I worry about the Central African Republic. I suppose not many people do. It’s a small isolated nation in the heart of Africa. Surrounded by troubles in Sudan, Chad and Congo, nonetheless the CAR has proven capable of surfacing indigenous travails; most of which revolve around tribal politics or bad governance. The saddest part of the CAR’s plight is that nothing need be so bad. Ample opportunities to correct matters have been squandered over the years by self-serving politicians, military chiefs and even the people themselves via passivism in the face of egregious abuses and electoral choices that backfired. Yet, despite the malaise and corruption that belie the country, people are ever optimistic that matters will improve.
Currently, however, unrelated strife in two sections of the country poses difficulties. First, in the far northeast around the town of Birao – truly one of the most isolated towns in all of Africa – the Sudanese Darfur conflict spilled across the border in the form of raids by Janjaweed militias on horseback. The Birao region has much in common with Darfur. It is true Sahaelean land where the conflict between herders and agriculturalists mirrors the imbroglio across the border. Fighting around Birao, however, was exacerbated by CAR army troops who, being southerners from the woodlands and forests to the south, were incapable of distinguishing friend from foe, so chased everyone. With the support of French air power, the CAR army has prevailed for the time being, but Birao town was emptied and the citizenry highly annoyed. The CAR army is simply incapable of maintaining a strong military presence in the northeast; so how matters will shake out in the region in the months to come remains unknown. Perhaps one positive aspect of the fighting is the provision of an additional reason for the UN Security Council to act more vigorously vis a vis Darfur because the Council does have the specific mandate to contain international aggression.
Further west in the northern CAR around the town of Paoua near the Chadian border, the CAR’s internal politics are the cause for strife. The area in trouble is the home region of ousted and exiled President Felix Patasse. The incumbent government of President Francois Bozize continues to believe – with legitimate cause – that the region remains supportive of the ex-president. Thus, it over-reacts with violence to minor sparks of opposition. Short of more inclusive political reconciliation, which is unlikely, the region will remain a tinderbox; mostly to the detriment of rural inhabitants caught in the melee of government heavy-handedness.
One small bright spot in the CAR is in the far southeast along the upper reaches of the Mbomou River and border with the Congo and Sudan. There nearly forty thousand refugees from Sudan’s southern civil war settled since the 1980s and even before. Conclusion of that war in the Sudan in 2004 resulted in massive returns of these refugees to their ancestral homelands around Torit. To its credit the CAR had welcomed and assisted the refugees over the years. They, in fact, quadrupled the population of the thinly peopled east. Yet, despite the hospitality, they were still Sudanese refugees whose stay was temporary. When circumstances were right for their exodus, they went home.
So what can the outside world do for the CAR? There are no easy formulas. A regional, UN backed peace keeping mission has fostered peace in the capital, but doesn’t have the capacity (or mandate) to project forces. France, the former colonial power, retains interest and involvement in the CAR, but is reluctant to do too much. The U.S. has minimal diplomatic presence, few resources and little interest. The UN system responds adequately to humanitarian and refugee issues, but the remoteness of the needy areas limits effectiveness. So ultimately, it is up to the Central Africans themselves to shed the political and economic malaise that engulfs them. That is a tall order that can only be accomplished by many little steps. There is a continuing effort to rectify problems, but don’t expect too much. Meanwhile, worry.