In the first of a two-part series, Carol Jean Gallo argues that we need to look beyond the image of CAR as a country dominated by a series of coups, and understand the complexities of its political history, and the factors shaping its political future. Carol Jean Gallo is a PhD candidate at the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University. She also blogs at UN Dispatch and Usalama.
On March 24, a rebel coalition calling itself Séléka (“alliance”) took Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR). They deposed President François Bozizé, who came to power in a military coup in 2003 and was elected president in 2005. He was re-elected in 2011, in flawed but largely peaceful elections.
The regional peacekeeping mission, MICOPAX, was unable or unwilling to stop the rebels; a South African contingent of about 400 was the only force to attempt to protect Bozizé against the rebel force of about 5,000. According to Ebba Kalondo on a March 24 broadcast on France 24, Bozizé’s army was not trained well and probably kept intentionally weak due to a fear on Bozizé’s part of disloyalty or a potential coup against him.
After seizing Bangui, rebel leader Michel Djotodia declared himself president and said that the prime minister, civilian opposition leader Nicolas Tiangaye, would retain his position as decreed in a January peace agreement. Djotodia pledged to name a new power-sharing government which would rule until national elections.
France’s colonial legacy and politics since independence
CAR is often described as a country with a history of instability and coups “since independence.” This creates the impression that prior to independence, CAR was a politically stable administration under its French custodianship; and that after independence, successive military dictators vied for control of the country. However, to grasp the nature of political instability in CAR, one must acknowledge the country’s colonial legacy and its struggles to establish more democratic institutions.
French rule in CAR was strikingly similar — in its strategy, motivation, and brutality — to that of Belgium in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Concessionary companies paid rent to the colonial state, hired their own private militias, and a slave plantation economy was established. Forced labour continued into the 1940s. As Louisa Lombard has argued, a ‘substantive political contract between leaders in the capital and rural residents has never been established.’
After decades of revolts against French rule, France began to loosen its authoritarian grip; a National Assembly was permitted in 1946, and in 1956 a measure of autonomy. In 1960, French-backed David Dacko oversaw the country’s declaration of independence. Six years later, one Colonel Bokassa took power in a “swift and almost bloodless” coup. Human rights abuses proliferated under his rule. In 1979, Dacko took power again in a coup supported by France but his reign lasted only two years before General Kolingba replaced him in a bloodless coup, establishing a military regime.
Under Kolingba, civilian participation was increased, culminating in a new constitution ratified by national referendum in 1986 and semi-competitive parliament elections a year later. Over the next decade, however, calls for further democratization swelled. The 1990s marked the rise of a pro-democracy movement, inspired in part by student protests, demanding a national conference be convened. Kolingba refused, but the pressure led him to allow multi-party elections. Unsatisfied, the opposition grew and was accompanied by official strikes by ‘students, teachers, civil servants, press, health personnel, rural development workers, and financial sector employees’.
In 1993 elections were held. Ange-Félix Patassé, whose party was not allowed to compete in the 1987 elections, won 53 percent of the vote. Between 1996 and 1997, economic mismanagement and ethnic tensions within the military spurred three mutinies against Patassé. Despite this, he was re-elected in September 1999. Tensions remained, however, between members of the Presidential Security Unit and soldiers defending former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces François Bozizé, who had fled to Chad.
On 15 March 2003, Bozizé overthrew Patassé and declared himself president. He suspended the constitution and dissolved the National Assembly, though he was able to restore some order to Bangui and other parts of the country. In 2004 a new constitution was passed by referendum and a year later, Bozizé won the first elections held since his coup. Rebel activity intensified in 2006, but by May 2008, most groups had either signed a peace agreement with the government or declared a cease-fire and at the close of the year, a two-week Inclusive Political Dialogue (IPD) was established between key political actors, to ‘pave the way for national reconciliation and stabilization’. Among the IPD’s recommendations were the establishment of a government of national unity and of an independent electoral commission.
In 2009, a new coalition government was appointed. While key ministers allied with the president remained in place, some members of the political opposition and rebel groups were given ministerial positions. Yet conflict continued, as some armed groups felt that the government failed to live up to its commitments under the IPD.
After a number of delays by Bozizé, elections were held in January 2011. Members of the opposition filed 88 complaints with the Constitutional Court over the conduct of the elections, but the second round was held as planned in March. The elections were plagued by low voter turnout, numerous irregularities, fraud, and voter intimidation by state officials.
This brief overview should demonstrate that CAR’s history since independence has not only consisted of a series of coups, but that it is punctuated by attempts to affect democratic change. Structural challenges include the centralization of resources, the lack of a contract between the government and its people, and the historical precedent of armed resistance as a way of redressing political grievances.
Lombard points out that part of the reason for the consistent failure of international peace-building efforts in CAR is that international actors fail to understand the motivations of those in power or how politics in the country actually work. They treat peace-building as a series of technical exercises in ‘capacity building’ and disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration. Likewise, misunderstanding and generalizing CAR’s history precludes constructive international involvement and analysis. It renders certain potential solutions and tools invisible.
Locally and nationally led democratic reform is short-changed if international efforts operate on the assumption that CAR’s history is one of successive coups and flawed elections, with no civic involvement outside of armed rebellion.
 See Kevin Shillington, History of Africa, third edition (Palgrave MacMillan, 2012).