December 2015, Volume 71, Number 6
Bram Posthumus is a freelance reporter and author of 'Guinea: Masks, Music and Minerals' bramposthumus.wordpress.com
Making Sense of the Central African RepublicEdited by Tatiana Carayannis and Louis Lombard, Zed Books, £19.99
On a visit in November to Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, Pope Francis went to the Koudoukou mosque in a Muslim enclave called PK5 which lies on the airport road. Many in the capital consider it to be a no-go area in an already violent city. Signs of recent conflict are everywhere: burnt-out shops, destroyed homes and makeshift markets. The Pope's gesture of solidarity with the besieged Muslims was said to be the biggest security risk of his papacy.
The front page of a local newspaper recently called the Central African Republic 'A Cursed Country'. The headline was written without irony and the story below was a complaint about the venality of the ruling political class and the lack of ambition among the public to make their country work.
But the idea that the Central African Republic, or CAR, is a country is tenuous at best. The idea that it is being governed is fantasy. No better symbol of this is the 'Administrative Building', on Boganda Avenue - named after national leader Barthélemy Boganda, who died in a suspicious aeroplane accident, 17 months before independence in August 1960. The 'Building' is a nondescript three-storey block. Cars are parked in front of it; people march in and out. But they use only half the facility. The other half is unusable: internal walls are missing; doors, furniture and windows have gone. Troops loyal to François Bozizé, the man who came to power in a French-backed coup in 2003 caused the damage. Bozizé manhandled his country for 10 years until he was deposed by an ultra- violent rebel group, called Séléka. He never bothered to repair the 'Building'.
The CAR is the size of France and Belgium combined, with 5 million inhabitants. After decades of political turbulence and violent crises, half of them are in need of assistance: food, shelter, hygiene, security. Foreigners are there to provide these because nobody else will. A new book, entitled Making Sense of the Central African Republic, tries to explain how and why it came to this.
A century and a half ago, Africans fled to this vast savannah region on the run from Arab slave raiders. Before too long, they found themselves working to boost the profits of private companies that had been given the right to exploit this land by a foreign ruler: France, under a so-called concession system. This meant that the exploitation of the riches in Oubangui-Chari as the colony was known - principally timber, ivory and diamonds - were parcelled out, for a fee, to private companies. These companies mercilessly squeezed as much out of their concessions as possible. Their labour practices, comparable to King Leopold's calamitous reign in neighbouring Congo, provoked a three-year armed rebellion (1928-1931) and public protests in France itself. Eventually the concession practice was ended - but not the principle. On the contrary: it became the paradigm for the country's new ruling political class at independence.
There is a man on a motorbike, using one of the CAR's many near-impassable sand roads. A traveller recognizes him. 'He is selling land that belongs to the Muslims who have fled,' he explains. 'He works for a government agency but he had to run from our town because we had found out what he was up to. Now he is trying it somewhere else... '
In the CAR, everything can be subcontracted or privatized - the sale of land, the extraction of minerals and even peacekeeping. There have been 11 international operations, all failures. Basic services to citizens are delivered by foreign aid agencies. They need protection from ambushes, gangs, raids and looting sprees. The expat presence has created a security industry for private firms run by well-connected (former) French and Central African army officers. They protect banks, offices, embassies and expensive hotels. To Central Africans, led by the example of their elites, all these are exploitable resources.
As the state ceded authority to politico-military entrepreneurs, domestic and foreign, it also lost control of large swaths of its territory to foreign forces. A recent report by the International Crisis Group, The Roots of The Violence, mentions Baba Laddé, a Chadian rebel who launched a war against President Idriss Déby Itno in 1998 and spent four years - from 2008 to 2012 - in the CAR. The Sudanese People's Liberation Army used the Central African savannah as a rear base, a refuge and a place to regroup, as did the Congolese warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba, currently on trial in The Hague for alleged war crimes. Since 2009, the Lord's Resistance Army has been in the eastern CAR. Its leader, Joseph Kony, is reported to travel freely between northern DRC and another neighbour, Sudan, where his friends are. Fighting him in this unclaimed land are the Ugandan Defence Force and US special forces, not the CAR army.
Apart from covering the country's history, the 14 contributions included in Making Sense of the Central African Republic touch on the social, economic and geo-political aspects of the CAR. The book makes a poignant point: people who have mostly known predatory behaviour perpetrated by outsiders - or even their own - will find solace in the invisible world. Churches are full to overflowing - they filled up with refugees during the last crisis. Accusations of witchcraft are widespread and very frequently deadly. New charismatic churches are flourishing.
And there is something else happening. People have started to identify with those they consider 'one of us'. Anti-Balaka, the self-styled army that took on Séléka in 2014 framed itself as a force of warriors taking their country back from 'foreigners'. Séléka was at least in part composed of troops and mercenaries from Sudan and Chad, which helps to explain some of the extreme hostility towards the Muslim population, perceived to be Séléka collaborators. The result has been violent polarization.
No area illustrates that better than PK5, that formerly thriving melting pot with areas called 'Senegalese', 'Cameroonian', 'Bea Rex', 'Fatima', which is now a Muslim enclave, armed to the teeth, where nobody else ventures. A three-day riot that broke out in September and killed at least 61 people began here, when a motorcyclist was killed, allegedly by Anti-Balaka who had been causing trouble and blocking roads in the days before the attack. A powerless interim government, led by the former Bangui mayor Cathérine Samba-Panza claimed the violence was directed from abroad, by Bozizé, a candidate in the next presidential elections. No one had an answer but eventually the violent anger burned itself out. That city-to-airport road is expected to remain off-limits for some time.