Will the Central African Republic Become Another Mali?
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On 24 March, in the aftermath of a conflict beginning in December 2012, the Central African Republic (CAR) suffered a coup. Its president, François Bozizé, was overthrown, and power was seized by a group of rebels headed by Michel Djotodia. We discussed the prospects for the new government and the potential escalation of the Central African conflict with Natalia V. Vinogradova, senior research fellow at the Centre for the Studies of Sub-Saharan African Countries at the Institute of Africa, Russian Academy of Sciences.
– Does the rebel leader and the self-proclaimed president, Michel Djotodia enjoy any support from the Central African public? Do you think he will be able to hold on to power and become a legitimate leader in the eyes of the international community?
– Michel Djotodia is a new actor on the political scene of the Central African Republic, and he cannot expect any serious support within the country. Djotodia became head of the Seleka rebel coalition, which emerged in September 2012 as an alliance of the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity, the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace, and the Patriotic Convention for Saving the Country. Various sources estimate the size of the coalition to number between 1000 to 2000 fighters. For the sake of comparison, the regular CAR army has just 3500 soldiers.
The former CAR government never had full control over the entire country, as in order to rule it was sufficient simply to control just the capital. With this in mind, Michel Djotodia may succeed in retaining power for the next few years and use the announced transition period to prepare the country for presidential, parliamentary and local elections.
In contrast to Mali, which had enjoyed almost two decades of political stability, the history of CAR is but a succession of coups. Changes in power in the country have always been through military coups: in 1966, David Dacko was overthrown by Jean-Bedel Bokassa; in 1979, Dacko, expelled Bokassa from power; in 1981, Dacko was deposed by General Andre Kolingba; in 2003, Ange-Félix Patassé, elected president in 1993, was unseated by General François Bozizé. And exactly ten years later, in 2013, a new coup d’état brought Michel Djotodia to power.
The country is used to political instability. Changing leaders has not brought about any serious changes in Central African society. The CAR has always belonged to the group of least developed countries, in which 63 per cent of the population lives below the subsistence level; roughly 50 per cent are illiterate, with a child mortality rate of 97 per 1000 infants and a life expectancy of less than 44 years.
The initial reaction on the part of the international community - statements of non-recognition of the new government, demands to restore law and the constitutional order and suspension from the membership in the African Union - are all now in the past. Today, the world is ready to accept changes in the CAR.
– Clashes with the rebels brought significant losses to South African troops stationed in the CAR: 13 soldiers were killed and 28 wounded. There are also forces from the Economic Community of Central African States in the country. What is the likelihood of this internal conflict spilling over, becoming regional in nature, and involving neighbouring states?
– There were international peacekeepers from Chad, Cameron, the Republic of Congo, Gabon and South Africa, but they failed in their mission. The only troops who resisted the rebels were from South Africa. Despite the tragedy for the victims, the deaths of South African peacekeepers are unlikely to lead to a regional conflict, although these losses will definitely affect bilateral relations between the Central African Republic and South Africa.
– How likely is a military intervention by France, similar to one in Mali? Some observers believe that the French were behind bringing Michel Djotodia to power. Would you agree with that, Natalia?
– I don’t think that a Mali scenario will be repeated in the CAR. France will most likely not be intervening on Bozizé’s side. It is more likely that it will try to find a common language with the self-proclaimed president. The former colonial power has a vested interest in regional stability while Michel Djotodia needs French support, for which he is even prepared to renegotiate some of the earlier mining contracts with China.
However, I don’t think France had anything to do with Djotodia’s rise to power, since it had been quite “happy” with ex-president Bozizé.
– In view of recent developments in the CAR and in Mali, and with all the past coups in what used to be French Africa, is it fair to assume any neo-colonial dependence on former colonial rulers?
– The neo-colonial dependence of the CAR on its former parent state is still there, but it is changing, taking new forms, and increasing its economic component. The CAR is a rich country, and its main wealth is in diamonds. Diamonds were discovered across 40 per cent of the territory, and the republic accounts for 2 per cent of total worldwide production. It also mines gold, iron ore, copper and tin, and has important uranium deposits. All that cannot but be of interest to France. Besides, all former French colonies belong to the “franc zone” and are essentially “tied” to the former colonial power.
– Some reports suggest that rebels led by Michel Djotodia used children as recruits. Is this sad practice quite widespread in Africa, and what measures should help prevent it?
– This phenomenon was quite typical for African conflicts from the 1990s on. The CAR was no exception: events in late 2012 – early 2013 showed that rebels used children to carry weapons, collect intelligence and fight as soldiers. This practice has been unanimously condemned.
Human rights and humanitarian organisations demanded a stop to the practice and proposed increasing sanctions for recruiting child soldiers as well as introducing a legal mechanism to protect children during armed conflicts.
There is a Ugandan armed group, Lord’s Resistance Army, which operates in the country and is well known for kidnapping and recruiting children. Its leaders have been charged with war crimes and crimes against children by the International Criminal Court.
The real solution to the problem of child soldiers lies in their peacetime integration under political stability, a growing economy and support for education.
Interviewed by Nikolai Markotkin, RIAC Programme Coordinator.
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