Taking a closer look at the centrafricaine ceasefire and prospects for CAR elections

CAR rebels

It’s not every day that the Central African Republic makes world headlines, but it has become a global hotspot in the last two months, with Séléka coalition rebels increasingly taking control of the landlocked nation of 4.5 million and threatening to advance on the CAR’s capital, Bangui, on the Congolese border. centrafrique flag

Over the weekend, the rebels signed a ceasefire with the current president, François Bozizé, and today, opposition lawyer Nicolas Tiangaye has been named the new centrafricaine prime minister.

Under the ceasefire, the parties have agreed that Bozizé should continue to serve as president until 2016, when new elections will be called.  The centrafricaine national assembly will be dissolved, and Tiangaye will head a coalition government designed to stabilize the country, re-integrate the Séléka rebels into the national military, release Séléka political prisoners, and reform the country’s judicial system, with an eye to further economic and social reforms, especially in the crisis-weary north of the country where the government’s presence — military or otherwise — is nearly non-existent.

The new government, which cannot be dissolved or removed by Bozizé, is expected to run for at least the next 12 months, when new parliamentary elections will thereupon be held, though it remains possible for the government to continue for a longer period.

The Séléka coalition is comprised of several groups in the northern part of the country, and their gripes with the government follow from a previous ceasefire that ended the three-year Central African Republic Bush War in 2007 — that war, in turn, began as a response to the 2003 coup that brought Bozizé to power initially.

The ceasefire also seems to have ended the immediate threat that the Séléka rebels, who already control much of the northern half of the country, will invade Bangui and oust the Bozizé government, an increasingly likely threat until the weekend’s ceasefire.  The instability caused by the latest tumult also threatened to destabilize neighboring Sudan, Uganda and Chad — Chadian forces have assisted Bozizé from the time of the 2003 coup and throughout the tenure of his government.

The chances for building a stable centrafricaine democracy, while not hopeless, certainly have long odds in a country where there have been many more military coups than democratic elections:

Larger than France, the Central African Republic is a paragon of the ‘fragile state’. Some political scientists, such as the former ambassador of the CAR in Brussels, go further than that and even call it a “hollow state”.

The country — formerly the French colony of Ubangi-Shari established in the 1890s — emerged, like much of French Africa, as an independent nation in 1960.  The former colony got off to a bad start in 1959 when its leading figure, the president of the autonomous government counsel, Barthélémy Boganda, died in an airplane crash.  His chief aide, David Dacko, became president with not insignificant military and financial aid from the French.

Dacko’s government was eventually toppled by the leader of the centrafricaine armed forces, Jean-Bédel Bokassa.  Bokassa stands out in post-colonial African history as one of the most notorious examples of neopatrimonialism in sub-Saharan Africa, ruling the CAR with a system of autocratic bureaucracy and clientelism that became increasingly unhinged through the years — he spent $20 million (much of it donated from the French — if you want a textbook example of Françafrique, you should look to French policy with respect to Bokassa, not to the recent French military intervention in Mali) on a lavish coronation as ’emperor’ of the CAR in 1977.  Ultimately, his rule became so ridiculous that his prior benefactors, the French military, ousted him in 1979 — he spent much of the next decade in exile, convicted in absentia for murder, theft and cannibalism.

Though Dacko returned to power in 1979, he was ousted in another coup, this time by André Kolingba, who governed the country through the end of the Cold War.  Kolingba introduced a new constitution in 1986, though truly democratic elections didn’t come to the CAR until 1993 and then, only with Kolingba’s begrudging acquiescence.

Ange-Félix Patassé won those elections, though he hardly led his government with distinction, and he rigged the 1999 elections to win a second term, despite overwhelming dissatisfaction at his corrupt regime.

Bozizé, in turn, ousted Patassé in the 2003 coup, appointed a broad council that included many opposition groups, and subsequently won election in his own right in 2005 and reelection in the rigged 2011 presidential race.  Violence in the northern part of the country, however, has plagued Bozizé’s government from the beginning, since the 2004 rebellion in the northeastern part of the country by the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR) that launched the Bush War.

The UDFR leader, Michel Djotodia (himself a former civil servant in the Patassé administration), is now the top Séléka leader as well, and it is expected that he will contest the 2016 presidential elections.

For his part, Tiangaye, a well-known centrafricaine lawyer, was counsel to Bokassa during his trial in the 1980s, which may complicate his ability as prime minister to transcend the violent saga that’s plagued the CAR since independence.  He has also served briefly as president of the Central African Human Rights League, helped draft the CAR’s current constitution and participated in the transition council appointed upon Bozizé’s takeover.

The centrafricaine economy is certainly not to be mistaken for any of the ‘cheetah’ economies, such as Ghana’s or Nigeria’s, that are emerging as some of the world’s fastest-growing in sub-Saharan Africa.  With a GDP per capita of under $1,000, its economy is based largely on agriculture — in particular, staple food crops, such as cassava, corn and peanuts — with the notable exception of diamonds, which constitute about half of the country’s exports.

The country is largely Christian, and although many ethnic groups co-exist in the CAR, the two major ethnic groups are the Gbaya people (a little over one-third of the population) and the Banada people (a little under one-third of the population), the latter of which mostly live in the north and center of the country.

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