Rebel fighter in the Central African Republic in 2007, with arms and charms to ward of bullets. Flickr user hdpcar photo, CC-BY-SA

The Central African Republic is Erupting Into War

Conflict in Central African Republic is ignored by the international community, but not regional power brokers

Peter Dörrie
Sep 11, 2013 · 6 min read

Clashes between armed groups and government forces killed at least 60 people on Saturday and Sunday in the town of Bossangoa in western Central African Republic.

You might find yourself thinking “that’s a country?” and I can’t blame you for that. The Central African Republic — or the CAR for short — is not a well known tourist destination.

It’s not a “rising economy” or something equally catchy from a politician’s Sunday speech. It is just a state in (you guessed it) central Africa going through a decades-long national crisis and not even a fashionable one, like in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, where ex-Secretary of State Clinton likes to drop in for a photoshoot.

Nobody cares about the CAR, which is why you probably don’t know anything about the country or the conflict.

Except that some people, people with a lot of influence, political and military power do care. They are not the ones you see on T.V., but they have good reasons to care and maybe the people you see on T.V. should start caring, too.

But let’s rewind a bit and let me introduce you to the geopolitical marvel that is the Central African Republic.

Ousted president Bozizé inspecting troops during a ceremony in 2008. Flickr user hdpcar photo, CC-BY-SA

A history of meddling

The country, landlocked and smack in the middle of the continent, was released into independence from France in 1960. It’s mostly covered with what international media likes to call “jungle” although “Sudano-Guinean Savanna” would be the more correct term.

Its people sit on a vast amount of mineral riches, ranging from oil, gold to uranium, but not much of it has been tapped and virtually nothing has benefited the general population, because the CAR was also graced with an epic collection of dictators, Muammar Gaddafi-level crazy persons and a healthy dose of neo-colonial meddling.

The most memorable of Central African leaders was without a doubt Jean-Bédel Bokassa (aka Bokassa I), who declared himself “Emperor of Central Africa” in 1976 and ruled for three years under that title, overseeing such memorable occasions as the slaughter of 100 schoolchildren by his presidential guard.

But like much of francophone Africa, la grande nation continued to call the shots in the CAR for many years, as no ruler — including Bokassa and Ange-Félix Pattassé — elected more or less democratically after the end of the Cold War stayed in power during the 20th century if Paris didn’t want him to.

Even today, France continues to play a very important role in Central African politics. But during the last few years, it has increasingly shown a more passive approach compared to some of the up-and-coming regional players. Case in point is the rebellion and regime change that led up to the latest killing spree in Bossangoa.

Losing patience with Pres. Pattassé, France sponsored Gen. François Bozizé to take over power in a coup d’état in 2003. Bozizé went on to “legitimize” his coup by holding elections in 2005, but by then, his unconstitutional regime change and less-than-democratic style of government had already sparked a rebellion which escalated into the Central African Republic Bush War, which lasted until 2007.

Wikipedia lists nine complicated acronyms representing the equal number of rebel groups taking part in this war, but the name to remember is that of Michel Djotodia, leader of the “Union of Democratic Forces for Unity” (UFDR). The conflict officially ended in 2007 after the signing of the “Global Peace Accord” in Gabon’s capital of Libreville.

Rebel fighters in the CAR in 2007. Flickr user hdpcar photo, CC-BY-SA

The war continues

But large parts of the country remained effectively under rebel control. especially in the CAR’s north. The population there is mainly Muslim compared to the mainly Christian south and this — in addition to ethnic undertones in the makeup of the various forces and Bozizé regime — contributed to continuing distrust. That the rebels held onto some lucrative diamond mining activities probably didn’t help either.

After some years of unstable truce between the warring factions, the situation escalated again.

A coalition of rebel groups called “Séléka” (meaning “union” in a local language), united against the government and proceeded to take over some towns in the north in swift succession. The government response was frantic, with Bozizé pleading to France and the U.S. for help. Both declined, though, but help came from other players, notably from neighboring Chad and South Africa: both sending sizable troops to bolster the regime.

So why did Chad and South Africa deliver where both the United “we want to stop atrocities everywhere” States of America and ex-colonial power France balked?

Put simply, the international powers had their hands full with Mali and other important matters at the time, and are generally not hot on intervening anywhere anymore, unless someone shows up wearing a long beard and waving a black flag with Arabic script on it.

By contrast, Chad, South Africa and other African states are beginning to try their hand at playing the regional power broker.

Chad shares a long border with the CAR and sees its neighbor as its natural backyard. The CAR also borders Sudan, a country that Chad has a very complicated relationship with, as well as the new country of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, both being the epicenters of important regional political developments. Having influence on Central African affairs greatly serves the regional ambitions of Chad which has recently seen oil wells coming online and its greatest rival Libya falling to pieces after the death of Gaddafi.

South Africa has many of the same reasons to be engaged in the CAR and then some more.

The “Rainbow Nation” sees itself as the natural leader of the continent with an economy as large as the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa combined. It vies with Nigeria, the most populous African nation, for a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council. South Africa is also a nation built on the mining industry and the CAR has many promising investment opportunities in that sector, cost being the necessary political weight.

In the end though, neither Chad nor South Africa were ultimately able or willing to save Bozizé. The capital, Bangui, fell on March 24 and Bozizé went over the river into neighboring Congo. He then received refuge in Cameroon.

Rebel leader Michel Djotodia declared himself president, scrapped the constitution and declared a period of “national transition.” Around him, what was left of the institutions of the state fell to pieces, with Séléka combatants and civilians looting ministries and homes of members of the former regime. Today, something resembling a functioning state has yet to emerge.

Now history seems to repeat itself and armed militias are attacking Séléka forces around the town of Bossangoa. Bossangoa is in Bozizés’ home province, making it likely that these militias are supporters of the ousted general-cum-president. Bozizé, for his part, let it be known during a visit to Paris, that “if the occasion arises” he will gladly return to power. To make sure that the occasion indeed arises, he founded the next acronym, the “Front for the Return of Constitutional Order in CAR” or FROCCA.

From the perspective of western powers in Europe and America, it is of course simple to largely ignore these petty conflicts in a country that 95 per cent of the electorate don’t know about anyway. But politicians, military strategists and diplomats would do well to remember that most big problems start in places nobody knows about.

The Central African Republic sits at the crossroads of some of the most important developments on the African continent today and, maybe even more importantly, it has the attention of some of the regional powers that will define the continental politics in the decades to come. Taking an interest would maybe be a wise move. Just maybe.

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    Peter Dörrie

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    Reporting on development, resources, international politics and security in Africa. Find me on Twitter: @PeterDoerrie

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