I work in the Central African Republic. In South Africa? No, in Central Africa. Ah, and where is that? The response seems so obvious, no? But I don’t have enough fingers on my hands to count the number of times that I have had exactly that same dialog. The things that are not known!
Yes, in effect, although many people are surprised by it, the Central African Republic – or abbreviated RCA – is a country that actually exists and, as its name would imply, is found in the center of the great continent, or that is to say, Beafrica, the heart of Africa, which is how the central Africans call their country in their local national language, sango. It is a heart that is overwhelmingly green because the country forms part of the drainage basin of the Congo, the second lung of the planer. The jungle extends throughout the country, becoming less dense in the north on the frontier with Chad, where it takes on the smell of the Sahel, but still far from the Sahara.
With a current population of around 5 million people, the country is classified next to last (188/189) on the 2019 Index of Human Development as elaborated by the United Nations, only ahead of Niger. It is the last in life expectancy at birth at 52.8 years. 75% of the population is below the poverty line. Some of the important cities in the country did have at one time an electrical grid that stopped functioning some time ago, a sure victim to bad maintenance, lack of investment, vandalism and looting.
According to the 2003 census, the principal religions of the Central African Republic are: Christianity (80.3%, of which 51.4% are various Protestant groups and 28.9% belong to the Catholic Church), Islam (10.1%) and animism (9.6%).
A Conflict that Comes from Afar
The geographic-administrative nature of its name gives us some insight into its origin. The Central African Republic is a state which is the fruit of the French decolonization of the 1960s in west and central Africa. It is an artificial state, without a national identity, that grouped together the great diversity of ethnicities, religions and languages that inhabited the territory. It is the heir to the French territory of Ubangi-Chari. “the blank space on the map of Africa, the center of the continent, whose outlines no one was able to draw,” as defined by Jean-Pierre Tuquoi (2017) in his book Ubangi-Chari, the country that never existed.
In its precolonial history, this immense and sparsely populated territory already was guarding some painful memories. Slavery was practiced for centuries, especially by the Arab sultanates of Ouaddai, Ndelé and Birao which were established in the north. These favored man hunting by obtaining “hunting licenses” in order to supply slaves to the markets in the Maghreb, Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula and even Turkey.
The Central African Republic obtained its independence on August 13, 1960. This period is characterized essentially by a succession of presidents who had obtained power through revolts and coups d’état. Among them there stands out the picturesque but bloody and cruel “Emperor” Bokassa I who ruled between 1966 and 1979.The parents of those who studied in ESO will undoubtedly remember the image of the self-described emperor with his cape made of ermine pelts (in the middle of the tropics), scepter and crown, in a false imitation of the coronation ceremony of Napoleon.
Francoise Bozizé (2003-2013)
If we make a jump in time, skipping over decades of instability and armed conflicts, we find ourselves at March 15, 2003. After a coup d’état Francoise Bozizé came to power, deposing Ange-Félix Patassé. During his rule there was a deepening of the ethnicization of the army and the administration. His ethnic group, the gbaya, and especially the members of his family, occupied all of the key posts. The corruption and the repression of the other ethnic groups was notable.
The country is sometimes called the Republic of Bangui. The reason is that since independence all of the resources, services, business, etc., has become concentrated always in the capital. The general neglect of the provinces is notorious. It is enough to pass through some medium-sized cities in order to determine that the existing administrative offices (prefectures, hospitals, schools, etc.) date from the period previous to independence, with their typical rustic version of colonial architecture. The presidency of Bozizé did not contribute anything at all to altering this tendency. In fact, it did just the opposite.
It is in these regions of the remote north where, as the fruit of abandonment and isolation, there began to be organized armed militias. The population of these areas is majority Muslim and they maintain more economic and social links with their neighboring Chadians and Sudanese than with the rest of the country. Their claims are political and economic, not religious. The response of the state to these claims only through repression fed the support of the population for the militias and the enrolling of young men as combatants.
In August, 2012, the most important militias joined together and created the seleka (alliance in sango), under the leadership of Michel Djotodia. They also incorporated Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries who, since the termination of the conflict between Chad and the Sudan, had found themselves in what could be called “technical unemployment.” The seleka advanced progressively in controlling the territory. In March, 2013, after capturing Bangui, it took total control of the country. Bozizé was overthrown and Michel Djotodia succeeded to the presidency of the State.
