“Apocalyptic” crisis in the Central African Republic follows presidential election

Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting President of the Central African Republic Faustin Archange Touadera
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The Central African Republic (CAR) is a former French colony that has known no real peace since independence in 1960 and has been more or less in a state of civil war since late 2012. Now, the country is being roiled by violence following its most recent presidential vote, the reelection this past December of Faustin-Archange Touadéra, ratified in early January.

A colonized and coup-ridden history. CAR is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. France, like most of the colonizers of Africa, did not advance CAR’s own infrastructure, agriculture, or industry. France simply exploited the country, which is rich in resources including oil, gold, timber, uranium, and diamonds, CAR’s major export. And rather than develop national and local government systems, colonial officials instead leased areas within the country to private profitmaking companies which struck deals with local tribes to provide labor and security. France remains the major outside player in CAR, but is facing challenges, notably from Russia.

The “normal” way of transferring power in CAR since independence has been through coups, which took place five times between 1965 and 2013. One rebel faction or another, or several at once, have continued to challenge the central government for power throughout most of these decades. And the history of these rebel factions has become increasingly convoluted over time.

An armed coalition known as the Séléka arose in 2012, claiming to represent the grievances of historically oppressed Muslims in the north of the country against the rule of François Bozizé, a Christian, who seized power in a coup in 2003. Séléka fighters deposed Bozizé in 2013, during a period of vicious conflict between opposing militias that left thousands dead. Opposing the mostly Muslim Séléka was a coalition called the “Anti-Balaka” made up mostly of Christians, with some participation by followers of traditional spiritual practices.

After an unstable period of transitional government following the 2013 coup, Touadéra was voted president in 2016. Touadéra is a former prime minister and math professor who campaigned as a peacemaker who could bridge the religious divide.

Meanwhile, the Séléka and Anti-Balaka were each fragmenting and reconfiguring. Their many armed factions terrorized civilians for years, with actions that included forcing children into their ranks as soldiers and using rape and sexual violence as weapons of war. In time, these multiple factions came to occupy two thirds of the country.

Although the conflict in the CAR is often characterized as a religious one, the fight on the ground is over material spoils like control of cattle migration routes and of mineral resources like the diamonds and gold. The rebellions also are used “as a tool to extract concessions from the government and to secure lucrative official positions,” as the BBC reports

In recent years, many of the rebel groups, including sworn enemies of each other, began joining together in opposition to the weak and increasingly corrupt central government, whose authority Touadéra failed to expand much beyond the capital, Bangui. A peace agreement signed between the government and 14 insurgent groups in 2019 did not achieve an end to conflict. Neither did the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping force. The humanitarian situation in the country became acute.

The 2020 election: return of a coup leader. The “x” factor in the current crisis was the undercover return of self-exiled coup-master Bozizé in late 2019 and his subsequent announcement that he would run for president in the December 2020 election. However, Bozizé is under UN sanction and faces an international warrant for his arrest for alleged involvement in assassinations, torture and other crimes while he headed the country. On that basis, the CAR Constitutional Court rejected his candidacy on December 3, which set off an explosion of violence.

Joined by Bozizé, a new rebel alliance called the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) launched a campaign of electoral intimidation and disruption that included burning ballot boxes, ransacking polling stations, and preventing the vote in over 40 percent of electoral districts. Some of the elements in the CPC were formerly part of the Séléka coalition which toppled Bozizé in 2013.

As Al Jazeera reports:

“Over the course of December, hundreds of civilians died, 30,000 were forced to flee into neighbouring Cameroon, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while another 185,000 were internally displaced. Three UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSCA) peacekeepers lost their lives in the violence.

“To help quell the violence, the CAR requested additional military assistance from Rwanda and Russia. Both sent troops and supplies in support of the Central African Armed Forces (FACA), while France carried out flyover missions in the days preceding elections. CAR prosecutors have launched an investigation into Bozizé, who is accused of plotting the alleged coup.

“Violence has escalated further since the announcement of Touadéra’s victory, with most of the opposition calling for the election results to be annulled citing voting irregularities and the fact that instability prevented many from casting their ballot. On January 13, the CPC launched a coordinated attack on the outskirts of Bangui before being pushed back by MINUSCA in fighting which killed one Rwandan soldier and several CPC fighters.”

The effect of all this on the people of CAR is exceedingly grim – or “apocalyptic,” as a former prime minister described it. It’s believed that more than 200,000 people, almost half of them children, were forced to flee their homes because of the recent violence, though many have now returned. The health situation is dire. Although CAR has a relatively low number of Covid cases at this time, there are only three ventilators in the entire country of almost five million people. Extreme poverty means that people live in a state of chronic medical crisis, with healthcare nonexistent or inaccessible for many of them. The violence has made major roads within CAR and leading into and out of CAR impassable. 

The crisis in CAR is significant even beyond the suffering of its people. CAR’s situation is emblematic of many African nations, both in its decades-long violent civil strife, its political instability, and the poverty, displacement, and desperation of its population. 

And, even though CAR is a landlocked country with little geopolitical significance previously, it is also representative of Africa as a whole in that it has become a staging ground for competition among imperialist countries and countries with imperialist ambitions. Russia particularly is seeking to expand its influence in CAR, enmeshed in sort of proxy war with former colonizer France. A 2017 deal between Russia and CAR essentially agreed to an exchange of weapons from Russia for gold and diamond mining permits from CAR. Russia, like China, is increasingly competing with the West for influence and financial gain throughout Africa. 

The actions of international players, from France onward, have been devastating for the CAR. The solution, like the problem, clearly must be international. But it won’t come down from on high, for example through intervention by the imperialist-dominated United Nations. Salvation can only come from below, through a united fight by Africa’s workers and poor supported by their working-class kin around the world.

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