Missives From a Forgotten Country

Why the crisis in the Central African Republic deserves more attention

Missives From a Forgotten Country Missives From a Forgotten Country

Uncategorized August 30, 2013 0

Armed men in the Central African Republic. HDTPCAR photo Missives From a Forgotten Country Why the crisis in the Central African Republic deserves more... Missives From a Forgotten Country
Armed men in the Central African Republic. HDTPCAR photo

Missives From a Forgotten Country

Why the crisis in the Central African Republic deserves more attention

A man lay on the thatched floor of his hut, bleeding from a head wound opened by the swing of a machete, as a rebel absconded with his motorcycle. A few miles up the road, the same looting rebels would exercise violence again,claiming the lives of at least 15. By the time a reporter from the Associated Press made contact, the fearful victim agreed to share his account, but refused to give his name.

We just ask that the world not forget us,” he told the reporter in closing.

But for those in the Central African Republic — a country weathering the aftershock of a military coup and on the verge of collapse — it seems relevant to ask if anyone knew them to begin with.

CAR Militant. UNICEF Photo


The Central African Republic’s name is a misnomer. While it may be “central” geographically, the country has been marginal ever since the French freed it from their colonial vanguard in 1960.

Under the short-term leadership of Pres. David Dacko, observers held out hope that the country — like many others celebrating the first breaths of political autonomy — might seize its newfound independence. However, the nation was landlocked, and lacked (at the time) valuable resources, much less the infrastructure for meaningful development. It was the least attractive jewel in the Françafrique crown.

With the bloodless coup of 1965, Gen. Jean-Bedel Bokassa assumed control of a state on the brink of bankruptcy and under threat of labor strikes.

Renewing clear ties to France, Bokassa’s eclectic leadership came with allegations of cannibalism and an affinity for the magistry of his adopted country: Bokassa had been a decorated French soldier, serving in Indochina, called the French Pres. Charles de Gauille, “Papa,” and modeled the 1976 conversion of CAR into the Central African Empire, after his hero Napoleon, replete with his own coronation as emperor.

But in the half century since independence, the CAR’s economy has grown far slower than neighboring Chad, Sudan, and Uganda — even the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo.

By March 2013, nearly a decade to the day after the overthrow of Ange-Felix Patasse (1993-2003) by Francois Bozize (2003-2013), a rebel coalition under the name Séléka (meaning “alliance” in the local language), seized control of a country with world’s third-shortest life expectancy (49 years), ranked 180 out of 187 on the U.N.’s Human Development Index, and where children are likely to spend fewer years in school than most other sub-Saharan countries.

Destroyed structure in CAR. HDTPCAR Photo

Fear of being killed

As early as January, official reports noted that a majority of the country’s 4.4 million people were suffering amidst wide-reaching violence. Basic medical services were limited or non-existent and the state apparatus was collapsing — law enforcement and security personnel vanished as ragtag rebel cells sought power through force.

When Séléka first besieged the capital, Bangui, in December 2012 — setting the stage for a peace agreement that would eventually fail in March — the national military had simply dissolved. By August, little had changed.

“We are in a situation of lawlessness,” Babacar Gaye, the U.N.’s chief in CAR, tells War is Boring in an interview from Bangui. Gaye leads the U.N’s Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the Central African Republic. “You have the appearance of power, you have the appearance of a country, but the government has no authority.”

This lawlessness is a recurring feature in the CAR, exacerbated at times by ethnic tension in the north (between so-called savannah and river people), the presence of the universally-assailed Lord’s Resistance Army, who has allegedly used the country as a safe haven, and the trans-border skirmishes starring a panoply of rebels from the neighborhood: Sudan, Chad and the DRC. Since the coup, however, incidents of trespassing, looting, rape, kidnapping and extra-judicial killing have been on the rise.

