Jan 24th 2008 | BANGUI
From The Economist print edition
Will foreign interest help rescue a rotting country at the heart of Africa?
WITH more than its fair share of rebels, refugees and mercenaries, the Central African Republic (CAR) has nonetheless been overshadowed by its bigger neighboursChad, Congo and Sudanwhose tribulations have hitherto been much harsher. But the CAR's unhappy turn in the spotlight may come soon. A rebellion in the north has caused a humanitarian crisis. European Union troops under French command, part of a larger EU force to be deployed mainly in Chad, are due to arrive soon to try to prevent violence spreading from Sudan's ravaged western province of Darfur into the CAR.
The new interest has also brought some unflattering scrutiny. The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based lobby, says that the CAR has dropped below the level even of a failed state. It has become virtually a phantom state, lacking any meaningful institutional capacity at least since the fall of Emperor [Jean-Bédel] Bokassa in 1979, it says.
That the self-proclaimed emperor, who was rumoured to eat opponents, is remembered fondly by some people in the CAR shows just how far the country has fallen. When the French, who ran the place until 1960, decided that their long-time protégé had become a liability, they helped to oust him. That did not bring stability. The CAR has suffered no fewer than 11 mutinies or attempted coups in the past decade alone.
The latest man in charge is François Bozizé. He came to power in 2003, backed by Chadian mercenaries, ousting Ange-Félix Patassé, who was supported by Libya and Congolese rebels. Amid the chaos, foreign governments endorsed Mr Bozizé's election victory in 2005, reckoning he was at last someone they could work with.
Since then, however, two more rebellions have erupted. One, in the north-west, pits supporters of Mr Patassé, who is in exile, against the government's feeble forces. Another, in the north-east, has its origins in a combination of ethnic tension and regional neglect made worse by some disgruntled Bozizé men who complain they have not been paid for liberating the country. Thrown into the mix are bandits known as Zaraguina, who are mostly from Chad; they loot, kidnap and demand thousands of dollars in ransom for local cattle-herders from the Peuhl tribe.
The result is yet another humanitarian tragedy in a part of Africa already overwhelmed by despair. About a quarter of the country's 4m people have been affected by the violence. The United Nations says some 300,000 have fled their homes. A New York-based lobby group, Human Rights Watch, puts much of the blame on Mr Bozizé's forces, who, it says, have committed hundreds of murders and burned thousands of homes in a counter-insurgency campaign that started in 2005.
France is still heavily involved; it has supported the government militarily, sending its own men and aircraft to attack the rebels. French advisers working with Mr Bozizé say they have persuaded him to restrain his men. A UN diplomat says the president has begun to pay closer attention to human rights.
Even so, the country remains mired in poverty and neglect. Unions began a series of strikes at the beginning of the year to demand the payment of over seven months of unpaid salaries for civil servants and teachers; the government says it has no money. Foreign aid-workers say that, though international aid to Africa as a whole has soared, the CAR has got even less than before. Some well-wishers hope that the presence of the incoming EU force may help stabilise the country and enable its economy to start growing again.
At least the government is trying to talk to its opponents. Rebels or Zaraguinas, they're just bandits, says Dieudonné-Stanislas M'Bangot, a presidential adviser. But we have to negotiate with them, as we don't have the means to fight them. Do you have any better ideas?