New Internationalist

Central African Republic

Issue 335

Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), used to be known as la coquette _(the charming tease) during the 1970s. Back then Kilometre 5, a district of Bangui, was dubbed by some ‘the centre of the universe’ – yet during the year-long series of army mutinies which shook the country in 1996-97 it might more justifiably have been described as ‘hell on earth’. Even the country’s basketball team, once ranked among the top three in the continent, and which regularly dazzled the stade _Barthelemy Boganda (named after the charismatic priest who was the country’s first nationalist leader), is now languishing in mediocrity.

The decline of the CAR can be traced back to the twilight years of the infamous Jean Bedel Bokassa in the late 1970s. Bokassa was a former sergeant in the French colonial army who seized power in 1966 and proceeded to rule the country in a brutal and increasingly bizarre way for 13 years, crowning himself Emperor in an outrageously grand ceremony. Bokassa was supported by France until the international embarrassment at his excesses became too great and they reinstalled former leader David Dacko in 1979.

Only Bokassa’s eccentricity was banished to the past, however – the sad tale of autocracy, repression and corruption continued through the 1980s, even after Dacko was replaced by the military rule of General André Kolingba. Multi-party democracy arrived in the early 1990s and, despite a few false starts, eventually resulted in the election of Ange-Felix Patassé, once Bokassa’s prime minister, as President.

The country’s current economic and political plight can be traced back to 1996 when the non-payment of months of salary arrears to the military prompted a series of army mutinies – three in the space of eight months. President Patassé called in French troops to help him suppress the rebellion but it was not until February 1997 that an African peacekeeping force was sent to the country to preserve a rather precarious stability – to be replaced by a UN force, MINURCA, the following year.

Giacomo Pirozzi / Panos Pictures
Giacomo Pirozzi / Panos Pictures

MINURCA officially completed its mission in February 2000 but the precarious nature of the country’s institutions has recently revealed itself again in the shape of another round of strikes – this time led by civil servants. In November 2000 the civil servants embarked on an all-out strike for the same reason as in 1996 – that they hadn’t been paid for 12 months. In the end, the Government managed to secure a rescue package from the International Monetary Fund(IMF) in February 2001. The deal with the IMF settles most of the arrears owed to civil servants and also provides for a salary increase. It will stave off the problem for a while but is only a short-term respite.

The massive social and political unrest of the last decade has been due to endemic political and economic mismanagement, together with the autocratic style of President Patassé, whose first response to mass protest has often been to send civil servants and opposition politicians to jail.

The CAR will always be hampered by its landlocked status – when Barthelemy Boganda first campaigned for independence from France it was on behalf of a much larger and more sustainable region. But it still has abundant tropical forests and significant reserves of diamonds – though an estimated three-quarters of current diamond production is smuggled out of the country.

The country staggers from crisis to crisis, IMF bail-out to IMF bail-out, while the Patassé Government makes only the feeblest of attempts to address the problems of the poor – and in a country in which 63 per cent of the population live below the poverty line that is, to say the least, a dereliction of leadership.

Thémon Djaksam
Central African Republic Fact File
Leader President Ange-Félix Patassé.
Economy GNP per capita $290 (Cameroon $580, France $23,480).
Monetary unit African franc (CFA).
Main exports diamonds, coffee, timber, cotton and tobacco. Agriculture and forestry are the economic mainstay, occupying 66 per cent of the workforce. The main food crops are millet, sorghum, cassava, groundnuts, maize, sesame and rice.
People 3.5 million. Population density 6 per square kilometre (France 107).
Health Infant mortality 113 per 1,000 live births (Cameroon 95, France 5). 60 per cent of people have access to clean drinking water and 30 per cent to adequate sanitation.
Environment The southwest of the country is dominated by dense tropical forest. Poor cultivation methods have led to soil erosion. Water is generally scarce and the main rivers are increasingly polluted.
Culture Baya (pygmy) 24%; Banda 23%; Mandjia 15%; Sara 7%; Mbum 6%; Mbaka 4%; Kare 2%; others 19%.
Religion Christian 50% (equally split between Protestant and Catholic); traditional African religions 24%; Islam 15%.
Language French is the official language but Sango is the national language used by the various ethnic groups to communicate with each other.
Sources World Guide 2001/2002; State of the World’s Children 2001; Africa Review 2000.
Central African Republic ratings in detail
Income distribution
The urban élite and the rural poor are poles apart but the middle class is also repeatedly hit due to the non-payment of public-service salaries.
Previously reviewed
1988
Self Reliance
The country is heavily dependent on aid and loans for the foreseeable future.
Previously reviewed
1988
Position of women
CAR has the worst maternal-mortality rate in the world: 1.1 mothers die per 100 live births.
Previously reviewed
1988
Literacy
At just 40%, the 15th-lowest in the world. Primary-school enrolment stands at 61%.
Previously reviewed
1988
Freedom
The economic crisis has forced the Government to listen to ordinary people and slightly relax its authoritarian style.
Previously reviewed
1988
Life expectancy
45 years – the world’s 10th lowest (Cameroon 54, France 78).
Previously reviewed
1988
NI Assessment (Politics)
President Patassé was finally forced by the enduring crisis to form a slightly broader-based government in April under new Prime Minister Martin Ziguele – including an independent, Akba Odikpa mé Zodé, as foreign minister. But given his authoritarian record, it is doubtful that the country can be turned round while Patassé himself remains in power.

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