9 questions about the Central African Republic you were too embarrassed to ask

March 26, 2013

By Gene Thorp/Washington Post

You may have seen the headlines this week announcing that a rebel group has seized the capital of a country called the Central African Republic. And you may have glossed right over them – it's okay, you can admit it, we're all friends here. Stories about political violence in Africa can be intimidating and overwhelming, not to mention difficult to follow.

But the story is important, fascinating and not as tough to understand as you might think. Here, then, are the most basic answers to your most basic questions about the crisis in the Central African Republic, written so that anyone can understand them.

1) What is the Central African Republic?

The Central African Republic, or C.A.R., is a country in Africa. It's about the size of Texas with a population the size of Kentucky's (about 4.4 million people) and an economy smaller than that of Gadsden, Ala. Per person, it is one of the poorest countries in the world. It's had a pretty bad run of poverty, instability and violence.

2) That's kind of a weird name for a country, isn't it?

Well, so is "United States," but I take your point. The country's unusually descriptive name is rooted in its colonial history (incidentally, so are many of the country's problems). Briefly: In the late 1800s, when European powers were carving up Africa, France took over a giant expanse of land stretching from the southern tip of Libya all the way down to the Congo River. France divided that land up, more or less arbitrarily, into administrative regions, with little respect for the actual people living there and how they might prefer to be grouped. One of those regions was called Ubangi-Shari, named for the two rivers that dominated its land. When colonialism began collapsing, around 1960, an independence leader from Ubangi-Shari, a man named Barthélemy Boganda, announced his plan to unite much of the continent under the name "the United States of Latin Africa." That didn't work out, but, under the advice of an outgoing French colonial official, Boganda did rename the newly independent Ubangi-Shari as "Central African Republic," apparently with the intent of convincing his neighbors to join the republic. But the plan never worked out and Boganda died in a mysterious plane accident eight days before he was to take over as president.

3) Everything has been fine since then, though, right?

Not really. Graeme Wood, one of the few Western journalists to spend real time in the country (Update: a colleague points out that Reuters has a bureau there and the Post's own Sudarsan Raghavan has reported from there), has called it "a black hole of governance at the center of the continent." He wrote, in 2010, "Since declaring independence from France in 1960 it has served up a veritable tasting menu of African despotisms: military dictatorships, civilian kleptocracies, and even an 'empire,' complete with an emperor on a golden throne." These very bad governments — bad both in the sense of being incompetent and of being unkind to its citizens — have helped spur lots of rebel movements, including the one that seized the capital earlier this week.

4) Why are things so bad there? Isn't that just how it is in Africa?

Definitely not. Sub-Saharan Africa has seen some astounding gains over the last generation or so. The politics are becoming more democratic, the economies are booming, arts and culture are flourishing (not that they weren't before) and even the conflicts are less frequent and less costly than they used to be.

But not the Central African Republic. It's never really been able to fix any one part of the dreaded triple-threat: self-interested dictatorship, deep poverty and disenfranchised minorities. Remember those zany colonial borders? They forced a bunch of people from very different backgrounds, some of them speaking an entirely different family of languages, into the same country. You can imagine that it's not easy for people outside the ruling groups to watch their corrupt government fail, time and again, to fix their problems or even really try. Combine that with a history of coups, revolts and rebellions, and running a bunch of rebel troops into the capital probably starts to seem like a sensible way to solve your problems.

5) This is all a big downer so far. Can we take a music break?

Great idea! Here's a Central African (that's the phrase you use for someone from the C.A.R.) singer named Idylle Mamba. The song suggestion comes from the great Africa-focused news and commentary site Africa Is a Country. You can read more about Idylle Mamba here.

6) Back to C.A.R. Can you give me an example of why the government keeps inspiring rebellions? Try not to make it too depressing.

The C.A.R. is in, as Israelis often say about their own country, a tough neighborhood. Its more remote communities are plagued by some very nasty rebels groups from neighboring countries, including the tyrannical Lord's Resistance Army. But the C.A.R. government can't fight them because its military is too weak. Partly it's weak because the country is poor, but also in part because President François Bozizé appears to be worried that if he makes the military too strong it will unseat him in a coup. It's not an unreasonable fear, given that this is how he himself came to power in 2003.

The insecurity in parts of the country, especially remote parts where people are less likely to be well represented by the capital, makes communities more likely to take up arms and less likely to trust the government. Those are good conditions for a rebellion.

7) You didn't really succeed in finding a non-depressing example. Who are these rebels, exactly, and why have they taken over the capital?

Basically, they are rebelling because President Bozizé has not held to the terms of the peace treaty that they signed after the last rebellion. There have been four peace talks between the C.A.R. government and the rebels just since 2002. After each, United Nations-led efforts have tried to disarm and reintegrate the rebel groups. There are so many rebel groups in the C.A.R. that this is not actually just one group we're talking about: it's a consortium of groups fighting under the name "Seleka," which means alliance. As C.A.R. scholar Louisa Lombard wrote in January, when Seleka almost took over the capital but stopped short after "emergency" peace talks, "The government of the C.A.R. has lived off kickbacks while leaving rural authorities mostly to their own devices. National politicians make promises to international actors but pursue their own ends. And factionalism flourishes because heading up a rebel group is a good way to be taken seriously."

8) This is sort of like the Arab Spring, then. Ousting the bad ruler!

Alas, no. Rebel take-overs are how you replace dictatorship with more dictatorship. And, so far, the new boss looks a lot like the old boss. The self-appointed head of the Seleka rebellion, a guy named Michel Djotodia, announced that he was suspending the constitution and dissolving the government, replacing it with himself. This is the same thing that Bozizé did when he took over in 2003. And the rebels are reportedly pillaging in the capital city of Bangui, as rebels are apt to do.

9) Hi, there’s too much text so I skipped to the bottom to find out the big take-away. What happens next?

Well, the Seleka rebels say they want to expel the foreign troops that are propping up Bozizé (South African and French troops provide some security in the country), to free political prisoners and to form a unity government. Which all sounds well and good, but rebel groups don't tend to let go of power once they have it, particularly not in the C.A.R.

It's possible that either South Africa or France might feel pressure to use their troops in the country to impose peace, as French troops did recently in former colonies Mali and Côte d'Ivoire, but it's hard to imagine that any respectable country would want to be seen reinstalling the notoriously corrupt Bozizé to power.

It seems most probable that the rebels will just stay where they are and become the next "government." Or, at best, maybe foreign leaders can pressure the rebels to allow Bozizé to return for some sort of power-sharing agreement. Either way, you can expect the U.N. and other groups will probably keep trying to bring some sort of just and sustainable peace deal to the country. National leaders will keep resisting those efforts and siphoning money out of the aid-driven economy. And people outside that inner circle will feel dispossessed and angry about it, maybe to the point of taking up arms.

In other words, status quo in a forgotten corner of Africa.

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Max Fisher · March 25, 2013