Central African Republic: Anatomy of a Phantom State
Africa Report N°136
13 Dec 2007
The Central African Republic (CAR) is if anything worse than a failed state: it has become virtually a phantom state, lacking any meaningful institutional capacity at least since the fall of Emperor Bokassa in 1979. The recently approved European Union (EU) and UN forces (EUFOR and MINURCAT), which are to complement the African Union (AU/UN) effort in Darfur, can make an important contribution to helping the CAR begin the long, slow process of getting to its feet. But to do so they must find a way to make use of the strengths of the former colonial power, France, without merely serving as international cover for Paris’s continued domination.
The CAR has been formally independent for nearly a half century but its government only gained a first measure of popular legitimacy through free elections in 1993. The democratisation process soon ran aground due to newly manipulated communal divisions between the people living along the river and those of the savannah, which plunged the country into civil war. Through a succession of mutinies and rebellions, which have produced a permanent crisis, the government has lost its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Foreign troops mostly contain the violence in the capital, Bangui, but the north is desperate and destitute, and in a state of permanent insecurity.
By privatising the state for their own benefit, the CAR’s leaders are able to prosper, while using repression to ensure impunity. François Bozizé was brought to power in 2003 by France and Chad and democratically elected two years later but, like his predecessor, Ange-Félix Patassé, he has provoked a state of permanent rebellion with disastrous humanitarian consequences. Since the summer of 2005, the army and particularly the Presidential Guard – essentially a tribal militia – have committed widespread acts of brutality in Patassé’s north west stronghold. Hundreds of civilians have been summarily executed and thousands of homes have been burned. At least 100,000 people have fled to forest hideouts, where they are exposed to the elements.
The EU peacekeeping force, mandated by the UN Security Council to assist in securing refugee camps at the border with Darfur, is to be deployed in early 2008 to north eastern CAR and eastern Chad. The initiative for this operation comes from France, which has persuaded its partners to prevent the conflict ravaging western Sudan from spilling over international borders by complementing the hybrid AU/UN mission to Darfur itself.
Like Darfur, the Vakaga province of the CAR is geographically remote, historically marginalised and, above all, neglected by a central administration whose only response to political unrest has been the imposition of military control. In their efforts to contain any spillover of political unrest from Darfur, the international community runs the risk of allowing President Bozizé’s regime to shirk its responsibilities and maintain the current cycle of instability in the CAR.
The EU deployment will carry a heavy post-colonial burden. Like in Chad, France, as the former colonial power, is at the same time the worst and best placed to intervene in CAR: the worst placed because of its almost continual interference post-independence and the best placed because it has both the will and the means to act. Since Paris will continue to supply most of EUFOR’s muscle, the new arrangement is largely perceived as a change of badge and helmet to give the French military’s role greater international legitimacy. Nevertheless, EUFOR could make an important contribution if it carries forward a badly needed reform of the CAR military and if it is coordinated with an EU comprehensive strategy to take the country out of its current political, economic and security quagmire.
If the CAR’s many structural problems are to be solved, however, all actors will need to be committed: the government in Bangui, the rebel movements, African regional bodies and the Security Council, as well as the EU and France. It might be the last chance for the CAR to break out of its phantom status before any pretence of its independence and sovereignty disappears in the vicious circle of state failure, violence and growing poverty in which it has been trapped.
Nairobi/Brussels, 13 December 2007