Letter from Bangui: Penthouse and pavement

Cities
Central African Republic
Man and barbed wire illustration

© Sarah John

We stop the car, and gaze upward. In front of us is a brand-new 12-floor tower block, all sharp angles and concrete slabs behind reels of razor wire. Like a high-rise prison. Though it does have a great view of the Oubangui River.

‘What a monster,’ I say to my driver.

Cedric shakes his head slowly, his eyes almost shining.

C’est super!

Bangui is being spruced up. Everywhere I walk or drive, roads are being repaired and buildings constructed, especially new residences for the ever-increasing ex-pat community. Plus new supermarkets, where we can spend our money on a growing range of luxury goods, from soft French cheeses to chandeliers and high-end mattresses.

The construction companies are also tearing down some of the old colonial-style houses (and cosy riverside bars), replacing them with hideous modern tower blocks of apartments, like this one in front of us, where each apartment costs several thousand dollars to rent per month. The visage of this small capital is beginning to change.

As a result of all this building, traffic across Bangui is getting worse too, as wagons and four-wheel drives battle for space in the overcrowded streets. Recently, the United Nations installed a series of what I can only call ‘human traffic lights’ at the city’s main junctions: individual men and women in uniform directing the traffic while standing on small stationary carousels built to protect them from the sun and the chaotic swarm of drivers.

Some of this construction is necessary – there’s a real lack of accommodation across the city. But the companies erecting these over-priced residences are not Central African, and local people are benefiting little from these lucrative business ventures being pushed forward, among other reasons, because legislative and Presidential elections are looming.

There are now several different parallel economies operating in the Central African Republic (CAR). First, there is the local economy, where many Central Africans survive by trading on the streets, growing their own food and quite literally living hand to mouth. Gross national income here is $470 per year. Outside Bangui, across 15 rural prefectures where the vast majority of Central Africans are small-scale peasant farmers, incomes are far lower and opportunities fewer.

Second, the ever-expanding presence of international NGOs and the United Nations is fuelling this burgeoning economy of luxury apartments and facilities in Bangui, utterly beyond the reach of most Central Africans. And third, armed rebel movements like the Seleka and Anti-Balaka have their own economies, based, among other illegal activities, on mining and selling CAR’s substantial natural reserves of gold and diamonds. The current international embargo on trading Central African ‘blood diamonds’ has ironically given them a lucrative niche market.

And with each of these economies come political agendas that will play out in the forthcoming elections.

The so-called ‘drivers’ of the chronic crisis in CAR are a combination of political, social and economic factors, including long-standing ethnic tensions, and stark and increasing economic inequalities. I am convinced one of the reasons street crime in Bangui has escalated is because so many foreigners drive around the city in expensive cars, flaunting their wealth whether they mean to or not. No-one has ever tried to steal my scruffy little grey car, nor burgle my house, because there are fancier cars to steal, and residences to target.

More than 80 people have put themselves forward as presidential candidates, including human rights lawyers, members of discredited former CAR governments and at least one fervent evangelist.

The best possible outcome of the elections is a new president with a long-term vision of building peace, reconciliation and the economy at all levels. And the courage to confront toxic foreign interference.

Cedric is adamant the tower block we are gawping at is elegant, and would love the chance to live there, so we agree to disagree.

A few days later I’m stuck in a traffic jam of noxious car fumes and agitated drivers. One of my friends is sitting on the back seat with his young daughter.

‘You know, we are all glad the roads are being repaired,’ my friend says, cuddling his little girl. ‘But my priority is security in my quartier [neighbourhood] and the safety of my family, especially my wife and little one. And I don’t see the same attention being paid to that.’

Ruby Diamonde is a pseudonym.

mag cover This article is from the November 2015 issue of New Internationalist. You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial now »

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