, originally for The Washington Post.
When ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was removed from his country in March 2004 by the U.S. military, the pilots flying him abroad were given a destination they had never heard of — the Central African Republic (CAR). “Is that a real country?” they reportedly asked their superiors.
Yes, it is. But its politics and governance don’t look anything like what Americans and Westerners imagine makes up a country. Instead of being run by and for its own residents, either well or badly, CAR has always been run privately, first by far-away companies and now by do-gooders. To call it a state implies a nation that could stand on its own without props; that is not CAR. Nor are its ongoing violent conflicts easily put in familiar categories, such as disputes over religion or power or resources, as we’ll discuss below.
But here’s the main point: Because policymakers have chronically failed to understand CAR’s actual challenges, they have had trouble understanding and responding to the increasingly militarized politics that have dominated CAR over the past 20 years.
So what kind of country is CAR and how should one think about it? Ours is the first English-language political, economic, and historical primer on CAR that seeks to make sense of what was once known as the “Cinderella” of the French Empire, or less charitably, as la colonie poubelle (the trashcan colony). We emerged with a few key insights below.
A quick history of the Central African Republic
CAR lies just where its name suggests — at the landlocked, geographic center of the African continent, surrounded by countries that have seen too much war, including Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. While CAR’s own post-independence history was for a time fairly peaceful, it also brought steady economic decline. Its nearly 5 million people speak French and Sango, with an important minority speaking Arabic.
Since the 1980s, CAR cycled through low-grade violent rebellions that mostly affected parts of the rural north and then subsided. But in late 2012, that violence became a full-blown, nationwide war that took on Muslim vs. Christian overtones. In 2014, the United Nations sent in a 12,000-strong peacekeeping mission that, along with a French military force, is attempting to prevent that violence from continuing and spreading.
This U.N. mission is just the latest in a string of more than a dozen international (United Nations, African Union, and sub-regional) interventions in CAR since the mid-1990s, when violence became a dominant, rather than an intermittent, form of political maneuvering. A quarter of the population has been displaced, and thousands have died.
How could things have gotten so bad? And why, despite all of these interventions, has the situation gotten progressively worse? A number of chapters in our book recount the role of international actors in responding to CAR’s long decline.
Here’s what a nation looks like when…
… its “public” sphere is privatized from the start
Those who study politics usually distinguish between ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres. But the CAR state has always been privatized, so that distinction doesn’t really hold up. Rather than develop an administration, from 1899 to 1930, French colonial officials leased the territory to private companies to run for their own profit (or loss). Several chapters reveal how that system has effectively continued since independence in 1960, though at least as many of the contractors — companies tasked with handling such goods as minerals (gold, diamonds, and uranium), timber, service provision, and safari-hunting — have gone bankrupt as have profited.
Increasing poverty left the CAR government unable to provide services, but that, too, has become a source of concession-rents, as they subcontract out these prerogatives to international organizations, such as the United Nations and the European Union, as well as to international NGOs.
… it isn’t governed locally
In fact, international development and humanitarian aid dwarf all other sectors of the economy or state administration. For instance, medical NGOs, such as Doctors Without Borders and International Medical Corps, provide all health care outside the capital. Without these “external” actors, the CAR would be unrecognizable, and might not even exist. When deciding the country’s future, the most important policymakers are in Ndjamena (Chad), Paris, Nairobi, Brussels and New York.
For example, in January 2014, when CAR’s influential neighbor President Idriss Deby of Chad became frustrated with the CAR government of the day, he summoned and airlifted the entire CAR government to N’Djamena where a new transitional CAR president was selected. As one chapter suggests, the far-flung people participating in these processes — Central Africans and others alike — must be seen not as “external” actors but for what they are: deeply fundamental to the constitution of the CAR state itself.
We also usually think of nations as primarily territorial entities. Even Crawford Young, in studying the diversity of the state form (focusing on colonial states in Africa), argued that states are fundamentally territories — geographically delimited spaces that rulers claim and administer. But that’s not so in CAR. Administering people or otherwise claiming a territory has never been a major objective of state actors in CAR, as they have sought other sources of power, for example, proximity to the former and still very influential colonial power. This is why outsourcing governance is so easy.
… its actual politics are misinterpreted through events happening elsewhere
Often, Western governments, intergovernmental agencies, and humanitarian groups have treated CAR’s problems as simply the spillover from better-known conflicts in neighboring states. For example, the conflict in CAR has variously been described as “Darfur spillover” or related to the advance of Boko Haram — neither of which has any more than a shred of a connection to CAR’s troubles. As one chapter reveals, the United States and Uganda invested millions to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in CAR because it was those governments’ priority.
Addressing CAR’s security challenges from Central Africans’ perspective would have meant focusing on a range of other armed groups that were engaging in more violence than the LRA, as well as the ways that violence has become an avenue to power in the country.
Meanwhile, as another chapter shows, international bureaucracies interpret CAR through regional frames, such as the Sahel (the savannah-desert zone to the north, north-west of CAR) or the Horn of Africa (the countries to the east, such as Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan).
However, CAR also has important historical connections to the south, with the DRC. From the mid-1960s through the 1980s, two of Africa’s most notorious and flamboyant dictators, Zaire’s President Mobutu and CAR’s Emperor Bokassa, reigned over the Central African sub-region ruthlessly, while eating at each other’s table regularly as self-professed brothers.
Understanding these border-crossing dynamics without imposing static regional frames would better illuminate both the national dynamics at play and how these shift and travel. In contrast to the picture of a shapeless, amorphous political space that emerges in most accounts of this so-called failed state, there is instead, a hive of competing authorities across the country and the region born of specific historical relationships and dynamics.
Another chapter explores Bangui’s vibrant market district to reveal the ways that Muslim businesspeople from throughout the region have established flourishing enterprises, and how this district is a microcosm of the deterioration of the Central African social fabric. And yet another chapter explores the roles of witchcraft in Central African conceptions of security, arguing that it is one of the main sources of insecurity they today experience. Yet another contribution examines how Central African elites themselves understand the long decline.
… its national history is a history of crisis
Again and again, interventions in CAR have failed, in part because those leading them have operated as if the crisis of the moment was the first of its kind. A better understanding of CAR’s history reveals that the recent violence is less of an aberration than the label “crisis,” which implies abnormality, might lead us to assume. Only through such a historical reading can we understand, for example, that while the most recent “crisis” in CAR may use the idiom or language of religion and thus appear on the surface as a religious conflict between Christians and Muslims, it is really a long-standing struggle about identity, citizenship, and belonging.
In today’s world, the risks of not getting this reading right are great, as superficial media narratives announcing the latest religious conflict can fast become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Tatiana Carayannis is deputy director of the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum at the Social Science Research Council, author of “UN Voices: The Struggle for Development and Social Justice” and the forthcoming Pioneers of Peacekeeping: ONUC 1960-64.
Louisa Lombard is an assistant professor of anthropology at Yale University and the author of the forthcoming “State of Rebellion: Violence and Intervention in CAR.”
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Justice and Security Research Programme, nor of the London School of Economics.