It’s time to think outside of the box concerning the Central African Republic (CAR). Perhaps it’s time for a curatorship. That’s because a bad chapter in the CAR’s history looks as if it is about to repeat itself. Ousted president François Bozizé is working on a comeback, seven years after the African Union, the United Nations, a transitional administration, and a democratic election have failed to clean up much of the mess he was responsible for.
The CAR has been plagued by horrible leadership since independence. Bozizé is part of this unfortunate legacy and, unless something unexpected happens, there is a reasonable chance that he will end up back in the Presidential Palace. Bozizé’s party, the Kwa Na Kwa (a Sango language term meaning “Work, Nothing but Work”) has nominated him as its candidate for elections scheduled for December this year.
Even if Bozizé does not win, there is a good chance another recycled candidate from the past will get the job, because that is what happens in the CAR — over and over again. The same names have been popping up on ballot papers since not long after independence. Sixty years later, the CAR remains a phantom state with about the same amount of infrastructure as when the French colonial power left.
The international community has thrown a lot of its tools at the CAR problem, with little to show for the effort. The most recent succession of peacekeeping missions began with a regional effort, Misab, in 1997. Replaced by the UN’s Minurca a year later, and followed two years after that by observer missions, political missions, African Union missions and then, in 2014, another UN mission — Minusca.
Well into 2020, there is still little if any government presence beyond the capital city, Bangui. Peacekeepers, as well as Russian mercenaries, struggle to keep rebel groups at bay across an area about half the size of South Africa. Even if they succeed, the underlying problems that created this long-term mess persist. The lack of development outside Bangui has left the 4.5-million people of the CAR angry, frustrated and without expectations.
This is the setting that provides for Bozizé’s possible return to power. Elections in the CAR traditionally have a poor turnout, are plagued by fraud and voters tend to go for a name they have heard of. Expectations after the poll are low to non-existent, apart from people who hope to “eat” because a member of their ethnic group is in power.
South Africans first heard of Bozizé when South African soldiers deployed to the CAR under a bilateral military agreement were killed by rebels in the March 2013 Battle of Bangui. South Africa was there to protect Bozizé after his traditional friends — France, Chad and Libya — had deserted him. The deal started under Thabo Mbeki; Jacob Zuma, like his predecessor, maintained it in the hopes of scoring mineral and oil concessions.
Bozizé’s story, however, starts long before that.
A bit of background is necessary. The Central African Republic is a large, beautiful, fertile, resource-rich country with a small population. It once had a Mandela-like figure who promised and probably would have made a half decent go at moving the former French colony forward on the road to progress. Unfortunately, national hero Barthélémy Boganda was killed in a suspect air crash shortly before independence in 1960.
From the start, leadership has been weak at best, and downright horrible at worst, with the same cast of characters occupying slightly changing roles ever since. Best known of the lot was Jean-Bédel Bokassa. Bokassa crowned himself emperor in 1976. His General Bozizé would be in charge of the soldiers who put down a student demonstration with such violence, it would lead to Bokassa being forcibly removed from power.
Bokassa was replaced by David Dacko, who named Bozizé as his defence minister. Dacko was overthrown by André Kolingba, whom Bozizé would, in turn, unsuccessfully attempt to oust before fleeing the country. Bozizé was back to serve in the government of President Ange-Félix Patassé, whom he overthrew in 2003.
Once in power, Bozizé weakened the army by turning the presidential guard into the only real fighting force in the land — this with the help of first the Libyans, then the Chadians and, finally, the South Africans. Zuma was one of Bozizé’s last fair-weather friends.
His traditional friends — France, Chad and Libya — had deserted him, and he had alienated and angered large portions of the population, notably the predominantly Muslim northeast of the country. The rebel movement Séléka was formed after Bozizé’s troops carried out a scorched earth policy in the northeast. Séléka would eventually cover the 1 100 km to Bangui on foot, virtually unopposed.
Another rebel movement — the Anti-Balaka — is a legacy of the Bozizé years. It was formed after the rebel group Séléka marched on Bangui and sent Bozizé fleeing to Cameroon by helicopter. The ousted leader has spent most of the past seven years in Uganda, where he has been overseeing Anti-Balaka activity. He’s been careful about his movements — an arrest warrant for crimes against humanity has been hanging over Bozizé’s head since 2013. The charges were levelled by the public prosecutor of the interim government headed by Michel Djotodia. He was replaced by a transitional leader, Catherine Samba-Panza and then Faustin-Archange Touadéra, after elections in 2016.
There is no indication at this point whether the current CAR authorities will attempt to pursue the case against Bozizé — and this is telling. Bozizé can return to Bangui without fear of arrest and assume that the country wants him back in the top office. This is, without exaggeration, worse than the ANC deciding Zuma should once again be its candidate for president.
An underdeveloped country
Bozizé, like those before him, did virtually nothing for the development of his country. It can take weeks to get from the far north to Bangui, the only place that has barely acceptable standards of healthcare. Life expectancy is 39 years. Outside the capital there are only a handful of qualified doctors, often provided by international organisations such as Médecins sans Frontières rather than by the government. The situation is similar with education. Manufacturing is virtually non-existent.
History is something to learn from. Bozizé cannot be trusted. Nor can most of the current long-in-the-tooth crop of politicians. They had the job to build a country and they failed.
It is criminal to allow the same group of politicians to remain at the helm. It is a waste of money and effort to expect different results from recycled peacekeeping missions. Perhaps a transitional administration, a curatorship, along the lines of what the UN did in Kosovo, East Timor, or Cambodia; providing time to help build capacity in a new civil service, police force, army, education, and health sector. If the CAR carries on with the status quo, we will be having the same conversation twenty years from now. Maybe it’s time to hold a referendum and ask the people of the CAR what they want.
David L Smith is executive director of Okapi Consulting, a media organisation that sets up and manages radio services in zones of conflict and fragile states. He is founder of Radio Ndarason Internationale in the Lake Chad basin, Radio Okapi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Radio Minusca (now Ndeke Luka) in the Central African Republic, Radio Bar-Kulan in Somalia, a former producer at Radio Netherlands and Radio Canada International, and former station manager and head of programmes at Capital Radio. His radio career began as a journalist at Capital Radio after moving to Johannesburg from Zimbabwe, where he was a teacher.