Michel Djotodia (2013-2014)
One of the immediate effects of the arrival of the seleka to Bangui was the disappearance of the Central African Armed Forces, the FACA. From one day to the next, the national army was dissolved. A good number of its members were integrated into groups which were called antibalaka. These groups mostly had their origin in groups for self-defense, local in character, badly armed and scarcely organized, generally popping up as farmworker militias in order to protect themselves from the groups of shepherds of the peul ethnic group who arrive each year with their flocks during the time of moving to new pastures. The flocks of the nomads often spill over from the open spaces, going into fields and destroying crops. The incorporation of elements of the FACA with their arms augmented the capacity of these antibalaka groups, but it did not succeed in integrating them into a united militia with true operational capacity.
With the coming to power of President Michel Djotodia, the seleka militias dedicated themselves to the most complete predatory behavior in the capital and the large cities of the west: robberies of cars and motorcycles, kidnappings, extortions, etc., which were turned into cash. If indeed at the beginning they only fattened themselves on the Christian communities, they quickly perceived that the more important businessmen, mainly of the Muslim religion and concentrated in the PK5 neighborhood of Bangui, were the ones who were keeping greater resources. Therefore they, too, became victims of these abuses. The abuses reached to such a scale that the international community reacted and they pressured Michel Djotodia to put an end to the situation. In response to these pressures, Djotodia decided to dissolve the seleka and to attempt to impose order, but did not succeed at it. Tension and hate accumulated between the population against what were then called ex-seleka groups who were identified as Muslim militia.
The vengeance of the antibalaka groups came on December 5, 2013. Members of the old presidential guard of Bozizé along with former members of the FACA in the hands of certain antibalaka leaders managed to gather together a contingent of some one thousand individuals that attacked Bangui to eject the ex-seleka and to depose President Michel Djotodia. The butchery reached Dantesque proportions in the streets of the capital: bodies inside of burning tires, people hanging from the trees, bodies – or only the heads – thrown into wells to stop them from ever being used again. The French contingent deployed as the RCA, the Sangaris force, was not able to brake the unmitigated chaos. The population fled, seized by panic, and they took refuge in large buildings like parish churches, seminaries, mosques and the largest of them which is the Bangui airport itself. Four hundred thousand people abandoned their homes in a few days only in Banguiand a hundred thousand of them went to the airport, a space which was protected by the French troops.
In the days following the taking of the capital, in Bangui and in the west of the country there unfolded a manhunt with the objective of massacring the Muslim population which was considered responsible for all of the suffering caused by the seleka. A majority of them fled and took refuge in neighboring Cameroon while others entrenched themselves in certain territories that were changed into completely isolated ghettos, protected by local militia who were generally well armed. The largest of these was the neighborhood of PK5 in Bangui, located in the center of the city, defended by various self-defense groups who with the passage of time would become an extortionist mafia of their own people.
The rise to power of the seleka and their subsequent fall constituted the coup de grace for the slow but inexorable destruction of the Central African state, submerging it in an unprecedented crisis that would last for a long time. As a matter of fact, never since its independence had the Central African Republic experienced a similar wave of collective violence. The pattern of uprisings and coups d’état with little or no bloodshed or of fights between armed groups was substituted by an atmosphere of civil war characterized by the total disappearance of the structures of the State, an economy of survival and an intercommunity conflict with religious connotations that has caused a de facto splitting of the country into two.
The images of the killings in Bangui went viral and drew the attention of the public throughout the world but only for a few days. They soon fell into oblivion. Once Michel Djotodia had been overthrown, the international community applied pressure for a national dialog that became a reality in January, 2014, with a transitional government under the presidency of Catherine Samba-Panza, the former mayor of Bangui, who was given a mandate to organize democratic elections before the end of 2015.