“Victims, witnesses, and civil society organizations spoke to me about the fear of getting killed, of being physically or sexually assaulted, and looted,” said Ivan Šimonovi?, the U.N.’s assistant-secretary general for human rights, to the United Nations Security Council in New York on Aug. 14.

According to the Associated Press, entire communities have been found hiding in the bush that surrounds their villages, scattering on the approach of unknown visitors and unwilling to present themselves until the newcomers are known to be unarmed.

On Aug. 18, rebel-turned-President Michel Djotodia was sworn-in and pledged support for both the stabilization effort and the peaceful transition to democratic elections planned in 18 months time.

“This transition must lead to the holding of free, transparent and credible elections to give our country a leader with unchallenged legitimacy,” Djotodia said during the swearing in ceremony. “For this, I urge the political class to show responsibility by observing a truce during this period that requires cohesion.”

But cohesion is difficult when competition is the only rule of the game.

Without retaining the “monopoly of force” — one of those classic Weberian qualities of statehood — the government has ceded control (and any notion of justice) to criminal elements eager and aggressive enough to fill the power vacuums.

“They are the one’s collecting taxes, they are the ones running customs, setting up roadblocks to collect money from travelers,” says Gaye, the U.N.’s special representative. “They are living off the population and wealth of this country.”

In the long term, this “rent-seeking” behavior, will only further weaken the country.

“The state is an asset for the group in power,” wrote Gerard Prunier, African expert and author of Africa’s Great War. “But that asset is fragile … and things have to be grabbed while they last.” In the CAR, this means everything from the illegal poaching of elephants to the mining of diamonds.

In a state where political leadership has been subject to cyclical coups, where power is expressed primarily through the financial means to arm, train and sustain violence, stability will only be found through tortured battle.

Recent pronouncements from French Pres. François Hollande, however, may signal reinforcements of the country’s familiar ally.

“This country is on the verge of Somalization,” Hollande said, addressing French ambassadors in Paris on Aug. 27. He went on to confirm France’s willingness to support intervention in the CAR with additional troops — a political echo of the country’s pledge to Mali in 2012.

But as the international community tackles the potential intervention-in-retaliation for chemical weapons by the Syrian government, the tangled political, economic and human rights calculus in Egypt, and the recent escalation in U.N. peacekeeping activities in the DRC, resources for the Central African Republic will be sparse and political will scarce.

French troops in CAR on May 16, 2008. UNICEF Photo

Will France intervene?

The reasonable first step would be to fulfill previous promises. Those on the ground, sunrise to sunset, note stagnant international support: between 20 and 30 percent of the pledged $139 million in assistance has arrived in the country, according to U.N. and USAID sources.

With the U.N. Secretary General designating CAR as one of the “highest [humanitarian] priorities,” the African Union’s recent pledge to send 3,500 support troops to the region might signal movement in the right direction.

On this point, Gaye said that stable financial support for the A.U. operation will be essential, but also stressed the importance of a lesser-known quality: moral ascendancy.

The A.U. peacekeeping mission must establish security with impartiality to the myriad forces currently operating in the country. Individuals, like the unidentified machete victim who’s story opened this piece, need to know that security without fear may soon be an option.

Meanwhile, Hollande’s push to intervene with force resonates in the background. While French involvement has been championed by some, observers (with an eye for historical patterns) may recognize a common refrain.

It was Louis de Guiringaud, a former French foreign minister, who said: “Africa is the only continent … where, with 500 soldiers, [France feels] she can still change the course of history.” According to an op-ed written by Pierre Haski for the International Herald Tribune, the former editor of Libération wrote:

The challenge for the French Socialist president in a time of a global reshuffling of cards is to create a clean and ethical ‘Françafrique’ — to recover some of France’s lost influence in Africa without reviving the negative aspects of colonialism.

On the ground, however, history plays a distant second to the realities of the current crisis. For Gaye, there is only one message to communicate.

The unlawful elements need to “realize they are citizens fighting for a political goal and this political goal is only going to be reached when you have fair, democratic, transparent elections.”

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