Get It and Waste It

The landlocked, resource-rich Central African Republic has been in a state of almost perpetual turmoil since independence from France in 1960. The latest bout of unrest started with the 2013 overthrow of President François Bozizé, the former army chief of staff. Within a year, the UN had accused Bozizé of ‘engaging in or providing support for acts that undermine the peace, stability or security of CAR’, having tried and failed to take Bangui, the capital. Three-quarters of the country – which is almost the size of France – came to be controlled by 14 separate militias. A peace accord in 2019 brought a brief respite, but this ended in the run-up to the 27 December 2020 presidential election when the Constitutional Court declared Bozizé ineligible to stand because he failed to fulfil the ‘good morality’ requirement. According to the court, he was still subject to a government-issued arrest warrant for his alleged role in murders, kidnapping, arbitrary detention and torture. Everyone knew that the matter was personal. The incumbent, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, previously an obscure academic, was picked by Bozizé to be Prime Minister in 2008, only to be dismissed by Bozizé less than a year later. When the election took place Touadéra swept to victory – although only one third of the electorate was able to vote after militia warfare displaced hundreds of thousands. Various militias have since come together as the Coalition of Patriots for Change, with Bozizé accepting the ‘call’ to be its ‘general coordinator’.

This is the familiar story of an African country with plentiful resources that never reach the general population. Although not in the top league, CAR has significant deposits of high quality – or gem – diamonds, along with gold and uranium. Yet its five million inhabitants are amongst the poorest in the world, exceeded in sub-Saharan Africa only by Niger, which is equally landlocked but mostly desert. According to UN figures, two-thirds of the population are dependent on food aid, itself jeopardised by the fighting. In March alone, there were 34 incidents of looting, nine vehicles were carjacked and two humanitarian workers were injured (one by a bullet). None of this is new. It was perhaps even worse in the colonial period when, between 1890 and 1940, the population was reckoned to have declined by half due to disease, famine and exploitation. Nowadays, CAR is of little strategic interest to the former colonial powers, which is why the ongoing tragedy is barely reported. This is in contrast to, say, neighbouring Chad, where the recent death of the long-serving Idriss Déby captured the world’s attention because of the country’s position in an ‘unusually dangerous neighbourhood’ – Boko Haram in the east, Isis in the north – against which it acts as a bulwark.

Indeed, the only time CAR made any showing on the world stage was in 1977 when the then president, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, declared the country an empire and crowned himself ‘Emperor of Central Africa’ in a two-day ceremony during which he wore a replica of Napoleon’s ermine-lined scarlet cape made by the same Paris firm which embroidered his hero’s uniforms. An embarrassed President Valery Giscard d’Estaing underwrote the spectacle to the tune of $22 million – gold-plated eagle throne, gold crown, 60,000 bottles of champagne and burgundy. As Emperor Bokassa I himself put it: ‘We ask the French for money, get it and waste it.’ And yet he had a point of sorts when he said that he did what he did ‘in order to give dignity to my country in the eyes of the world’ – a country which, as The Washington Post noted at the time, was otherwise ‘best known for supplying platter-lipped women to circus sideshows’.

Then, two years into his reign, even the French were forced to turn on Bokassa after the killing of over one hundred children who protested because they couldn’t afford the school uniform available exclusively in his wife’s shops. The leader and his family were forced into exile and the country returned to being an invisible republic. (In a final twist, Bokassa scuppered d’Estaing’s second-term bid by revealing that he had secretly accepted diamonds worth a quarter of a million dollars, rendering them both political outcasts.) 

As I write, there is no good reason to believe that normalcy will return to CAR anytime soon. Although a 12,000-strong UN mission (along with several hundred Rwandan troops) nominally keeps the peace in the territory still under government control, the government is heavily reliant on the services of Russian mercenaries, following Touadéra’s visit to Putin in 2018 to discuss the exchange of mining contracts in return for weapons. Bangui subsequently granted gold- and diamond-mining permits to Russian companies with suspected links to business mogul, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is a close associate of Putin. Officially, the Kremlin admits to having 535 military experts ‘in line with the international community’s general efforts to strengthen [CAR’s] security structures’. Three freelance Russian journalists who travelled to the country to document the activities of a private security company connected to the Kremlin were attacked and killed (‘in an ambush’). Nonetheless, it is known that one such Russian firm, Wagner Group, employs over 1,000 personnel. Another, Sewa Security Services, guards the airports and ministries and is part of the president’s own detail. The UN has accused both of ‘serious human rights violations’, including mass shootings, arbitrary arrests, torture and attacks on civilian facilities; but it’s unlikely that either they or the president – or Putin, for that matter – will be particularly bothered. If the words of the Russian ambassador, Vladimir Titorenko, are anything to go by, the Kremlin has no plan to wind down its intervention. Titorenko recently warned Bozizé to ‘renounce the armed struggle’ or risk being ‘neutralised’.

What is the rest of the continent doing about this running sore? Precious little. Here in Nigeria, not a line in any newspaper or over the airwaves – and this in a country with more newspapers and radio stations than the entire West African region put together. The government itself has not issued a statement, nor has it been debated in the Senate or the House, despite the claim that Africa is the ‘centre-piece’ of our foreign policy. The African Union, which declared itself satisfied with the conduct of the December elections after observing the process in just four of the country’s 20 prefectures, has since called for ‘dialogue’. Their approach, they explained, was ‘as the weaver when he puts the veil on the wheel. It is not to break it but improve it. We must always try to talk to each other, to cooperate.’ This doesn’t seem to have impressed either side.

The 11-member Economic Community of Central African States has been even less forthcoming – although this has not stopped President Touadéra from continuing to solicit help from neighbouring states. In a visit to Abuja on 24 May, he called on the Nigerian government to assist CAR in rebuilding its army, and on Nigerian citizens to invest in the country. Neither of these are likely prospects. Nigeria’s military has been beleaguered by trying to cope with Boko Haram, to say nothing of the increasing spate of kidnappings, and its business community is reluctant to invest abroad given the lack of support from the country’s foreign missions.

In the meantime, the Central African Armed Forces are effectively pushing back against Bozizé following the attack on Bangui by the Coalition of Patriots for Change. Government troops have reportedly been helped by Russian and Rwandan forces, who not only assisted on the battlefield but also improved the army’s administrative and organizational capacity. According to a statement by Cardinal Nzapalainga, Archbishop of Bangui, ‘A change is underway in the Central African Republic. The armed rebels who had entered the cities have left them and are in the forests’, yet ‘it remains to be seen whether this is real or just temporary peace.’ Judging from the country’s recent history, it is clear which of these options is more likely.

Giovanni Arrighi, ‘The African Crisis’, NLR 15.