A Brief Political History of the Central African Republic

From the Series: The Central African Republic (CAR) in a Hot Spot

Photo by Steve Conover, licensed under CC BY SA.

Central Africans, whose country was once known as the “Cinderella” of the French Empire, have never had an easy time of it. When French colonists arrived at the end of the nineteenth century, they found sultans connected to trans-Saharan economic and social networks. Much of the area was both a zone of raiding (for slaves, ivory, and other goods) and a zone of refuge for those fleeing raiders, processes that played out in dynamic tension with each other and contributed to the diversity and mobility of the area’s people. The French saw their main task as removing the sultans, because they, as “foreigners,” had no right to rule over Central Africans. Penury and corruption plagued the colonial government. The combination of slave-raiding and forced labor depopulated much of the country (even today, only about four-million people call this Texas-size territory home) and impoverished what had in many cases been prosperous agrarian communities.

These problems did not disappear with independence in 1960. The French admitted that of all their former colonies, this was the one they had least prepared for independence. Central African politicians learned quickly that the powers that be of françafrique cared about stability (preventing “another Congo”) more than anything else. Substantive democracy was among the victims of this stability-centric view, which remains one of the main ways international actors engage with CAR politics. French-organized bloodless coups became the norm.

Whereas in the 1970s, many Central Africans shared in a sense of possibility, by the 1980s a precipitously declining economy left more and more in situations of duress. At the same time, as the region was becoming more militarized, France pulled out most of the several-thousand soldiers they had based in CAR. A rapidly eviscerating CAR state was left on its own in a dangerous region.

In 2002–2003, several of the region’s leaders—chief among them, Chad’s Idriss Déby—decided to replace the truculent CAR president, Ange-Félix Patassé, with François Bozizé, a military man and former Patassé confidant. Bozizé took Bangui in March 2003 with a force that was seven-eights Chadian, drawn from among that country’s many mobile men-in-arms.

In the following years, a number of rural rebellions emerged to protest the military’s violence against their communities and their “abandonment” from the perspective of any kind of state-sponsored welfare. But, at least on the surface, life in the capital remained relatively calm despite the heightened spiritual and economic insecurity most Central Africans experienced.

Throughout the decade of la Bozizie, the country went through a range of internationally-led peace-building and state-building initiatives. The government and rebel parties to these endeavors generally enacted them in form rather than in spirit. International actors reluctantly supported Bozizé because he seemed like the “least bad option,” usually defined as the person most likely to be able to prevent the “spillover” of the region’s other conflicts into CAR. These calculations were why most diplomats only mutedly criticized the rigging of the 2011 presidential elections. This meant that grievances among the population and among the growing ranks of sidelined political elites grew in inverse proportion to the official channels (national dialogues, elections, etc.) to express them.

Even Déby, whose soldiers had helped Bozizé remain in power all this time, grew frustrated with Bozizé, who was pursuing a new tutelary relationship with South Africa. By the end of 2012, several military-political entrepreneurs had assembled a heterogeneous rebel coalition they called Seleka and obtained the go-ahead, if not more direct funding, from Déby to begin their march on Bangui. Initially, many of the Seleka fighters came from the Chad/Darfur borderland region, but when the likelihood of their success became apparent, northeastern CAR’s home-grown rebel groups joined as well.

On March 24, 2013, Seleka fighters claimed power in Bangui. Little united them other than the desire to take the capital and loot along the way. The new president, Michel Djotodia (a former civil servant), had no real power over the various armed elements of his alliance, most of whom were politico-military entrepreneurs with much more battlefield experience than him. Seleka fighters spread throughout the country and ruled towns as their own fiefdoms—in many cases, violently. Civilians suffered, and many were killed.

In September, Djotodia officially “disbanded” Seleka, and the fighters further fragmented. In the wake of the disbanding, militias in both the western part of CAR and in Bangui calling themselves anti-Balaka began gaining strength. The new groups drew on longstanding local defense networks but also far surpassed them. The various actors who mobilized in the wake of Seleka abuses called themselves the anti-Balaka. As was the case with Seleka, the fact that the anti-Balaka share a name masks the fact that they consist of a number of different segments whose members do not share the same interests or objectives. (About half support a return for Bozizé and receive support from him; many of the others wanted Seleka pushed from power but do not support Bozizé.)

Anti-Balaka groups launched a major offensive in Bangui on December 5, 2013, the day that French and African Union peacekeeping forces received mandates to deploy to CAR and disarm Seleka. Djotodia had no control of the situation and Déby pushed him to step down. Catherine Samba-Panza, a lawyer with a business and advocacy background, replaced him. In a different context, CAR’s first female president might have augured well for the country, but given the ongoing war, she too is powerless.

The peacekeepers have also struggled to stop the violence and various contingents operate at cross-purposes: the French are seen as supporting anti-Balaka, and the Rwandans and Burundians as protecting the few Muslims who remain in the capital. The United Nations has authorized the deployment of blue helmets to CAR, but those 11,800 peacekeepers will not relieve the current forces until October 2014, at the earliest. Hundreds of thousands of Central Africans are internally displaced or living as refugees. Wide swathes of the country rarely make it into the news but are experiencing rapid change and their own conflicts.


A few themes emerge from this history. One is the sedimented nature of violence as an element of rule in Equatorial Africa. Another is the always-relational character of CAR sovereignty. Central African leaders have been adept at managing dependence with leaders from beyond the country’s borders in order to bolster their own positions, in a classic example of what Jean-Francois Bayart called extraversion. These external actors—from France to the UN—have generally viewed CAR through the lens of regional stability rather than standing firm for inclusiveness in CAR politics (if it even is in the power of “outside” actors to do such a thing). This time around, the diplomats were sort of right: the end of the Bozizé era brought the chaos they feared. And yet the perpetuation of the undemocratic Bozizé regime was among the main factors fostering grievances and directly spurred the current war. This paradox requires a more thorough and honest accounting—among Central Africans and diplomatic actors alike—than has thus far been the case. The weight of CAR’s history makes it hard to be optimistic, but the authors assembled here are committed to locating the hope in realism.