Last week’s appointment of Catherine Samba Panza as CAR’s transitional president, the third female head of state in Africa, raises a glimmer of hope that this troubled nation at the heart of the continent could finally end its long history of coups, political violence, ethnic-based exclusion and grinding poverty
The cycle of political-military uprisings since independence has destabilized and further impoverished the Central African Republic (CAR). Currently, the overall situation in the country remains catastrophic, marked by tensions among Christians, Muslims and animists as a result of immediate former president Michel Djotodia’s inability to curb atrocities committed by his Seleka rebels leading to a precarious socio-economic situation because of deterioration of humanitarian conditions as well as insecurity. Meantime, and for the first time, a woman became the leader of the nation. Perhaps, where men have failed a woman may just succeed in bringing real and sustained unity and peace to the country for accelerated development.
WHERE AND WHEN DID IT ALL BEGIN?
The military has played an important but equally harmful role in the history and development of CAR. The first military coup happened on January 1, 1966 and saw Colonel Jean-Bedel Bokassa (who had a military career in the French army) assume power as president of the first republic (Melly, 2002:2-3; O’ Toole, 1989). During his reign, the 1959 constitution was abolished, the National Assembly was dissolved, and all legislative and executive powers were placed in the hands of the president. In December 1976, the republic became a monarchy (the Central African Empire) and the president became Emperor Bokassa I. The republic was restored by David Dacko in 1979, when he seized power (perhaps, with support of the French). In 1981, Dacko was also overthrown in a coup by General Andre Dieudonne Kolingba (who also had a military career in the French Army from 1954 to 1960). Kolingba then became the fourth president of the CAR from September 1983 to October 1993. Ange-Felix Patasse was the only CAR President who was democratically elected. Unfortunately, labour unrest, salary arrears and unequal treatment of military officers from the different ethnic groups were among the claims that caused mutinies (in 1996 – 1997) against his government. Additionally, economic difficulties caused by the looting and destruction during the mutinies, energy crises and government mismanagement continued to trouble his government through to the year 2000 (Melly, 2002). Eventually, in March, 2003, General François Bozize (a former army chief-of-staff to President Patasse from 1997 – 2001) overthrew Patasse. It was during this time that the bush war of the CAR began; the war began with rebellion by the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR) led by Michel Djotodia (Hancock, 2007) and quickly escalated into major fighting during 2004 (BBC, 2004). The UFDR rebel forces consisted of several allies, the Groupe d'action patriotique pour la liberation de Centrafrique (GAPLC), the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP), the People's Army for the Restoration of Democracy (APRD), the Movement of Central African Liberators for Justice (MLCJ), and the Front Démocratique du Peuple Centrafricain (FDPC) (Spittaels and Hilgert, 2009:7,10). Although he promised to step down at the end of the transition, Bozize contested the 2005 presidential elections. In fact, all the leading opposition candidates were allowed to participate except overthrown president Patasse. Ultimately, Bozize won on a run-off by defeating Martin Ziguélé, who represented the overthrown ruling party, Movement for the Liberation of the Central African People (MLPC).
Later that year (June, 2005), the African Union (AU) lifted sanctions that were imposed on CAR after the 2003 coup. Consequently, and despite the rebel activities in the northern part of CAR, Bozize's government during this time (2005-2006) appeared stable. In April 2007 a peace agreement between the government and the UFDR (led by Djotodia) was signed in Birao, providing amnesty for the UFDR, recognizing it as a political party, and integrating its fighters into the army (USAToday, 2007). This strengthened Bozize’s government resulting to national reconciliation (in 2008), a unity government, local elections in 2009 and presidential elections in 2011 (AFP, 2009a) following the implementation of the recommendations of the Inclusive Political Dialogue (IPD) in 2008.
