his diplomacy and negotiating alliances with different people and getting them on his side," she said. "It's a combination of being in the right place and having the right ambitions."

Mr. Djotodia hails from the country's northeastern Vakaga area, the poorest region of one of the world's most deeply impoverished countries. Analysts say he married and had children while living in the Soviet Union, and speaks fluent Russian and French.

By 2006, he had helped form the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity, known by its French acronym UFDR. His rebels sparked alarm when they seized the capitals of two northern provinces that year.

While the UFDR at the time "claimed to be fighting for greater government investment in the neglected northeast," its leaders seemed more interested in getting well-paying jobs within Mr. Bozize's government as part of a cease-fire agreement, according to a report by the International Crisis Group.

Mr. Djotodia later fled into exile in Benin in 2006 along with his colleague Abakar Saboune, where they were ultimately arrested and thrown into prison on international arrest warrants. He was released in 2008 at the request of the Central African Republic government, according to human rights groups.



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