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Central African Republic: history of a collapse foretold?

Political instability and administrative weakness have been permanent features of the Central African Republic since independence. What has happened in recent weeks is tragic but is neither genocide nor a full-blown sectarian conflict. This can still be avoided if the international forces behave impartially towards the two main religious communities.

Morten Bøås
26 January 2014
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Between a rock and a hard place: the conflict between Muslim and Christian militias has caused massive displacement. Flickr / hdptcar. Some rights reserved.

The Central African Republic (CAR) has not previously featured much on the international scene. Few have been there and few know very much about it, apart from that it is generally seen as one of Africa’s poorest countries and weakest states. During the last few months this has changed, however, and the CAR has suddenly received more international attention than ever before in its history as an independent country. There are several reasons for this. Some are just a matter of chance: after Mali and the Sahel, the CAR became the African conflict of the month until events in South Sudan led international media attention to Juba. Others are related to the fact that international awareness of the Sahel and the areas bordering this region has increased immensely since the crisis in Mali and the attack against the gas plant in In Aménas.

This is both good and bad. It is good that the international community has finally turned its attention to the plight of the people of the CAR, whose problems have been ignored for decades. But as it rushes into a country about which few have detailed knowledge, there is a danger that interventions aiming at a quick-fix solution to a political as well as humanitarian crisis are based on assumptions about the CAR and its conflicts that do not necessarily correspond to the current turmoil. This is not genocide; neither is it yet a full-blown sectarian conflict. In fact, further massive levels of bloodshed and prolonged sectarian war can be avoided but it will take resources and time as well as a fine-tuned and delicate approach. The state is so weak that there is not much to build upon and the situation on the ground is so fragile that great care must be taken that international intervention does not fuel the sectarian fire that is smouldering.

Almost 950,000 people are displaced, almost 500,000 have left the capital, Bangui, and about 100,000 are staying at a makeshift camp at Bangui airport with little shelter and few sanitary facilities. Many internally displaced persons have also sought shelter from the violence in the bush, making it extremely difficult to reach them with humanitarian aid. Communal violence is on the rise and so is the use of child soldiers. The international peacekeepers, 5,500 in total, from the African Union (AU) (4,000) and from France (1,500) are simply too few at the moment to be able to contribute much; this is rapidly becoming a war of militias rolling through villages and cities in search of their perceived enemies without any clear boundaries between fighters and civilians.

Since Michel Djotodia installed himself as the country’s first Muslim ruler in March 2013, ousting the then president, François Bozizé, who came from the majority Christian population, faith-based community militias have been fighting each other, pitting the Christian majority population against the Muslim minority. The situation is undoubtedly chaotic and explosive, with dramatic ramifications for the population of the CAR as well as for regional stability. But what is it really all about?

Chronic instability and weakness

The situation is messy and unpredictable but what is taking place is neither particularly unexpected nor difficult to explain. Rather, this is the history of a collapse foretold. The CAR is one of the very weakest states in Africa. Its infrastructure is completely underdeveloped and does not tie the country together. Local administration exists to a degree but, even in Bangui, does not have the capacity to function as it should. The state does not even have the money to pay its civil servants and has been begging neighbouring countries for funds. Sometimes civil servants are paid but this is the exception rather than the rule. Political instability and administrative weakness have therefore been features of the CAR ever since independence in 1960. Before this, it was a colony of only marginal importance to France, so the then colonial power did not contribute much to prepare the country for sovereign statehood.

The CAR’s first president, David Dacko, was in power for six years before he was ousted by his commander-in-chief, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, in 1966. This coup marked the beginning of one the most eccentric systems of rule that Africa has experienced. Nonetheless, what little exists of state power and infrastructure was established during Bokassa’s reign. Since then, almost nothing has been accomplished.

Bokassa ruled the CAR from 1966 to 1979. After the coup, he declared himself president for life and went one step further in 1976 when he named himself emperor of Central Africa. The coronation ceremony is supposed to have cost the CAR as much as $20 million (just the crown is rumoured to have had a price tag of $5 million). This was, of course, bizarre but it is equally surreal that it took place with the blessing of France and other western powers. This was during the cold war and Bokassa was generally seen as an eccentric but useful ally of the west. In addition, several French politicians and higher servants benefited from this relationship, as Bokassa rewarded his ‘patrons’ in Paris with the country’s natural resources. For example, diamonds were given as gifts to leading French politicians.

Almost 950,000 people are displaced, almost 500,000 have left the capital, Bangui, and about 100,000 are staying at a makeshift camp

In 1979, Bokassa’s life as the emperor of Central Africa was over. He simply went too far. Hundreds of schoolchildren were arrested and several executed after they protested against his decision that all pupils had to wear uniforms from his factory. As the protests spread, France intervened, ousted Bokassa and replaced him with his predecessor, Dacko. This was, however, not the end of the CAR’s problems; rather, it marked the beginning of a long instability. The current crisis is the most recent manifestation.

