Recently, internal conflicts stemming from past and present realities and spillover of political unrest and violence from neighboring countries have given the Central African Republic, one of the least known countries in Africa, more prominence on the international map. Read more about this troubled region.
The Central African Republic (CAR) is one of the least known countries in Africa and the world. Because of its relative obscurity, it is often overshadowed by its better-known neighbors such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan. Recently, however, internal conflicts stemming from its historical past and its present realities, as well as the spillover of political unrest and violence from Sudan and Chad, have given the CAR more prominence on the international map. This USIPeace Briefing highlights some key elements in the CAR’s political and social history and provides some insights to the current civil unrest and humanitarian crisis.
Historical and Cultural Background
A Central African Republic trooper, center, walks past a boy in the town of Paoua, Central African Republic on Feb. 15, 2007. A landlocked country poor even by African standards, the Central African Republic is ranked at the bottom of the U.N.'s Human Development Index. (Photo: AP)
The CAR is situated in the heart of the African continent. It has great variety in its physical features and in its peoples. Its terrain varies from the dry northern areas to tropical forests in the south. The country’s four million inhabitants belong to numerous ethnic groups whose economic strategies depend upon where they live and what the environment offers. Generally, the drier north is home to semi nomadic pastoralists, the savanna supports settled agriculturalists, the forest is home to hunter/gatherers, and trading communities live along the Oubangui and Chari rivers trade. Islam is more predominant in the north and Christianity in the south, but indigenous religions are still important, especially in rural areas; the ancient religions and their attendant world views continue to influence those who practice the newer religions. The capital city, Bangui, is the country’s only urban center and attracts people from all ethnic groups and religious affiliations. The CAR is among the poorest countries in the world: its per capita income of $350 places it 188 out of 209 countries; it ranks 172 out of 177 on the Human Development Index.1
The land comprising present-day CAR has been inhabited for millennia. Various ethnic groups developed their own customs and cultures, but interacted with each other through trade and less positive endeavors, such as slavery. The slave trade was an important feature of the 19th century, with raiders coming from the north and moving people into the trade through the Sahara, and into the Atlantic and Indian oceans. This activity peaked in the 1870s when what is now the northern part of the CAR was under the control of the Egyptian sultan Rabah.
As a result of the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, Africa was partitioned under the control of different European powers, the political borders of modern-day CAR conform largely with those of the former French colony Oubangui-Chari. During the colonial period, the colony’s natural resources were extracted and infrastructure was built by forced labor. A few people and groups benefited from the French presence. Riverine peoples such as the Ngbaka and the Yakoma were the first to have contact with the colonizers and were most likely to benefit from the French presence, especially by having access to formal education. These peoples were more likely to become members of the tiny African elite as a result of their relationship with the French. Barthélémy Boganda, a former schoolteacher and priest, who led Oubangui-Chari to its independence in 1960, was a member of the Ngbaka ethnic group. Those who immediately followed Boganda, David Dacko and Jean-Bedel Bokassa, were also Ngbaka.
Increasing Internal Unrest in the 1990s
The CAR’s post-colonial era has been dominated by political strife. After the disastrous rule of the self-declared emperor Bokassa, the country has endured numerous attempts at change, unrest, and coups. In 1992 president André Kolingba (a Yakoma who originally came to power via a coup) liberalized the political process and was then soundly defeated at the polls by Ange-Félix Patassé in 1996. Patassé’s ethnic group, the Kaba (a sub-group of the Sara), hails from the northern part of the country. In 1996-97, three army mutinies threatened the Patassé government, culminating in the Bangui Agreements, which aimed to resolve widespread social and economic grievances. The accord was to be enforced by the deployment of the Inter-African Mission to Monitor the Bangui Agreements (MISAB), which was followed by the United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic (MINURCA).
Despite the unrest, Patassé was reelected in 1999. After a coup attempt in May 2001, violence erupted between Yakoma and Kaba peoples in Bangui and there were widespread rumors of reprisal killings carried out against Yakoma people. Both Kolingba and General François Bozizé were accused of involvement with this action, and the coup attempt in November 2001 is widely understood to be the work of the then recently fired Bozizé. Bozizé finally toppled Patassé in a bloodless coup in March 2003.
