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Central African Republic: The continent’s latest failed state?

September 19, 2013   ·   1 Comments

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Targeted killings, widespread looting, kidnapping, torture and terrorism. Six months after rag-tag rebels officially seized power in a coup, the Central African Republic (CAR) is oscillating dangerously towards what the UN is calling a “complete breakdown of law and order”.

To be clear, there was never much of a fall from grace. The CAR, a landlocked country of approximately 4.5 million people, has traditionally ranked lower than Afghanistan in the UN Human Development Index and is one of the poorest countries in the world. Despite the country’s considerable natural wealth, with sizeable timber, copper and diamond resources, the CAR has continually fallen victim to self-serving governments and disastrous economic policies. Nevertheless, international leaders insist that the current situation is different, that things are far worse than at any point in recent memory.

In a Security Council report, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon deplored the CAR’s catastrophic humanitarian situation, brought about by increased rebel activity in the country’s rural areas that has left over 1.6 million people in “dire need of assistance”.

“The current security situation in the Central African Republic […] is characterized by a total breakdown in law and order”, the Secretary General stated. “The plight of the people of the Central African Republic must be brought to an end.”

“Musical chairs”

The political history of the Central African Republic resembles a game of musical chairs. Shortly after its independence from France, David Dacko came to power and, after turning the new country into a one-party state, was unsurprisingly elected President in 1964. In a move foreshadowing things to come, his cousin, army commander Jean-Bedel Bokassa ousted Dacko one year later and promptly declared himself Emperor. In 1979, following an incident where Bokassa ordered the massacre of protesting students, the Emperor was deposed in a coup supported by French troops and Dacko was once again granted the Presidency.

However, Dacko’s second reign was to be just as short-lived. Army Commander Andre Kolingba, replaced him in a bloodless coup two years later. In 1993, the CAR’s first multiparty elections took place, with Kolingba losing the Presidency to Ange-Félix Patassé, and then losing again in 1999. Seeking revenge, Kolingba attempted to oust Patassé in 2001 with the help of a certain François Bozizé, a young army Chief of Staff. The attempted coup failed and Bozizé fled with considerable loyalist forces. In 2003, while President Patassé was out of the country attending a meeting in Niger, Bozizé and his backers succeeded in taking the country’s capital, Bangui.

Bozizé’s coup set off a seemingly interminable conflict between his national army and groups of rebels seeking to overthrow him. Known as the Bush Wars, the battles tore the CAR apart, officially lasting 4 years and displacing approximately 215,000 Central Africans. The latest rebel offensive against Bozizé began in December 2012 as a loose coalition of rebel groups rallied under the name Sénéka and took the capital on March 23rd 2013, with President Bozizé fleeing to neighbouring Cameroon.

Central Africa’s new mystery man

The leader of the CAR’s latest coup, Michel Djotodia, emerged on the international scene as a man of relative mystery. Since then, more details on his earlier life have come to light. A Muslim in a predominantly Christian country, Djotodia left the CAR in the 70s to study in the USSR, where he learned to speak Russian fluently, as well as French, Arabic and Gula. Reportedly a man who has never hidden his political ambitions, Djotodia attempted twice to be elected Deputy after his return to the CAR but failed both times. Ironically, it was through siding with Bozizé once Ange-Félix Patassé was overthrown that Djotodia landed his first position as Consul to Nyala (Sudan).

Djotodia later emerged as the ‘intellectual’ of the rebel movement against Bozizé during the Bush Wars and was forced to flee to Benin for the duration of the conflict. Soon after returning to his home country, he was named as leader of the new Séléka rebel movement and led the charge towards Bangui.

A land where killers thrive

The question now is whether the CAR can ever emerge from its seemingly endless pattern of coups and civil war. Though Michel Djotodia was sworn in as President on August 18th 2013, the country seems to have descended into anarchy. There are approximately 200 policemen in charge of assuring the protection of the CAR’s 4.6 million inhabitants, which has left many Séléka rebels free to do as they please, especially in the country’s notoriously lawless jungle regions.

In the capital, lootings and killings have skyrocketed, with thousands of Bangui residents fleeing the airport (where an African peacekeeping force is based) in an attempt to escape the wandering rebels. In the rural far north, where there is often no government presence, rebels act with complete impunity, mass-raping women and summarily executing men. Many Central Africans have simply disappeared, children recruited as child soldiers or victims dumped in the impenetrable jungle.

The latest fear is that the CAR is becoming a haven for international terrorists. The country has long provided much-needed shelter to the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and its leader Joseph Kony, who the United States and other countries have spent considerable time and resources trying to bring to justice. Now, leaders are concerned that the CAR could give refuge to terrorist groups like the Nigeria-based Boko Haram.

The people of the Central African Republic have long suffered from poor governance. What may be even worse, however, is a country with no governance at all, a failed state.

Photo credit: hdptcar via flickr

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Deborah Matvienko

Deborah Matvienko is a freelance journalist currently based in Kiev, Ukraine.

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