The second-most-recent president, François Bozizé, was brought to power through a coup in 2003 but he ‘won’ two elections (in 2005 and 2011). But this did not contribute much to the stability of the country. Apart from being recognised for a time as France’s preferred candidate for the presidency, Bozizé’s period in power is best known for widespread electoral fraud.

The CAR has considerable natural resources, such as uranium, oil, gold, diamonds and timber, as well as huge potential for hydroelectric power, but most go underexploited and the little activity that exists does not generate much income for the state: the rents go only to those able to control it for long enough to accumulate a small profit. In the CAR, it is all about maximising short-term gains and never about the development of state and society.

Doomed to disaster

This is, therefore, the story behind the rebellion of Michel Djotodia and the Séléka alliance and it is not hard to understand why it ended with an armed revolt or why this was doomed to disaster. The regime of Bozizé was thoroughly corrupt and, as it also had obvious despotic features, there was little reason to believe he would leave the presidency voluntarily. Djotodia may therefore have had good intentions when he put together the Séléka alliance but this lacked coherence, unity and organisation.

Most of its members originate from the CAR’s Muslim minority but at the outset this was not a huge issue, as sectarian differences had never really constituted an important cleavage. Rather, just after Djotodia seized power, the main problem was that he and the Séléka alliance did not have a plan beyond ousting Bozizé—the only thing that had brought them together. This is not much of a foundation for a new regime and it certainly did not help that, in addition to recruiting amongst its own religious community, the alliance had also brought in ex-rebels from Chad.

The rebellion started in late November 2012, when three former rebel factions which had signed a peace agreement in 2007 came together under the banner of Séléka, accusing the Bozizé government of failing to honour the agreement and starting an armed campaign. Their grievances were initially about payment promised under the agreement, which they claimed had never been received. As they gained territory, however, the rebels put forward political grievances ranging from the detention of political prisoners to corruption and abuse of power by the president.

The rebellion started in the remote Haute Kotto province bordering Sudan but, almost in a Blitzkrieg manner, the rebels broke through the defensive position of government forces and captured towns and cities, including the diamond centre of Bria, the strategically important Bambari and finally Sibut, some 150 kilometres from the capital. They entered into negotiations with the Bozizé government in Libreville, capital of neighbouring Gabon, under the stewardship of the regional Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). The intended outcome was a sustainable settlement but Djotodia and Séléka ousted Bozizé, forcingt him out of the country.

This was, however, a recipe for disaster. The moment Bozizé was gone, the coherence of the alliance disappeared and Djotodia claimed the presidency of a country whose coffers were almost empty. He did not have the means to keep the alliance together, so had little choice but to dissolve it. Yet once such a structure as is created, it does not disappear on the basis of an order lacking any real authority. The Séléka warriors therefore kept their weapons and many of them, particularly those from Chad, had little if anything to which to return.

For lack of other options, they continued to sustain themselves through taking what they needed from the civilian population—more often than not from Christian communities which constitute the majority in and around Bangui. As what little command and control had existed in the alliance disappeared and the situation took a turn for the worse, local Christian communities established their own militias, such as the anti-balaka groups, often based on ex-soldiers from Bozizé’s former army.

Hornet’s nest

What had started as a rebellion against a thoroughly corrupt and increasingly despotic president thus ended as a sectarian conflict in the making and it is in this hornet’s nest of communal violence that the French and AU forces are supposed to re-establish law and order. This is a very challenging and delicate mission. The terrain is challenging and the current force far too small to be able to control the whole country. But the main challenge is to avoid adding fuel to the simmering sectarian fire.

Given France’s previous preference for Bozizé, many Muslims interpreted the French intervention as an attempt to restore Bozizé to power and to remove Djotodia (the country’s first Muslim ruler), whereas the Christian majority population harbours similar conspiracy theories concerning the forces from Chad (part of the AU mission). There have therefore been both anti-French and anti-Chad demonstrations in Bangui, resulting in casualties.

It is of the utmost importance that the international forces tread very carefully here and any attempt at disarming militias must be conducted with this in mind. It must be balanced and it must not create an impression that the French forces and the international community are in the CAR to protect the Christian majority; they need to make it clear that they are there to re-establish law and order for everybody.

It is, therefore, important that the international forces make it clear that they did not play a role when Djotodia left the presidency and the country on January 10 but that this was a decision he reached after consultations within the country and with neighbouring states—and thus the peacekeepers continue to limit themselves to law-and-order operations and to encouraging political dialogue and reconciliation. What has happened happening in the CAR is deeply tragic, but it is certainly not genocide and neither is it yet a full-blown sectarian conflict on a nationwide scale.

That can still be avoided if the international forces, and the French in particular, behave impartially with regard to all issues concerning the relationship between the two main religious communities. If not, this smouldering sectarian fire can easily ignite and there are plenty of groups in the region, such as al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb, which will grasp the opportunity this will give them.

This article is reproduced courtesy of NOREF, the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre.

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