Central African Republic is on its way to becoming a failed state
Fear and hunger threaten to overwhelm one of Africa’s most tragic countries
FRANÇOISE KORAKO describes how uniformed fighters of Séléka crushed her husband’s head with rifle butts. His limp body was left bleeding outside her home in Dekoa, a farming village 260 kilometres (162 miles) north of Bangui, the capital, as a warning to anyone else who might challenge them. Séléka, meaning “alliance” in Sango, one of the languages of the Central African Republic (CAR), has ruled the country with exemplary brutality since it ousted François Bozizé in March, when he fled for his life to neighbouring Cameroon. This followed a three-month advance from Séléka’s stronghold in the north to Bangui in the south. On their way, the rebels raped and pillaged unhindered.
Now ensconced as the government, they are far from reimposing even a modicum of law and order, let alone democracy. At least ten people were killed in clashes that started on August 20th and spread across Bangui, between supporters of the former president and Séléka fighters trying to disarm pro-Bozizé people in their Boy-Rabe stronghold in the capital. The CAR is on its way to becoming a failed state.
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A crowd, murmuring agreement, gathers around Mrs Korako as she tells her tale of woe. Some raise their shirts to reveal wounds. Almost anything of value in Dekoa was stolen, they say. In another village, the courtroom’s roof disappeared. Doors, hinges, even electrical wiring went. Across swathes of the country, civil servants, unprotected and unpaid, have fled. “There is no rule of law, no security, no state,” says a priest. “Séléka is judge and jury.”
Séléka fighters in Dekoa roar off down the dirt road on their motorbikes with stolen goats tied to their backs, firing jubilantly into the air. Gun-toting boys in outsized uniforms, some as young as 12, extort money from anyone travelling on the muddy road towards Bangui. Traders in groundnuts or cassava have to pay them tax. Taking recruits, sometimes by force, Séléka’s numbers have soared from 2,000 to well over 20,000. When it stormed the main prison in Bangui, many inmates joined up.
Mr Bozizé was supposed to be protected by the Mission for the Consolidation of Peace in Central African Republic, better known as Micopax, drawn from the other five countries that make up the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), a regional club. But Micopax barely functions. “It’s useless, at best,” says a foreign aid worker. One of its contingents, from Chad, has been accused of helping the rebels. The African Union (AU) says a new 3,600-strong peacekeeping mission is due to be deployed but seems unlikely to materialise soon.
In Kaga-Bandoro, a provincial city north of Bangui, Colonel Halou Adjina, a burly Séléka leader, sits behind a makeshift desk in a house requisitioned from the local hospital’s chief medical officer. “We are not doing it for power or money—but for the people,” he says, speaking in Arabic. He uses a shell casing on his desk as a paperweight to hold down files taken from UNICEF, the UN agency for helping children. Séléka men have stripped bare the UN’s nearby compound.
In January representatives of Séléka met Mr Bozizé in Libreville, capital of nearby Gabon, where they signed a power-sharing agreement. But it was soon stymied by Mr Bozizé’s refusal to take it seriously, prompting Séléka finally to conquer Bangui on March 24th. Mr Bozizé had himself seized power in a coup in 2003.
On August 18th Séléka’s leader, Michel Djotodia, was formally sworn in as president, pledging to hold elections within 18 months and promising not to run in them. But the chances of a fair election, in the unlikely event that it takes place at all, are minimal. “We believe in democracy,” says a Séléka commander, Abdel Kadir Kalil, despite complaints that his fighters have destroyed registration records essential to elections. Leaning on a silver-handled cane on the top floor of a hotel in Bangui built with Libyan money, Mr Kalil sweeps aside accusations of violence and extortion. “Bozizé pillaged the country for ten years,” he says. “We suffered a lot in the north, we were neglected.”
It was from the mainly Muslim north that Séléka emerged. Much of the region is cut off when seasonal rains make the decrepit roads impassable. Since the movement took over, ethnic and religious cleavages between the CAR’s Muslim minority and the Christian majority have widened. Mr Djotodia is the first Muslim to rule the country. Christian traders say their Muslim rivals are getting preferential treatment. Some say they have to resort to wearing Muslim attire to avoid harassment.
The CAR and its 4.6m people have been battered by rebellions and coups since French rule ended in 1960. But the most recent bout of unrest is among the worst. Humanitarian groups say that malnutrition and disease are rife. Save the Children, a British-based charity, says it fears that as many as 100,000 children may be recruited into armed units, where they face plenty of abuses, including sexual ones.
Some fear that the CAR’s poison could spread to other ECCAS countries: Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville, Chad, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. The CAR could also, it is mooted, provide a haven for Muslim extremists bent on undermining governments across the region. Thanks to insecurity, many parts of the CAR are virtually inaccessible to foreign aid outfits. For some time Uganda’s rebel Lord’s Resistance Army has had bases in the east and may now find it easier to move into the CAR’s hinterland. “With the security vacuum, it’s extremely dangerous,” says Serena Mandara of Cooperazione Internazionale (better known as COOPI), an Italian charity
Séléka says it has tried to remove weapons from the streets of Bangui, but bands of fighters with guns and machetes strapped to their backs speed around in pickup trucks bristling with rocket-propelled grenades. Firing at night confines people to their mud-brick houses.
The new government’s coffers, it seems, are already empty. At the only bank in the capital, hundreds of people wait outside, hoping to withdraw whatever they have left. A loan from Congo-Brazzaville is said to have been spent on paying civil servants their first salary in months. Mercenaries from Chad and Sudan are also demanding payment from Séléka. It seems plain that the only way it can retain power is by plunder and pillage.
So far neither Mr Djotodia’s fragile government nor outside bodies have proved able to start putting the country back together. France’s president, François Hollande, says the country risks “Somalisation” and has called on the UN Security Council and the AU to come up with a rescue plan. France still has a small force at Bangui airport, but it has kept out of the fighting so far. Mr Hollande, who sent troops to help beat back an insurgency in Mali only in January, is wary of embarking on another African venture. He may be increasingly urged to do so.