ETHNICITY DESTROYED THE MILITARY OF CAR
Indeed during the IPD, the Seleka sought for financial compensation for the rebels, the release of political prisoners, and open investigations into past crimes especially the disappearance of the former CPJP leader (Charles Massi). When General Kolingba became president in 1981, he was accused of implementing ethnocentric recruitment policies. Kolingba was from the Yakoma tribe from the south, which constituted approximately 5 percent of the total population. It is believed that during his rule, members of the Yakoma tribe were granted key positions in the administration and became majority in the military (UNHCR, 2008:19-20). This had fatal consequences later on when Kolingba was replaced by Ange-Felix Patasse, a member of a northern tribe (Melly, 2002:3). In fact, the two prominent northern presidents (Patasse and Bozize) considered the FACA, the CAR army, to be disloyal perhaps because of the role the military played during the 1996-1997 mutinies. As a result, they both equipped and ran their own ethnocentric militias outside the FACA. Therefore, the military that was supposed to protect and defend the state had no visible contributions to the governments of both Patasse and Bozize. For instance, despite the fact that Bozize was a one-time chief-of-staff of the FACA, he did not trust the FACA. He retained the defense portfolio and appointed his son (Jean-Francis Bozize) cabinet director in charge of the Ministry of Defense. Furthermore, majority of the presidential bodyguards were claimed to be Chadians and the few FACA soldiers were believed to be either from the north or members of his tribe.
REBELLION AND AGREEMENTS
Prior to 2012, the political environment in CAR witnessed multiple rebel factions with three main armed opposition groups (the UFDR, APRD and FDPC). Traditionally, the APRD and the FDPC operated from the northwest (bordering Chad and Cameroon) while the UFDR was based in the northeast (on the border with Sudan). Hence, all the major armed opposition groups were essentially from the north of CAR and were mostly Muslims. Between 2007 and 2012, many peace agreements were signed between these opposition groups and the government. The first and most important agreement (signed by the APRD, the UFDR and the government) was the Global Peace Accord (in Libreville-Gabon) in June, 2008, under the leadership of the late Omar Bongo Ondimba and the FDPC later signed the agreement in 2009. Meanwhile, another group, the CPJP, also signed a ceasefire and the peace agreement in August 2012. Note, however, that, regardless of these agreements, the northern part of CAR did not see any meaningful changes. As a result, people from the north felt neglected (perhaps rightly so) in terms of socio-economic development and assistance from the seat of government, Bangui. For example, state security and some key social services were totally absent in the north for decades. Consequently, even though some progress was made in the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) process with the (APRD, UFR and FDPC) warring combatants, lack of real national reintegration coupled with the prevailing security vacuum as well as distrust, porous borders and disproportionate national development hindered the total cohesion of the country. Therefore, by 2012, the Seleka armed rebels emerged from this environment characterised by absence of state of law, presence of arms and former armed groups (ICG, 2013a) to collapse and destroy the dreams of united CAR once more. However, under the leadership of the Economic Community of Central African States (CEMAC) presidents in January 2013, another ceasefire agreement was signed in Libreville (Gabon) between President Bozize and the Seleka leadership. This agreement was to provide a road map for political transition and as such the rebels gave up their demand for the resignation of President Bozize. It was then agreed that the president appoint a new prime minister from the civil society (New York Times, 2013). Many observers commended (rightly or otherwise) the rebels for not insisting that the new prime minister come from the Seleka leadership. Hence, on January 17, 2013 (as part of the peace agreement) Bozize appointed Nicolas Tiangaye as new Prime Minister (Washington Post, 2013; AFP, 2013). Michel Djotodia (the Seleka leader) was then appointed deputy prime minister and defense minister in February, 2013. These events gladdened the hearts of every citizen of CAR. The international community was also optimistic about the progress in CAR. Unfortunately, the rebels claimed that Bozize did not respect the rules of engagements and led an attack on Bangui about a month later (March 24 2013). They captured many public institutions including the presidential palace and the then deputy PM and defense minister, and the former Seleka leader Michel Djotodia declared himself president, promptly suspended the constitution and dissolved the government, as well as the National Assembly (BBC News, 2013). Perhaps to garner local support and to reduce international pressure, President Djotodia promised three years’ transitional period and maintained Nicolas Tiangaye as Prime Minister. However, three years’ transitional period appeared too long for the civil society of CAR and the international community and so a one-year transitional period was agreed.
THE CAR AND OUTSIDE INFLUENCE
It is generally believed (true or otherwise) that Bozize successfully staged the coup in 2003 with support of the Chadian president Idriss Deby Itno. It is also reported that supporters of the Chadian government have been involved in human rights abuses (against civilians from CAR), numerous cross-border raids, killings, burning of villages, and cattle raiding in the north of CAR (HRW, 2013). Most analysts consider these activities by Chadians in CAR as sanctioned by the Chadian authority in order to control the oil belt in southern Chad (ICG, 2013b). Furthermore, it has been reported that Chadian armed rebel groups hostile to President Deby were operating from the north of CAR (HRW, 2013). Above all, the nationality and identity of the Seleka members was a problem; it is well-known that most of the Seleka fighters could not speak the native Sango but mostly Arabic. Perhaps proof of the fact that they were of Chadian or Sudanese origin.
