New Internationalist

Central African Republic

December 1988

new internationalist
issue 190 - December 1988


Central African Republic
[image, unknown] The Central African Republic has never been very lucky as a country. Thrust into independence in 1960, it was based on the colonial territory of Oubangui-Chari, carved out by the French in the scramble for Africa at the end of the 19th century, which lumped together different ethnic groups without thought for their relationships. A poor relation in the French Equatorial African Federation, it achieved a certain notoriety in the 1920s as concessional companies grabbed a quick profit from timber and cotton, as exposed by André Gide in his Voyage au Congo.

The Second World War, and the advent of the Free French (for which the territory declared in 1940) gave it a second chance, and the post-war years saw the rise of a nationalist movement under a charismatic priest called Barthelemy Boganda who headed a mass political party. Boganda saw that a landlocked territory like this would have difficulty as an independent country, and fought hard to preserve the colonial federation as a unity into independence. But the richest component, Gabon, wanted to go it alone. There was no political will to preserve the federation in Paris so Boganda's name for the area, the Central African Republic, was only applied to his own territory.

A face of Central African Republic
Pieter Van Acker / CAMERA PRESS

The cruellest blow of all came in March 1959 when Boganda, who was already the Prime Minister of a self-governing territory, was killed in a mysterious plane crash. This meant that the country was seen into independence under the untried and weak David Dacko, who was overthrown five years later by his cousin, the then Colonel Bokassa. An ex-sergeant from the French army, Bokassa ruled the CAR with great brutality and increasing eccentricity for the next 13 years. To the outside world he appeared a buffoon, especially when he declared himself Emperor in 1977. But his people knew him as a capricious and ruthless tyrant. Most ironic of all, he amused President Giscard d'Estaing of France (his 'cher cousin') with whom he went on hunting trips.

In 1979, after 300 schoolchildren had been killed in demonstrations and more had been massacred in prison, other African countries pressed Giscard to intervene, and at the end of September Bokassa was overthrown by French troops while out of the country. Ironically, it was allegations that Bokassa had given him diamonds which helped Giscard lose the French elections in 1981.

The country is now once again ruled by a military man, but this time one whose unprepossessing manner suits a people tired of theatre, cruel or absurd. The little riverside capital, Bangui, now bears few traces of Bokassa's rule, except for some out-of-place ceremonial arches. Concentration is once again on the struggle against under-development, and in particular against the dependency of being landlocked.

 Kaye Whiteman

Leader: President André Kolingba

Economy: GNP per capita US $260 (US 16.690)
Monetary unit: CFA franc, part of the franc zone.
Economy neglected by the colonial French as a landlocked backwater, dependent on river transport to Brazzaville. In Bokassa's early years agriculture improved but his later maladministration caused serious dislocation. In recent years one-tenth of food is imported, despite rich agricultural soils. CAR is on the route of the protected Trans-African highway, still not completed. Road transport by lorry to Dousla (in Cameroon) has been developed, but is costly. Main exports: timber, cotton, coffee, diamonds. Main imports: food and live animals, manufactures, machinery and transport equipment.

People: 2.6 million

Health: Infant mortality rate 134 per 1,000 live births (US per 1,000)

Culture: Most of the population is in the west of the country, and divided into people of the savanna, the forest and the river. The savanna people (notably the Banda and the Bhaya)arethe majority, while the forest people are mainly pygmies, a minority with no political weight.
Language: French is the official language. Sango, spoken by the river people is the nearest to a lingua franca.
Religion: Animism universal. Christianity widespread. Islamic minority in the north and east.

Source: State of the World's Children 1988


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Wealth in towns much rural poverty.

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Landlocked and heavily import dependent.

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Some role in commerce and politics.

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Military rule but legitimized single-party state.

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29% female 53% male One of the lowest in the region

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No opposition parties. No press freedom

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49 years
(US 75 years)

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previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page [image, unknown]

This feature was published in the December 1988 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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