Catherine Samba-Panza (2014-2015)
When Catherine Samba-Panza came to power in the midst of the general weakening, the government controlled barely 20% of the territory, mainly the area around Bangui. Even in the middle of the capital, the Muslim neighborhood PK5 escaped from the area of control. Since the national armed forces had disappeared, that relative control was achieved essentially due to the French forces from Operation Sangaris. Beginning on April 10 of the same year of 2014, there were progressively added in contingents of the integrated multinational mission of the United Nations for the stabilization of Central Africa (MINUSCA) which was formed by some 12,000 persons between military and civilians. The military contingents of the different countries participating in the peace-keeping operations were deployed in the major cities of the country without it’s resulting in greater control of more territory.
The greater part of the country remained under the control of a plethora of armed groups, divided between ex-seleka and antibalaka, that learned to coexist with the presence of the Blue Helmets who were installed in their zones. The latter could not – or would not – stop the fighting between the different militias who held the civilian population as their ultimate victim. The confrontations would continue happening in the following years in all of the possible combinations: antibalakas against antibalakas, selekas against antibalakas, selekas against selekas. The lack of foreseeability was total and the reasons for these conflicts were most diverse: ethnic conflict, control of mines, simple incidents that degenerated into violence, thefts, extorsions and pillage.
Many cities and neighborhoods would eventually be totally abandoned by their inhabitants. They would go to live with welcoming families, in displacement camps beside the encampments of MINUSCA, or they would leave for nearby countries as refugees, especially to Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon. The number of displaced persons would continue to rise until it surpassed 1.2 million people, which meant that more than 20% of the population saw themselves as having to abandon their homes. Necessities became very large – access to water, latrines, food and housing – but neither would the funds to finance the humanitarian response be sufficient nor would the international agencies and NGOs have sufficient capacity to supply the aid on the scale that was required, focusing on covering only the most critical necessities.
As the time limit approached for the celebration of the election that was supposed to put an end to the transitional government, violence was unleashed again in the heart of Bangui at the end of September and once again at the end of October, 2015. The fighting between the Muslim militias from the PK5 neighborhood and the antibalaka from the neighborhoods that surrounded it caused a new flow of displaced people and the total destruction of those surrounding neighborhoods. PK5 was left surrounded by a ring of desolation which isolated even more the Muslim population of the capital, a barrier zone emptied of all its inhabitants in which the jungle began to recover its territory.
The elections which were called as a last resort for December 30 ran the serious risk of being invalidated. Many were the voices that questioned their appropriateness in a moment of such great insecurity, but an unexpected event brought about a total change in the paradigm. Pope Francis decided to continue with the visit to the Central African Republic that he had planned for November 29 and 30. The visit, which was strongly discouraged by the French forces responsible for his security, included a Mass in a crowded stadium and a visit to the central mosque in Bangui within the PK5 enclave. He was also to open at the cathedral of Bangui the Holy Door that was to be kept open for the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
The Pope’s visit was a huge success and celebrated by all confessions and creeds. It brought with it an atmosphere of reconciliation that impregnated the whole electoral process, allowing for the two rounds of presidential and parliamentary elections (December 30, 2015 and February 14, 2016) to be held in total tranquility.
Faustin-Archange Touadera (2016- )
Faustin-Archange Touadera, a university professor and former prime minister under Bozizé, was elected in the second round with 62.7% of the vote. In spite of small irregularities, the process was considered transparent and his victory was recognized by his opponents. Touadera took possession of the office on March 30, 2016 and there began a period of relative calm. This was broken in the month of October when the struggles between armed groups began again in the East and they again destabilized the country.
After several attempts, of which there were no less than eight since 2012, on February 6, 2019 there was signed the Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in the Central African Republic (APPR-RCA), also known as the Khartoum Agreement, between the Government of the RCA and 14 of the principal armed groups of the country, under the auspices of the African Union and with the support of the United Nations. The Central African civil society was left completely on the sidelines in this whole process. Behind the peace agreement was the influence of Russia which began to fill the void left by France after the withdrawal of the military in Operation Sangaris which took place in October, 2016.
