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More Woe for the Central African Republic

CAR - a rebel's child - pierre holtz UNICEF

Often lost in the whirl of stories about conflict or peacebuilding in Africa is the tragic situation that continues to unravel in the Central African Republic (CAR). There, the state has slid downhill for a decade into ineffectiveness and turmoil, so much so that today the CAR is arguably the continent's leading failed state.  It is a distinction that no one would seek, least of all the citizens of the nation whom most are victims of ineptitude, lassitude, violence and neglect.  Rule of law is feeble in the CAR. Bandit gangs of thugs, linked to the rebel movement Seleka that put current leader Michel Djotodia in power have looted their way from east to west, including pillaging the capital city of Bangui.  Their latest predations in the northwest, home areas both to ousted president Bozize and his predecessor Patasse, have taken an especially vicious turn resulting in massacres of entire villages.  Hundreds of thousands of people are on the run crowding into makeshift camps where food, sanitation and security are minimal.   Violence is driven by tribalism, political hatreds, vengeance and religion.  The religious element is pernicious. Predominately Moslem Seleka fighters confront largely Christian communities and meet resistance, increasing the specter for more widespread religious conflict.  Indeed it is this threat that has aroused the international community to greater awareness.   In recent weeks both UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and French Foreign Minister Fabius have each decried the growing tide of violence, which Fabius described as "on the verge of genocide." They promised a vigorous response.

Parceled Responsibility

Blame for the catastrophe can be parceled out internally, regionally and internationally. First internally, the central government has been so inept and corrupt during the past decade that citizens longed for the days of Bokassa's empire, when at least one could travel safely and send the kids to school.  Similarly, the promise of democracy, accountability and progress generated by free elections in 1993 was never realized.  Nascent institutions never developed.  New President Patasse reverted to cronyism and tribal politics to rule.   Then violence from a collapsing Democratic Republic of the Congo spilled across the border, accentuating internal divisions and leading to Francois Bozize's coup d'etat in 2003. Bozize's hold on power was tenuous and the government's authority continued to erode.   By the late 2000s, the combination of economic decline, an ineffective, bankrupt and corrupt central government, and nationwide insecurity rendered Bozize vulnerable.   In efforts to shore up his position, Bozize appointed a prime minister from the main line opposition and cut a deal for integration into the power structure with a political/rebel coalition from the east dubbed Seleka, a deal he repeatedly reneged upon.   Thus feeling betrayed, Seleka recruited, mobilized and marched to Bangui where it took power in March 2013.  Rebel chief Michel Djotodia, a Moslem from the northeast, became chief of state.

Historically African leaders have adopted hands-off policies towards their neighbors, but a regional consortium of states, led by Gabon, has maintained a small military force in CAR for years.  Authorized by the OAU/AU and recognized by the UN, it was particularly helpful in quelling violence during the early 2000s in Bangui; nonetheless, the force never had the heft - politically or militarily - to legitimize government or referee squabbles, so essentially it just extended the crises.   Just as conflict and fighters spilled over from the Congo, troubles in Sudan and Chad (not to mention the Lord's Resistance Army from Uganda) also impacted upon the CAR.  A portion of Seleka combatants are former Darfurian or Chadian militiamen, now mercenaries.

The Central African Republic, formerly the territory of Ubangi-Chari, was a French colony. Over the years, France assumed responsibilities for the country, including peace and security.  French soldiers were based in the CAR and French advisors patronizingly financed and oversaw government operations.  The French/Central African relationship began to fray, however, when Ange Patasse was elected president in 1993.  Central Africans wanted to stand on their own and France was reconsidering and reducing its responsibilities throughout Africa.  Thus, during the turbulent last twenty years in the CAR, France - while always present in some form or other - exerted much less influence and exercised little control.  Other powers, especially the United States, essentially pursued policies of neglect.  They trusted neighboring governments and the United Nations to handle problems.   However, the problems were too big for the resources and the commitments available, so the CAR stagnated and slipped inevitably into the vortex of violence where it now resides.

 So what happens next? 

Chief of State, Michel Djotodia is not recognized as "president" by his neighbors, but only as a caretaker pending a 2015 election (never count an incumbent out, but Djotodia, a Moslem from a minority eastern tribe could never win a free and fair election).  Meanwhile he says he has disbanded Seleka, therefore diffusing even further what control he might have over its combatants and leaving unchecked the reign of terror in the northwest.  His government, although headed by reputable lawyer Nicolas Tiangaye, is constrained by lack of resources. Its writ rarely writes.

Pursuant to United Nations Security Council discussions in late November,  a bigger more powerful peacekeeping force will be assembled for the CAR. Meanwhile France has increased its troop presence to 1200 in the capital in anticipation of participation in the UN force. But if nothing else, the increase sends a message to Djotodia, Seleka and the nation that the international community will again engage.  It is encouraging to see French leadership again regarding the CAR.  As for the U.S., its policy of minimal involvement continues apace.  Deputy Assistant Secretary for Africa, Ambassador Robert Jackson, told Congress on November 19 that the U.S. would provide assistance to the African Union force, would maintain humanitarian operations and would continue to cooperate with France, the UN and the African Union in pushing for reduction in violence and re-establishment of security.  That is diplomatic speak for not much.   Even though the U.S. has interests in protecting Americans, re-establishing regional stability and security, promoting democracy and human rights and capturing Lord's Resistance Army chief Joseph Kony,  the U.S. embassy in Bangui is closed and not expected to re-open.

The best possible outcome in the next few months would be insertion of a French supported Chapter VII UN Peacekeeping operation with a mandate to pacify the nation.  Should security be achieved, the next step would be to revive competent government from Bangui outwards and thus begin the agonizing process of reconstruction and advancement.  Accomplishment of these objectives has to be a partnership among all the parties - domestic and international alike.  Sierra Leone and Liberia provide examples of how failed states can be resurrected.  The Central African Republic now needs that opportunity.

An experienced Africa hand, Robert E. Gribbin served as U.S. ambassador in Bangui from 1992-95. He is the author of  "In the Aftermath of Genocide - the U.S. Role in Rwanda" and  blogs about the continent on  

Photo Credit: "A Rebel's Boy" from Pierre Holtz, UNICEF, available on Flickr.

About the Author

Robert Gribbin

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more