Ten months after the coup on President Bozize’s government, the situation in CAR has worsened. The country has become a hub of violence and a sanctuary for extremist (mostly Muslims) from Chad and Sudan. The Seleka after the coup began to loot, steal and kill those who tried to resist and even those who did not resist. They targeted members of the FACA leading to numerous extrajudicial killings (HRW, 2013:13). These among other factors pushed the country into a chaotic and anarchic state. For instance, it was reported that several kids were beheaded and nearly 6,000 others were forced to join the militias during this time (UNICEF, 2013). In fact, fear of a sectarian genocide has been expressed as Djotodia’s inability to quell political, social and inter-ethnic violence eventually led to religious violence between Christians and Muslims. This fighting and exactions furthered exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in CAR which hitherto has been suffering from high mortality rates, treatable disease and food insecurity. Unable to protect themselves and fearing for their lives, the people of CAR (about a million), including children sought for shelter in the bushes with no access to clean water, food or proper health services. The actions of the Seleka were in direct contradiction with what they promised the populace; they had justified the coup on the grounds that they were bringing peace, security and to liberate the people of CAR. Yet one does not need to be a rocket scientist to show that they almost destroyed the country. In fact, it may be justified to say that the people of CAR experienced the darkest times of their lives under the rule of the Seleka because the rebels ruled with impunity, killing, torturing, raping women and girls, looting and destroying everything on their path.
Sadly, the Seleka government failed to bring to justice those responsible for these crimes. In fact, there is no state of law and the civilian administrative state had collapsed; CAR was seen by many as a phantom. To respond to the (mostly Muslim) rebel attacks, the (possibly, animist and/ Christian) population left without protection created a defense group called ‘anti-balaka’. Balaka means machete in Sango; ‘anti-balaka’ loosely and literally translated would mean ‘anti-machete’. In this case, it does not make much sense. The true meaning of ‘Anti-balaka’ comes from the root words ‘Anti’, ‘Balle’, and ‘Aka’. ‘Balle’ here means bullet, ‘Aka’ stands for AK 47 derived from the famous Russian gun. Fortified with various local charms, this response group believed that they were immune and protected from the rebel’s bullets; hence the term ‘Anti-Balaka’. The group felt abandoned by the government of CAR and decided to protect themselves from the myriad of Seleka abuses. Unfortunately, their response led to a religious fight where Christians and animists are killing innocent Muslims, a situation that needs urgent international intervention.
The current situation (religious violence, among others) may escalate to engulf the entire sub-region. This would be disastrous; for example, huge (90,000) influx of central African refugees has been reported to have crossed into Cameroon and the DRC. The displacement led to confrontations between the refuges and the local population because the refugees were claimed to exert pressure on basic services such as housing, hospitals, schools and water. Only recently, there were reports of some tensions between the refugees and the Cameroonian local population (Nouvelle Centrafrique, 2013). Furthermore, there was panic among the local population of DR Congo due to the increasing number of refugees (especially, Seleka rebels) from CAR.