The growing closeness between Russia and the Touadera Government became visible for the first time in 2017 after a delivery of Russian arms to the Central African army and the support of the famous Russian instructors, authorized by the Security Council of the United Nations and intended to reenforce the capacity of the Central African army. In reality these instructors were mercenaries of the famous Wagner Brigade, belonging to the Russian oligarch Evegeny Prigogine, an ally of Vladimir Putin. Among other things, they formed the new Praetorian Guard of the President along with Rwandan members of the MINUSCA. There also appeared on the scene Valery Zakharov, the new security advisor of the Central African president and a former officer of Russian military intelligence. This Russian presence was not to the liking of France which would gradually be estranged from Touadera and from their old colony.
The armed groups continued their predatory practices even after the signing of the peace agreement. Their habitual practices are the imposition of tolls on the commercial routes, both on the passing trucks and on the poor farmers who come into the city on market days, the exploitation of the gold and diamond mines that are abundant in certain areas of the country, the protection agreements for conducting exploration of the wood resources, for businesses or for ranchers moving between pastures, and fees for the administration of justice. In spite of periods of relative calm, the fratricidal fighting among groups destroyed Birao in September, 2019, and Ndelé in March, 2020.
The end of 2020 brought a new cycle of elections. The first round of the elections was scheduled for December 27. Among the notable candidates were the president who was then in power, Touadera, and the past president, Bozizé. The candidacy of the latter was rejected by the Constitutional Court since he was under an international detention order which had been issued by the Central African government in 2013. The consequences of this rejection were ill-fated.
Bozizé managed to weave alliances with some of the larger rebel groups (AB, MPC, 3R, FPRC, UPC), and on December 18, in what was known as the Kamba Kota accords, there was created the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC). We are dealing here with a union which was against nature which united both antibalaka groups and exseleka with the ultimate goal of stopping the elections and the more than probable reelection of president Touadera. The coalition started off taking over territory and it came close to the capital, Bangui. For that, they were able to count on the participation of mercenaries from Chad and the Sudan.
In spite of the situation of generalized conflict, the elections were held on the scheduled date thanks to the omnipresent support of the MINUSCA and the PNUD and under pressure from the international community that did not accept a delay in the process. For its part, the CPC barred the opening of the polling stations in the areas under its control in order to delegitimize the whole process and then it accused Touadera of electoral fraud in collaboration with the MINUSCA. In the end, Touadera won the first round with 53.2% of the votes cast, but which represented a very small percentage of those who were registered to vote. For that reason, they undermined their own legitimacy. In spite of that, the international community supported without reservation the election of Touadera for the new term as the only option for the future of the country. France had no other option than to accept, for the moment, that the intrusive Slav would gain influence in what it considered her sphere of influence.
Faced with the advance of the forces of the CPC toward the capital, Touadera reached for Russian support which increased its presence in the territory and he also signed an agreement with Rwanda for the sending of a bilateral force which was not included within the framework of the peace mission of the MINUSCA. This betrayed a clear determination to take the offensive and the reconquest of the territory. On January 13, 2021, the coalition arrived in the outlying neighborhoods of Bangui, but the air superiority offered by the Russian helicopters and the collaboration of these forces with those of the FACA and the MINUSCA were able to repel them. In the following days, the government forces gained territory around the capital, but they could not provide for free passage of trucks on the MSR1, the only large commercial road that connects Bangui with the port of Duala in Cameroon. The cutting of this axis, a true umbilical cord for the supplying of the capital, caused an important rise in the prices for basic products and threatened to strangle the city.
With the passage of months, the Government with the help of the contingents from Russia and Rwanda has been recovering a good part of the territory, taking control of key cities like Biria, Kaga-Bandoro, Markounda among others, reopening the commercial axis with Cameroon and recovering some of the important mining areas (see the maps). After the initial bloody clashes between the two groups, the later dynamic in facing the advance of the government troops has been more of a progressive retreat by the rebel groups and their entrenchment in certain mining areas that have difficult access.
The current dynamic does not offer great opportunities for hope. The rhetoric used by the Government is one of war and the rejection of any negotiation. The possibility of recovering the spirit of the peace accords seems remote and Central African civil society remains mute and divided before this situation. It is to be hoped that at some moment there will be established the front lines in dealing with the incapacity of one side or the other to take control of the country and the situation will become swampy again. An “it’s still going on” that sinks the Central African Republic each day further into the well of underdevelopment and poverty.
[Image by Wikimedia Commons]