Central Africa crisis: Cherchez La France

A bitter colonial legacy and mismanagement of state power are key factors behind the violence in the CAR

French troops patrol past two Seleka vehicles set on fire by Christian mobs in Bangui, Central African Republic, Monday Dec. 9, 2013. Both Christian and Muslim mobs went on lynching sprees as French Forces deployed in the capital. At least one Seleka suspect was stoned to death by the crowds. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

The ongoing conflict in the Central Africa Republic (CAR) should be put within its regional context first. CAR is part of a region in Africa which has witnessed some of the most brutal colonial and post-colonial atrocities than any other region in the continent. To the South of CAR is Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the epicenter of a modern hell that has consumed over three million lives during the last thirty year. Northeast of CAR is Sudan whose conflict has produced a million casualties and the displacement of untold millions.

To the southeast is Uganda where Idi Amin fed his political opponents to crocodiles and where, for thirty years, the Lord’s Resistance Army has terrorised the rural population of northern Uganda. Further southeast, is Rwanda where close to a million civilians were butchered in the 1994 genocide, and Burundi where civil war and political instability has left behind a human tragedy. The cost of this regional catastrophe has been the death of several million Africans and the devastation of livelihood of many more in a region that has some of the richest natural resources in the world.

A simplistic news coverage

Superficial academic and journalist reports have characterised many of these conflicts -including the ongoing one in CAR- as tribal in nature. The most prominent of these has been the depiction of the Rwanda genocide as the consequence of deep rooted animosity between the Tutsi and Hutu communities. Similarly, the conflict in the Sudan, before the division of the country into two, was described as a war between Muslims and Christians or Arabs against Africans. Now it is claimed that the Dinka and Neur are killing one another in South Sudan. Characterising conflicts in the continent as either tribal or religious has a long history.

Many, however, fail to realise that the causes of these conflicts are not necessarily ethnic or religious in nature but  can be better explained within the context of existing political and economic forces that are driven by illegitimate exploitation of state power. Such misuse of governmental authority turns the state into a sectarian force rather than an authority that accents the commonalities of the population. The sectarian exploitation of the state by those in power, and the political opposition’s use of communal relations as a means of mobilising support to seize power, produced communal conflicts where  they did not exist before.

The bitter legacy of French colonialism

African countries have been politically “independent” from European colonial powers for nearly sixty years; however, the legacy of European savagery still remains in the continent. For example, the idea of dividing cultural communities into separate political entities, on the basis of cultural or ethnic boundaries, was an invention of colonial powers and lives on. Unfortunately, many African leaders, and some of their political opponents, have internalised that ideology as a means to stay in power or gain political authority.

French colonialism in Central Africa was known for three fundamental qualities. First, it administered the territory as a French fiefdom where the native population was subjected to one of the most brutal authoritarian regimes. In so doing, the French established a political culture where force, rather than popular consent, was the source of authority. Second, the French authority, and its commercial allies, exploited the territory’s resources, not to advance the native population’s wellbeing but their own and that of France. By setting up  its authoritarian administration, colonial France transformed cultural groups, ethnic or religious, into state managed political categories. As with all colonial regimes, this strategy of divide and rule was meant to undermine the common political project of the African people and to prolong French dominance. 

Struggling with the past

The Central African Republic was in a sorrow shape in 1960 when it became nominally independent from France and had to overcome several inherited liabilities. Although France was no longer in charge of the territory, nevertheless, it pulled the strings from behind the scene.

France continued to have significant role in CAR military affairs and often called the shot, directly or indirectly, through its military capabilities, including local allies. Another key factor was that the local elite appeared to have no clue about their onerous national responsibilities as many of them were poorly educated and beholden to the former colonial master. Rather than transform colonial structures in order to serve the local population, the elite mismanaged the inherited system and made it even worse; while exploiting the country’s resources for their own ends.

Liberation did not bring freedom and accountability. Instead it ushered in a new form of authoritarianism whose cruelty went beyond imagination. This order was best represented by the self- proclaimed Emperor Bokassa who ruled from 1965 to 1979. Bokassa was replaced by another coup which French Commandos in the country assisted. More coups followed until the last year when a rebel movement overthrew the government. France, for its part, has always acted behind the scenes. Most recently, it sent  troops to stop the conflict that is ravaging the country; a conflict whose genealogy goes back to France.

Causes versus consequences of the conflict

Much of the media and political coverage of the disaster in the CAR has been framed along sectarian lines (Muslim-Christian) or ethnic cleavages. Such characterisation of the conflict is not unique. Other conflicts in the continent have been looked at from the same prism.  But In the CAR, one can only hear whispers that Muslim and Christian communities have historically lived side by side without much sectarian acrimony. Given this harmonious historical relationship, how can we explain the origins, nature, and dynamics of the conflicts in the country?

Two factors can be considered central to the calamity. First, the horrible legacy of French colonialism left behind a devastated economy and induced a post-colonial political order which reinforced the worst forms of exploitation and authoritarian rule. Second, CAR’s post-colonial political elite used the state not as an agent to develop the country and enhance civic commonalities among the population, but as an instrument to loot state resources, brutalise the political opposition, marginalise communities en mass, and ultimately deploy the colonial strategy of divide and rule.

Misrule and abuse of state power have led to the fragmentation of communities, polarisation of political opinion, and the de-legitimation of the core responsibility of the government. Without popular legitimacy, delivery of services, justices, and the development of  new collective shared political values, there is little chance the country can be rebuilt.

When the authoritarian state imposed violence on the population, the later has resorted to desperate measures by mobilisng communal sentiments to resist tyranny and consequently a vicious circle of tyranny and violence was created. Such is the line of causation of the tragedy in the CAR and several other countries in Africa, including Southern Sudan today: It is the political mismanagement of the state which produces religious or ethnic strife rather than the other way around.

A reversal of  this atrocious cycle requires national leadership of extra-ordinary vision (of Mandela courage, wisdom, and humility), tenacity, and an international community not driven by expedience. France does not have the moral standing to provide a guide for the international community given its very long disreputable record in CAR. This leaves the African Union (AU) to step up its efforts. Among the AU members best qualified to take the lead are South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Rwanda.

Abdi Ismail Samatar is Professor and Chair of Department of Geography, Environment & Society
University of Minnesota, Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria and former President of
African Studies Association.