Army Tanks | Africa | Shout Out UK

Over the past few weeks, for the first time ever, we’ve all become aware of the Central African Republic (CAR). Not just the situation, but the actual country itself. With the ousting of the president Bozizé in March this year by an army of 3000 loosely connected rebels, left over from a minor regional war that ended in 2007. No one really noticed anything had happened until the new government, headed by the rebel leader Djotodia, failed to disband its rebel (Seleka) militias. They have since gone independent: raping, pillaging, displacing 400,000 civilians, and training 36,000 child soldiers. The crisis finally made its way to the news, as an atrocity that can no longer be ignored, a civil war well on its way to being our generations African crisis.

Gary Brecher wrote an excellent article for NSFWcorp in mid October examining the background of the CAR conflict. To him, this was another example of the power vacuum the state represented, a vacuum that had drawn in the French, and now with modern day expansionist Islamism, had drawn in the Sudanese proxies, the Muslim Seleka – a religious identity that makes them representative of 15% of the country’s population. Rather than taking the approach many of the major newspapers have, of simply reporting the facts because it’s another year in Africa, this is one of the few articles I have found that looks to examine the causes of the power struggle and the atrocities that have followed them. However Brecher still doesn’t examine exactly what it is that has left one of the most resource rich nations on the planet with over fifty years of independent rule in a situation where the government can be dissolved in a matter of days by 3000 barely coordinated mercenary tribesmen. To gain a better understanding, lets rush through just over fifty years of CAR history.

The CAR pulled out of the colonial period in 1958, becoming an autonomous territory within the French Community. What should have been a peaceful, bureaucratic, transition to independence was derailed when Barthélemy Boganda – first elected president, state founder and national hero – boarded a plane that exploded in midair. Despite the suspicious nature of his death the French declined to investigate. When full independence came in 1960 Boganda’s aides: Gambo and Dacko, fought a power struggle that was won by the French backed Dacko. To celebrate he formed a one party state. In 1965, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, lead a coup d’etat. A military officer who had fought, the Vichy government, the Nazis and the Viet Minh.

Bokassa proved his love for the democratic system he had spent most of his life fighting for, by declaring himself Emperor of the Central African Empire, and spending a quarter of the nations GDP on a recreation of Napoleon’s coronation. In 1979, with Bokassa still unable to get international recognition, the French put Dacko back in power, but he was, of course, unable to prove he was not a French puppet and in 1981 General Kolingba took power. Heading a military junta until the fall of the Berlin wall, meant the acceptable evils global policy that had blossomed under Regan and Thatcher, became an uncomfortable smear on the legitimacy of Western democracy An international coalition (known as MINURCA) forced Kolingba to hold free elections. He lost to his main rival Patassé. Despite winning a second election Patassé decade in power saw three mutinies and a failed coup. The international coalition having seen one free election were unconcerned about the aftermath. Bozizé, the leader of the failed coup, fled to Chad before launching a second coup in 2003 and taking power. Bozizé’s decade in power managed to mix, moderate rule with electoral fraud, before he was ousted by the Seleka this year.

Based on this I wouldn’t view the Central African Republic, like Brecher does, as a power vacuum. To me it seems to be more of a power mill regularly pushing old leaders off of the top, as new leaders pursue them. The contemporary situation is the first time in the CARs fifty year history that the head of state has not had absolute control of the nation. It also seems that rather than being damned by geography and history to forever be a power vaccum, the rotation of power has been forced artificially by outside hands. Two of the CARs five coups were directed by France, another two were a response to a French puppet being in power. While the chaos that currently holds the nation hostage, clearly has roots in the global jihad movement, with Sudanese involvement undeniable. The inability to fight it appears to be a direct result of the MINURCA coalition applying a band-aid to a gaping wound. Taking a country with no historical or cultural understanding of the maintenance of a democratic system, forcing them to hold democratic elections, and, then leaving the politicians to their own devices, is perhaps the most efficient way to destabilise it.

When Frantz Fanon first described what he believed to be a successful Colonial revolution, the Central African Republic, was the antithesis of what he had in mind. His distrust not just of the Colonisers in conjunction with the Colonised, you only have to look at the reign of Bokassa to understand why. In his own words ‘Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.’ The Central African Republic was never allowed this moment of clinical self reflection. The man who looked set to lead it, Boganda, may or may not have been removed by the French, who went on to introduce the military coup which has come to dominate political discourse in the CAR. The reason the Central African Republic seems so familiar within the popular discourse on Africa is because just like the nations that surround it. The empire never really left. They have been left to struggle with the duplicitous identity of viewing themselves as independent, whilst desperately grasping for recognition from their former masters, who still have interests to maintain. This is what has caused the collapse of the state, it is what causes rebel factions to turn on the remaining images of colonialism that have soured their dream. Infamously in Rwanda it was the Tutsis, ethnically representative of the colonial masters who were turned on. The Central African Republic has, with a significant push from jihadists, turned on the Catholics, despite their majority status.

This not to say that I am against Western intervention. Mali has proven that Western Intervention can be swift and successful, and Western intervention is exactly what the Central African Republic needs. However, this is the perfect example of why we still need an open dialogue on colonialism. There is a tendency, particularly in the twenty first century. To assume that the darkest parts of European history have gone away and that short of feeling uncomfortable about it, there’s nothing we can do with what we’ve inherited. The reality is, that independence has all to often proved a veneer, especially on the still prized continent of Africa. All to often these catastrophes are easily slotted into the Orientalist viewpoint. That these human nightmares descend from the uniquely African ability to embrace corruption and exploit their ethnic tensions. Making it even easier, in this case, is the presence of jihadis. With the Central African Republic we have two of our favourite narratives: Africans who can’t govern, and blood thirsty extremist. How can we feel, uncomfortable about something beyond the spectrum of colonial responsibility? Instead we should feel good that we’re getting around to saving these people from themselves.

Again. Don’t get me wrong, Intervention is the only way to break the republics hurtling spiral. But ultimately this is a problem that should have been solved long ago. A cycle of control, manipulation and half hearted humanitarianism. That has repeatedly crippled the CAR, and crippled the countries surrounding it, countries that on paper should be economic powerhouses. Life within them has been made hellish; as the upper echelons fight for power that non of them are sure how to control. At it’s worse it leads to what we now see, a kind of cultural schizophrenia, that leads to violence, fracturing and social collapse. As the a nation with no idea how to keep control, cleanses itself of an omnipotent force that refuses to let the country breathe.

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