The Formation of Rebel Groups
After an internationally supervised electoral campaign that was generally considered free and fair, Bozizé won a run-off election for President in May 2005. Since winning the election, however, Bozizé has continued the tradition of governing in the interests of a narrow circle and has failed to consolidate support for his rule. In response to his deliberate neglect of regions controlled by his political enemies, two main strands of rebellion have sprung up, one based in the northeast, close to the border with Sudan and Chad and one based in the northwest in areas close to Chad and Cameroon. The former consists of an alliance led by Michel Detodia of the Union des Forces Démocratiques pour le Rassemblement (UFDR) and including the Groupe d'Action Patriotique pour la Libération de Centrafrique (GAPLC), the Mouvement des Libérateurs Centrafricains pour la Justice (MLCJ) and the Front Démocratique Centrafricain (FDC). The main rebel force in the northwest is the Armée Populaire pour la Restauration de la République et la Démocratie (APRD), under the leadership of a former member of the CAR armed forces (FACA), Ndjadder Mounoumbaye, which is active around Paoua in Ouham-Pende.
The rebels in the northeast have twice threatened Birao, the main town in the region, briefly capturing it in December 2006 and again in early March 2007. On both occasions French military aircraft based in Chad bombed rebel positions on behalf of the government. The March 2007 conflict resulted in the destruction of an estimated 80 percent of the town. A tenuous ceasefire in the northeast is currently in effect.
The fighting in the northwest is of lower intensity but is having far greater impact on the wellbeing of the people. More than 200,000 Central Africans2 have been internally displaced by the fighting, and another 70,000 have fled to neighboring Chad and Cameroon. The Central African army, the FACA, is using harsh tactics in response to the rebel threat, attacking civilians and burning houses in areas where the rebels circulate. Especially in the area around Paoua, there are numerous empty villages where the military torched all the houses, forcing the people to flee for safety into the surrounding fields.
Villagers in the north are also vulnerable to banditry and cross-border raids by Chadian soldiers. Bozizé, who spent his exile in Chad, has strong ties to that country’s president, Idriss Déby. However, precisely because he owes his presidency to his Chadian patrons, he is unable to protest or limit the Chadian military incursions along the northern border. The Central African military presence along the border is virtually nil.
Considering the scale of the displacement—270,000 people out of a total population of approximately four million—the international response has been weak. The United Nations agencies present in the country took a long time to recognize the scope of the crisis and only recently began to distribute basic supplies to the displaced in March 2007, well after the attacks that provoked the displacement. Very few international non-governmental organizations are present in the country. As of August 2007 the middle of the CAR’s rainy season, several hundred thousand Central Africans were living in completely inadequate shelters near the fields, surviving with minimal outside assistance, while refusing to return to their homes for fear of further violence.
Many Central Africans believe that the modern animosities between ethnic groups stem from political coups and mutinies whose supporters share an ethnic identity, although many think that the ethnic dimension was not as pronounced in the coup attempts with which Bozizé was involved. One of the greatest challenges facing the CAR is reigning in a military that feels that it should be in the fore of choosing the country’s direction instead of supporting national goals. Soldiers have been accused of acting with impunity, for example, raiding the supplies of civilians, because the government has neither the will nor the ability to exercise more control.
Exacerbating the political problems is the government inability to provide basic services to its citizens. Insecurities in food supplies, health care, education, as well as issues about access to resources exist throughout the country. The government is deeply in arrears to its civil servants, which has led to labor strikes, and has also occasionally failed to pay the military, resulting in mutinies. Its attempt at reforms through loosening of the prices of some commodities only resulted in increasing the cost of living and the discontent of the people.
Proposals for the Way Forward
In order to resolve the political instability and stem the regionalization of the conflict the following factors must be considered:
- Neighboring countries must be part of the solution to the present problems in the north of the CAR. National borders, virtually undefined and unpatroled, do not have a great impact on the people who live in this area and they are accustomed to temporary removal or migration in response to physical or political insecurity, seeking refuge especially with members of their ethnic group in other nations. Moreover, porous borders assist in the proliferation of illegal arms in the country.
- The people in the area where Chad, Sudan, and the CAR meet are constantly in search of arable lands and water. The crucible of violent attempts to access political power and daily necessities fuels increasing desperation in the CAR that could in turn inflame problems throughout the subregion.
- While strengthening governance in the CAR is a long-term project, renewed international mediation efforts are required urgently to find solutions to the internal political divisions that are sustaining the conflict and preventing people in the north from resuming their daily lives in peace.
2. In this USIPeace Briefing, "Central African" refers to citizens or institutions of the Central African Republic.
This USIPeace Briefing was written by Jacqueline C. Woodfork, assistant professor at Whitman College, and Joel Charny, vice president for policy at Refugees International. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Institute, which does not advocate specific policies.
The United States Institute of Peace is an independent, nonpartisan institution established and funded by Congress. Its goals are to help prevent and resolve violent international conflicts, promote post-conflict stability and development, and increase conflict management capacity, tools, and intellectual capital worldwide. The Institute does this by empowering others with knowledge, skills, and resources, as well as by directly engaging in peacebuilding efforts around the globe.