Inhabitants of the mainly Muslim PK5 neighbourhood in Bangui demonstrate in front of the headquarters of Minusca, the UN peacekeeping mission in the CAR. The country lacks appears to be under a sort of trusteeship. (Florent Vergnes/AFP)
One-size-fits-all solutions cannot fix the myriad problems facing the Central African Republic
Bangui — The Central African Republic (CAR) carries all the myths and markers of a failed state. Central authority has disintegrated. Competing armed groups have usurped state prerogatives in two-thirds of the country. Law and order has almost disappeared and impunity prevails. Armed mutinies and factional violence have become endemic, and political governance is outsourced.
What is left of the state is a compartmentalised, highly fragmented system unevenly run with the support, and sometimes the supervision, of the United Nations and humanitarian agencies. For the CAR, this is likely to be the new normal.
In its 68 years of political independence from France, the CAR has enjoyed only short spells of political calm. More than half-a-dozen coups and countercoups, some botched, others enduring, have installed a situation of stable crisis. Most recently, in 2013, Séléka rebels instigated a coup against François Bozizé’s government, plunging the country into another period of sustained instability and precarious living from which it has yet to recover.
The leadership of the Séléka was predominantly Muslim, and resentment against them, in many cases, has been extended to all in the Muslim minority. Previously, Muslims and Christians had lived together in relative harmony, but now many Muslims have fled the country, and the ones who remain mostly live in segregated zones.
It would take a French-Chadian intervention to restore a modicum of calm before elections could be organised in 2016. But the government that was voted in is largely unable to exercise its sovereignty, leaving the country in a condition of de facto deregulated political governance through conflict.
In other words, the country’s people are left with no choice but to fend for themselves.
The neighbourhood of PK5 in the capital, Bangui, is an example of a how people can organise themselves in the context of an absentee state, in ways both positive and negative. The neighbourhood is host to at least four armed groups, but also to dynamic social initiatives that are supplying the kind of services usually provided by the state.
According to Ali Ousman, the co-ordinator of a Muslim civil society coalition, the 2013 crisis precipitated a new entrepreneurial spirit in his community, emerging from the necessity to self-organise.
“The crisis has been a trigger for the youth, who are both actors and victims,” says Ousman.
Outside his office in PK5, young men are offloading the few trucks that are still able to carry merchandise into the neighbourhood.
Similar scenes — of people making do and doing what they can to look after themselves — are repeated across the country, in territory nominally controlled by government and armed groups alike.
Thus, on the surface, the CAR is the quintessential example of the failed state. But this categorisation does not tell the whole story, and can lead to simplistic analyses. There is nothing inherently deterministic, natural or inevitable about this situation.
The country’s political instability is not the result of an inexorable process of degradation, isolated from specific historical conditions. The current situation — of independence without decolonisation, sovereignty without ownership and nationhood without a common project — is the outcome of a conjunction of historically specific problems and haphazard responses.
Categorical representations are never innocent: they not only generate discursive registers and they can legitimise intervention in the form of intrusive policy treatments. For the failed state construct only tells us what is wrong, not how it is wrong, or, for that matter, for whom the state is failing.
So what exactly does the CAR’s state failure look like? This question implies that there was a recognisable state in the first place. But from a historical perspective, the CAR was never that. It went from a harsh colonial system of blatant exploitation to a postcolonial regime that systematised political exclusion and material deprivation. In fact, the very process of state building was aborted before it was allowed to begin.
To this can be added decades of failed structural adjustment policies, the illegal extraction of the CAR’s rare minerals and the continued effects of the infamous (post)colonial pact that kept the country subordinated in the sphere of influence of its former coloniser, France.
France’s role in precipitating state collapse is especially relevant. In 1979, French paratroopers enforced Operation Barracuda to depose Jean-Bédel Bokassa to reinstall David Dacko, who had been ousted by the former in a 1966 coup.
Limited choice: Bimbo’s big market, one of Bangui’s prominent bushmeat suppliers. The ‘failed state’ of the CAR, which is ruled by armed groups in most regions, is the outcome of the combination of historically specific problems and haphazard responses from the rest of the world. (Florent Vergnes/AFP)
Bokassa reigned over the CAR because he was able to loot the country’s resources and use the proceeds to buy support. As long as Bokassa supplied uranium to France, diamonds to then French president Giscard d’Estaing, and remained the goofy, almost caricatured president who safeguarded France’s interests, the latter provided full support to his repressive government.
Against this backdrop, it is no coincidence that France played a major role in the recent crisis with Operation Sangaris, a military intervention designed to stabilise the country that ran from 2013 to 2016, Sangaris was France’s seventh intervention in CAR since 1960.
But on the streets of Bangui today, it is another international force that is most prominent: the blue-helmeted peacekeepers of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in the CAR (Minusca).
Visitors may be forgiven for thinking that the UN has taken over the CAR. It is almost impossible to stand at a major thoroughfare for five minutes without seeing armoured vehicles bearing the logo of the UN or some other humanitarian agency.
It raises the question: Who is really in control? Is the country better understood as being governed by a form of “multilateral trusteeship”, in which the international community calls the shots?
Modibo Walidou, a law professor, former Cabinet minister and current vice-president of the central mosque of Bangui, has considered this question.
“I wouldn’t say so. It is true that there is something about our present predicament that may make you think that we are under trusteeship”, says Walidou. “Our army is Minusca, our diplomacy is France and Minusca, and our finances, well, it is Minusca that pays the salaries. However, things are more complicated than that.”
Anne-Marie Goumba, a member of Parliament, a judge and a civil society leader, takes a different approach: “A country without an armed force is not a country,” she says. “A country whose security is provided by foreigners is not a country.”
Foreigners are not just providing security. International peacekeepers have been accompanied by an enormous contingent of aid workers and development professionals, there to deliver the intensive care needed to keep the idea of the state alive.
Humanitarianism thus becomes the first layer of a stabilisation course that relies on beefing up the repressive capacity of the security apparatus and a disarmament and demobilisation process, followed by the ritual of elections for a return to “normality”. This is the typical application of the liberal peace package. The blueprint for that is an old idea, according to which conflict prevails when state institutions have collapsed, and they therefore need to be restored.
But humanitarianism, by definition, is only an emergency response. Humanitarian agencies respond to crises and their outlook is short-term. The extent of their care is constrained by the benevolence of fickle donors whose priorities change according to perceptions of urgency, national interest, the geopolitics of resources and political influence.
The humanitarian impulse is no answer to structural problems.
Joseph Inganji, the country director of the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, understands this all too well. “Humanitarian assistance is not a solution to the humanitarian needs of the CAR,” he said.
Despite having been repeatedly failed by their state, many in the CAR yearn for its return. But the state they have in mind is not necessarily the state that the international community — relying on its one-size-fits-all prescriptions — is trying to create.
For populations torn across religious, ethnic, regional and political lines, the state that must be built is one that is able to sustain the terms that structure social relations, the capacity for people to articulate autonomous subjectivities and a culture of good neighbourliness and solidarity.
It is not enough to simply write off the CAR as a “failed state”. Until we understand the specificities of how it has failed, and why it has failed, no one can begin to fix it.
This story was written as part of Uncovering Security, a media skills development programme run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Stanley Foundation and the Gerda Henkel Stiftung