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The Central African Republic: Past and present

Friday, 28th March 2014
by Jane Denton

Arguably one of the poorest countries in Africa, the Central African Republic (CAR), is no stranger to scenes of extreme poverty, political instability, violence and bloodshed. Despite an abundance of natural resources, including gold, diamonds, uranium, oil and timber, the country is marred by financial, political and social chaos, and, according to Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, currently facing a ‘humanitarian catastrophe of unspeakable proportions’. Since fighting erupted in December 2013, approximately 1,000 people were killed during a single two day period, over 1 million have been displaced from their homes, and, as of mid-January this year, 60% of the population had no available food stocks. 

Pre-colonial period

Although paid scant scholarly attention and, until recently, largely ignored by the media and international politicians, the CAR has a long and tumultuous history. The landlocked area that now forms the CAR has been inhabited since the Stone Age (roughly 6000 BC), which is well before any widely publicised ancient Egyptian civilisations emerged. Later on in its history, slave raiding was a severe problem in the North-eastern parts of the CAR, particularly during the 1870s, and left the territory with one of Africa’s lowest population densities. Slave-buyers were often noted as being Muslim, but, according to Jacqueline Woodford, author of the most recent academic book on the country in English, non-Muslim Africans were also complicit in the trade.

The French

As the power of the slave traders gradually declined, French colonialism spread. The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 left much of the central, north and west of Africa in French hands. Although some formed alliances with the colonists for economic or political reasons, resistance to colonial rule, despite being largely absent from historical record, did exist. In Berbérati (now the CAR’s third largest city) in 1954, protests emerged when a local administrator refused to arrest a Frenchman, on whose property the bodies of two men, one of whom had been employed by the Frenchman, were found. Meanwhile, over 100 locals who allegedly shouted anti-French slogans and sang anti-French songs were arrested and charged.

The road to autonomy

By this stage, however, all inhabitants of the Federation of French Equatorial Africa (‘AEF’) (including those in what is now known as the CAR), had been granted French citizenship and were permitted to establish local assemblies. Accordingly, in 1949, Barthélemy Boganda, a Catholic present and advocate of African emancipation, created the colony’s first political party, the Movement for the Social Evolution of Black Africa. A French constitutional referendum then dissolved the AEF in 1958 and on 1 December 1958 the colony of Ubangi-Shari became a self-governing territory known as the Central African Republic, with Boganda becoming the country’s first prime minister. 

Despite the appearance of domestic autonomy, the French still had a significant influence over the country’s financial and military affairs. However, full-independence dawned and, as suggested by Thomas O’Toole, author of arguably the most comprehensive English-language book on the CAR to date, ‘Had anyone been asked in 1959 to put together a “worse-case scenario” for the history of the first thirty years of the CAR, one might have imagined something close to the actual sequence of events that has unfolded’.

Independence, coups and a ‘coronation’ 

Boganda remained as the country’s prime minister until his death in a mysterious plane crash in March 1959, after which David Dacko, Boganda’s nephew, took the helm. It was under Dacko’s administration that the CAR became fully independent on 13 August 1960. However, Dacko’s tenure came to an abrupt end on 1 January 1966 when Dacko’s cousin, Jean Bédal Bokassa, led a coup and took control of the government. According to the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) report published in January 2014, Bokassa was implicated in massive embezzlement and human rights abuses and his dictatorial rule culminated in his self-coronation as emperor of the CAR in 1976 France reportedly covered much of the $20 million bill for the pseudo-coronation – a sum equal to the entirety of the country’s national gross domestic product at the time. Following riots, a trip to Libya in search of aid and the murder of between 50 to 100 schoolchildren in the country’s capital, Bangui, Bokassa was deposed in a coup backed by French troops in 1979. Bokassa was found guilty of murder and embezzlement in 1987, initially receiving a death sentence which was later commuted to life imprisonment – he was released in 1993 and died in 1996. 

Following a period of further political instability, the CAR held its first multi-party elections, in which Ange-Félix Patassé was elected president. Instability increased and violent army mutinies between 1996 and 1997 prompted the deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping operation. In 2002, Patassé allegedly called on a rebel group based in the Democratic Republic of Congo to supress domestic insurgents. This, according to the US CRS, led to large scale abuses against civilians, for which the leader of the rebel group in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, is currently on trial before the International Criminal Court.

‘Séléka’ and ‘anti-balaka’ militias

François Bozizé, an army general, eventually rebelled against Patassé and took power in March 2003. Over time, Bozizé became increasingly unpopular and his rule was marked by insurgency in the north and North-east of the country. It is within this context that ‘Séléka’ (translated as ‘Alliance’ from the local Sango language), a loose alliance of untrained and predominately Muslim rebels, was formed in 2012. After capturing a string of towns across the country, Séléka overthrew the government on 24 March 2013, leaving Bozizé apparently fleeing the country in a helicopter with five suitcases and Séléka leader, Michel Djotodia, declaring himself as the country’s first Muslim president.

According to Dodfrey Byaruhanga, Amnesty International’s CAR researcher, Séléka forces attacked, executed and tortured civilians, indiscriminately shelled communities and forcibly conscripted children to their army. The level of unrest prompted Djotdodia to call for Séléka to disband on 13 September 2013, but the violence continued. 

Humanitarian crisis

In December 2013, ex- Séléka rebels are reported to have killed nearly 1,000 people in the country’s capital, Bangui, over a single two day period. Brutal reprisal attacks against the country’s Muslim population (comprising approximately 15 per cent of the population) have since been carried out by Christian ‘anti-balaka’ (‘anti-machete’) militias. Although religious tensions are almost certainly not the only cause of the current crisis, ‘inter-communal tensions over access to resources, control over trade and national identity are being expressed along ethno-religious lines’. Former colonizer France has sent over 1,600 troops to help stabilise the situation and there are currently nearly 6,000 peacekeepers from the African Union on the ground. Even the peacekeeping efforts are not straightforward. Chadian forces are among the African troops who comprise the bulk of the peacekeepers in and around Bangui. They have been closely allied with the Séléka and have been accused of joining them in attacks on Christian communities.

Central African leaders forced Djotodia to step down as CAR’s president during a regional summit hosted in Chad on 10 January 2014. On 20 January this year, Catherine Samba-Panza was elected as the country’s new transitional president. Despite the growing presence of peacekeepers and a new president, widespread chaos and violence continue, culminating in the declaration by Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees on 12 February 2014, that ‘massive ethno-religious cleansing is continuing’. The CAR’s history is littered with inept and corrupt leaders, extreme poverty and atrocious violence – a state of affairs that shows no sign of abating.

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