The Central African Republic: a Troubled and Divided Nation

Photography by hdptcar

There is perhaps no country with as revealing a name as the Central African Republic, a name that is defined not by its history or people but by its geographical location. The latest outbreak of violence, which has seen rebels capture the capital Bangui and the president forced into exile, is just the latest manifestation of the instability which has dogged the state since it achieved independence in 1960. The disparate nature of the groups which form the C.A.R., as well as chronic misrule have contributed to the country’s status as one of Africa’s poorest and most unstable nations.
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The country’s rapidly expanding population is comprised of people from over 80 ethnic groups with even the largest group, the Baya, forming only around a third of the country’s population. It is not surprising that groups that have little history of co-operation and many different languages have struggled to find accommodation in the framework left following independence.

Like the straight borders of Chad and Sudan, the Central African Republic attests to the arbitrary nature of state borders that colonialism imposed. The French territory of Ubangi-Shari, which was to become the C.A.R., was forged in the particularly frantic decades of the late 19th century. Its borders were fixed not by geography or the historical unity of its peoples but by agreements between rival colonial powers.

While the territory which became the Central African Republic upon independence should perhaps never have been united at all, the actions of its rulers since then have only accentuated and perpetuated the state’s problems. A coup in 1966 led by Jean-Bédel Bokassa, commander-in-chief of the nation’s armed forces, ousted the struggling regime of President Dacko. Under Bokassa’s rule political opposition was ruthlessly suppressed, while much of the president’s extravagant spending served only to enhance his own prestige and did little to benefit the majority of Central Africans.

In 1976 Bolkassa declared himself emperor. He became increasingly egomaniacal and repression increased. When 100 children were arrested (subsquently dying in captivity) for refusing to purchase school uniforms with Bokassa’s face on, French troops overthrew him.

This unfortunately failed to usher in a period of stability, as the regime left in place by the French was itself overthrown just two years later. Another General, André Kolingba, became president, ruling with a military junta until 1985 and with only a veneer of democracy thereafter. However, dissatisfaction within the C.A.R. and renewed international pressure following the end of the Cold War led to multiparty elections in 1993.

This proved to be a false dawn, as in a pattern all too familiar to Central Africans, another military coup took place, bringing General Bozizé to power. Corruption, nepotism and the continued poverty of much of the country combined to ensure that stability would once again prove elusive. A conflict known as the Central African Bush War soon developed where a loose coalition of fighters led an insurgency against government forces.

While a peace deal was signed with some of the rebels in 2007, the diversity and differences between the rebels have meant that achieving a lasting and comprehensive peace has proved impossible. The country's porous borders mean that fighters can escape into neighbouring countries whenever the government mounts an offensive. Once government forces leave an area, the rebels can simply melt back over the border and begin their campaigns anew.

The March 2013 coup is merely the latest chapter in the Central African Republic's troubled history. Bad governance has meant the disparate peoples brought together by an accident of the colonial era have remained fractured. In countries such as this, only prosperity offers a potential glue to bind the nation together. The landlocked country’s new rulers need to persuade the citizens of the country that they will rule in everyone’s best interests or another coup is surely round the corner.

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Posted on March 31, 2013

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