On January 21st, the government of the Central African Republic (CAR) declared a 15-day state of emergency which has now been extended to last 6 months. This declaration came after various armed groups attempted to enter the capital of Bangui in order to overthrow the recently re-elected president, Faustin Archange Touadera. While the new state of emergency marks an escalation in the national situation, the government and various armed militias have fought for years partly due to the volatile political landscape and the presence of economic inequalities. The national conflict is extremely complex and involves many actors, and as such cannot be reduced to a single article, however understanding the legacy of French colonialism in the CAR is a useful starting point to breaking down its underlying causes.
The CAR’s Colonial History
The Central African Republic, like many other African nations, is often referred to as a country “plagued” with violence since its independence. While it is partially true that violence has been present throughout the country’s history, it is important to note that much of this violence stems from the country’s colonial history under the French and the continuation of French influence even after independence. Towards the end of the 19th century, during the “scramble for Africa,” the French claimed a huge swathe of land in the center of the continent that included Ubangi-Shari, which would later become the Central African Republic. To fund their colonial project, the French granted concessions to multiple European companies, who in turn exploited the land through the forced labor of the indigenous population. Throughout the colonial era, the inhabitants of Ubangi-Shari were denied basic rights and were met with extreme brutality, treated as means to an economic end.
On December 1st, 1958, Ubangi-Shari was renamed the Central African Republic and was granted relative autonomy under the leadership of Barthelemy Boganda. Boganda, a staunch nationalist and a major voice for the anti-colonial movement, died in a mysterious plane crash in 1959, with some believing that the French Secret Service played a role in his death. On August 13th, 1960, the CAR officially gained independence from France and David Dacko became the country’s first president because of his familial ties to Boganda. France’s role in Central African affairs was far from over; throughout his presidency, Dacko enjoyed support from the French government, despite his authoritarian tendencies as exemplified in his establishment of a one-party system, and his failure to address the country’s rapidly declining economy. It was against this backdrop of political uncertainty that the French decided to back a coup led by Dacko’s cousin and army chief, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, on December 31st, 1965.
The Legacy of Emperor Bokassa
Bokassa’s rule over the CAR lasted for 13 years and marked perhaps one of the most devastating periods in the country’s history. Bokassa, with indirect support from the French government, ruled with an iron fist, torturing and murdering any political opponents and enabling the military to commit atrocities against the civilian population. Following the Western economic model of privatizing public enterprises, Bokassa established his own personal “monopolies” over the country’s raw materials, such as diamonds, and used the profits to fund his own lavish lifestyle. Bokassa was even accused of engaging in acts of cannibalism, but whether these claims are actually true or if they’re just the product of rumors and stereotypes is unknown.
In 1976, Bokassa declared himself emperor and “ruler for life” in the style of Napoleon, one of his idols. The French actually congratulated Bokassa on this decision and even dedicated roughly $20 million USD towards paying for his “crowning” ceremony, seeing as they were receiving preferential economic treatment from Bokassa. What’s more, the French president at the time, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, even considered the “emperor” his close friend and would visit him to go on hunting trips together. This relationship soured however after Bokassa ordered and even took part in a massacre of over 100 school-children in 1979. In September of the same year, the French initiated the removal of Bokassa, sending in paratroopers and helping to re-install David Dacko as the country’s president. Over the next few decades, instability would unfortunately prevail: multiple coups were carried out and political power was constantly changing, leading the UN to establish a peacekeeping force.
The Current Conflict and the Effects of Neocolonialism
The present state of turmoil in the CAR has its roots in a 2013 rebellion but is also a result of the legacy of economic exploitation by external powers. In 2013, a coalition of militant Muslim groups collectively referred to as the Seleka, overthrew the president at the time, Francois Bozize. From there, the country descended into further turmoil. Ex-members of Seleka clashed with majority-Christian militias, known as “anti-balaka,” with both sides seeing themselves as the protectors of their respective religious groups. However, rather than being solely motivated by religious difference, the Seleka were initially driven to contest Bozize’s rule because of political marginalization and economic grievances.
Such economic grievances are in large part due to the continuation of neocolonial influences. Neocolonialism, which refers to the “actions and effects of certain remnant features and agents of the colonial era in a given society,” has manifested in the CAR in many ways. Firstly, as mentioned before, under the French colonial authority, concessions were granted to large European corporations, and unfortunately this prioritization of international actors has continued today. Today, diamond mining, which is CAR’s second most profitable industry, is similarly dominated by massive foreign corporations like ALROSA and De Beers who generate billions of dollars in profit, while those responsible for physically mining the diamonds work in dangerous conditions and receive insufficient pay. What’s more, France’s affinity for propping up dictators in the CAR has exacerbated this exploitation; many Central African dictators, including Bozize and Bokassa, used the diamond mines as their own personal cash sources and refused to redistribute the profits to the Central African people. Thus, the conflict in the CAR today is in part a result of the extreme wealth inequality between the people and the government, and is also exacerbated by both Seleka and anti-balaka’s desire to gain control of the diamond mines.
France’s tendency to support coups or back the overthrow of leaders who no longer served their own national interests clearly helped to create an environment of political instability in the CAR and is another example of neocolonialism in action. Furthermore, France’s support for Bokassa and other authoritarian leaders revealed just how willing they were to undermine the wellbeing of the CAR in order to maximize their own economic gains. While the current wave of violence cannot be entirely blamed on French colonialism, France allowed the precedent of propping up authoritarian leaders and ignoring the wishes of the people to be set.
The legacy of colonialism and the contemporary effects of neocolonialism have clearly impacted the CAR’s stability. The exploitation of the country’s natural resources by foreign-backed dictators and companies has meant that most Central African citizens are economically marginalized, which in turn leads many to turn to violence to make a living and to air their grievances against a corrupt government. It is completely misguided and reductionist to view the conflict in the CAR as being the symptom of some inherent affinity for violence when it is really the exploitation and antagonism of colonial and neocolonial powers that have laid the groundwork for such violence. If those of us in the West truly want to address conflict in the Global South, we need to understand our own role in facilitating instability and acknowledge that our governments and our own personal economic choices are part of the reason why countries like the CAR are experiencing violence.