The overall situation in CAR has pushed France and the international community to intervene and secure the country after evacuating only its nationals at the heat of the fighting last year. Therefore, the Sangaris operation is more than necessary in disarming, securing and restoring peace throughout the country. The Economic Community of Central African States meeting in N’Djamena on January 12, 2014 led to the resignation of Djotodia and his PM. This is first time that a situation like this occurred in the history of CAR. Again, for the first time in its history, a woman, Madame Samba-Panza, former mayor of the capital Bangui, was elected on 20 January, 2014 as the head of state of CAR for the transitional period. Indeed, she has a huge task and many challenges but perhaps, where fathers have failed us, a mother may just succeed. She must give true meaning to the saying that ‘… to educate a woman is to educate a nation’ and may be to the popular belief that ‘what men can do, women can do better’ by uniting the nation for sustained socio-economic development and progress. To achieve this, the first hurdle for instance is for her to immediately restore peace, security and order in order to curtail all forms of violence and abuse. In this regards, restoration of the FACA, the Police and other relevant security services will be vital as well as massive education and peace campaigns. This calls for the participation of all religious leaders (Muslims, Christians and Animists), civil society, politicians, academicians, students, the media, local chiefs and tribal leaders. This would lead to sense of togetherness, safety and above all, ignite the will, zeal, passion and patriotism, confidence and determination among the citizenry for sustained peace and security. It would extinguish nepotism, discrimination, bigotry and most of all, ethnocentric tendencies which will eventually enhance nation building. Furthermore, she must institute pragmatic economic and social policies to take CAR out of its cycle of poverty. For this purpose, her administration urgently needs to build and win the confidence of domestic and foreign investors in the somehow destroyed economy of the country. Admittedly, this is the biggest challenge as such CAR under her leadership must scout (local and international) for the best brains of the country. This must be done devoid of pride, hatred, favouritism, sectionalism and of course ethnicity. She must get people who can do the job; the old and the elderly who excelled in previous administrations may still offer their experience and the young generation also have sharper and active brains coupled with the energy needed to succeed in any endeavours. Given the opportunity, the sky would be the limit for such combination. There are also successful business and entrepreneurial community who would give the nation value in any venture if offered the chance. Not to mention seasoned academics, lawyers and bankers who would help shape better future with their individual but unique skills.
Finally, her administration needs to strategise and attract FDI or investments into effective and productive sectors such as tourism, infrastructure, road network and education. The illiteracy level in CAR is just unacceptable in this 21st century. In view of this, the CAR may perhaps take a clue from Rwanda. Rwanda came out of its troubles years ago and became a pride for many Africans. This was possible with opened minds, true forgiveness and the will and zeal to build a better and stable nation. It also invested heavily in education and communication such that today, the number of universities and the internet services in Rwanda is envied. Furthermore, Rwanda is about the only country in Africa where any African can actually collect visa at the point of entry. Policies like these (though with challenges) foster real integration and effective and free movement of goods and services for effective nation building.
On this note, we wish Her Excellency Madame Samba-Panza well in all undertakings and to remind her that the world is watching us and that she cannot but succeed. We hope that all the people of CAR would rally behind and support her administration to succeed for unborn generations to come. We have nowhere to call home but CAR as such we must all do everything in our power, and even beyond our power (if that is possible) to see her succeed.
‘We hold in our hands the power to lift each other up to new heights of humanity or to let go, plunging mankind into an abyss of destruction.’ Wolfgang Riebe.
Long live CAR!
* Babette Zoumara has a PhD in Law and Political Science and can be reached at [email protected] Ibrahim Abdul-Rauf has a PhD in Chemical Engineering and is based in Tamale, Ghana. He can be reached at [email protected]
1. AFP, Agence France-Presse (2009a) “CAR president dissolves government, vows unity “.http://tinyurl.com/pdyxcl4
2. AFP, Agence France-Presse (2013) "Centrafrique: Nicolas Tiangaye reconduit Premier ministre", AFP, 27 March 2013 (French). http://tinyurl.com/qh9bwgt
3. BBC News, (2013) "CAR rebel head Michel Djotodia 'suspends constitution'". BBC News. 25 March 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-21934433
4. Hancock, Stephanie (2007) “Feature - Bush war leaves Central African villages deserted” ReliefWeb, Reuters. August 30, 2007 http://tinyurl.com/q6zuxbh
5. HRW, Human Right Watch Report, (2013):13 “I can still smell the dead -The Forgotten Human Rights Crisis in the Central African Republic”
6. International Crisis Group (a), (2013) “Failure Has Many Fathers: The Coup in Central African Republic,” March 27, 2013 http://tinyurl.com/q5whr8p
7. International Crisis Group (b), (2013) “Central African Republic: Priorities of the Transition,” Africa Report N˚203, June 11 2013, http://tinyurl.com/ogjuhu4
8. Melly Paul, (2002) Central African Republic – Uncertain Prospects. UNHCR, Emergency and Security Service, Independent Researcher, UK Revised May 2002
9. New York Times, (2013) "Rebel Coalition in Central African Republic Agrees to a Short Cease-Fire". The New York Times by Sayare, Scott, January 11 2013, http://tinyurl.com/pe67e37
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