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 GITAU WARIGI : CAR - the forgotten country

GITAU WARIGI : CAR - the forgotten country

Africa is full of desolate places. Without doubt, one of the topmost on the list is Central African Republic. Sitting pat in the centre of the continent, nobody even bothered to give it a proper name.

By Line : GITAU WARIGI

Last Modified : 25-07-2012

GITAU WARIGI : CAR - the forgotten country

 

Africa is full of desolate places. Without doubt, one of the topmost on the list is Central African Republic. Sitting pat in the centre of the continent, nobody even bothered to give it a proper name.

It is a land where coups, mercenaries, conflicts, rebels and refugees are a daily vocabulary. Again, nothing new about this in Africa. But in the CAR, the hopelessness is more pervasive and has endured longer.

France colonized the place, giving it the rather ungainly name of Ubangi-Shari, which is rarely ever used these days. The French granted the country independence on August 13, 1960, then packed up and left, and promptly forgot the place.

The only thing France left behind was a well-armed garrison near the capital Bangui. This garrison decides which of the many coups to back and which to crush.

No bolshy trappings

Conjure up a country whose tarmacked roads and fixed telephone lines barely extend beyond the capital city, a country with no national airline, no print media or TV presence outside Bangui, no five-star hotel – indeed, none of the bolshy trappings African states are so fond of.

Then comes the coups, the instability, the confusion. There have been as many coups as there have been presidents, starting with the very first carried out in 1966 by a sergeant-major who later crowned himself emperor, modelling himself on the great Napoleon Bonaparte – the one and only Jean-Bedel Bokassa.

Every time a coup or mini-coup or mutiny happens, a fresh cadre of disgruntled rebels is created. Over time, these armed groups have grown into ever more bewildering factions.

Today’s political figures will be tomorrow’s rebels. Many other so-called rebels are actually nothing like that, in the sense of fighting for a coherent political agenda. They are simply bandits – such as the notorious Zaraguinas – who hire themselves in the countryside to the highest bidder.

Like its TV station and its dreary daily offering, the government’s current remit barely covers much beyond Bangui.

Trove of natural riches

Not all of CAR’s conflicts are homegrown. Plenty spill over from her more boisterous neighbours. It may help to recall that the International Criminal Court’s most prominent African catch so far, former DR Congo vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba, got indicted for atrocities he committed in CAR.

Other renegades like Joseph Kony know where to hide when their Ugandan and Congolese pursuers get too close: they disappear into the void of the CAR.

Sudan and Chad, in the course of their own conflicts, throw in their share of rebels and refugees into the CAR.

The country has its natural riches, among them a trove of the most wonderful alluvial diamonds that can literally be picked up from riverbeds. And being an extension of the Congo river basin, its forests teem with valuable hardwood timber.

Again, such natural wealth is hardly unheard of elsewhere in Africa. The difference with CAR is that the enduring chaos of the state has ensured there is no capacity to exploit this wealth meaningfully.

Bottom of the heap

CAR is quite frankly at the bottom of the heap in Africa. Mortality rates are 3 to 5 times the sub-Saharan average; 80 per cent of the population has been displaced at one time since 2002; 67 per cent say they have been threatened with death at least once; and 11 per cent have been forcefully abducted.

In short, the country neatly fits what has come to be known as a failed state. It could actually be worse than that. It has become virtually a phantom state, lacking any meaningful capacity. Political leaders and the rebel groups have essentially privatized the state for their own benefit, leaving a black hole which anybody with a gun wants to jump in.

The official army is not of the kind other countries know. Whichever president gets power, he moulds an army that is basically a tribal militia. When Gen Andre Kolingba ruled, the army was dominated by his Yakoma tribe. When Ange-Felix Patasse came in, he did the same for his tribe, provoking violent mutinies from disempowered Yakoma soldiers.

Hauntingly beautiful

A 3,000-man UN peace-keeping force has been in place in the country since 2007, when conflict between current President Francois Bozize’s army and rebel forces peaked. The force, called MINURCAT (which also covers Chad), is not always sure whose peace it is supposed to enforce. Government has basically no presence in the north.

Most of the UN force has now been withdrawn, and the remainder (about 300) plan to be gone by December this year, in effect leaving the poor country back to its own destructive devices.

Poor as it is, the CAR is hauntingly beautiful. The hilltop sight from Bokassa’s abandoned Bangui palace across the majestic Oubangui river is one to behold. The wild savannahs of the north and the astounding fauna they support add to the beauty.

The people of the country can be especially touching, more so the Sango who a visitor to Bangui will most often encounter. They take their poverty with good cheer, are unfailingly polite and trusting with foreigners, and a $5 dollar gift generates extraordinary gratefulness.

 

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