Chaos engulfs Central Africa

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News reports of an insurgent movement, Seleka, advancing in the Central African Republic toward Bangui, the capital, to overthrow its elected president, Francois Bozize, are of interest to me despite the general obscurity of the country and the lack of American interests there.

I lived in the C.A.R. for three years as U.S. ambassador. My wife and I visited nearly every corner of the place. We were married in the town hall by the acting mayor of Bangui and had our honeymoon there. The idea of Bangui serving as a battleground between government and rebel forces, as well as the American Embassy there having been abandoned and its staff evacuated in advance of fighting to come, makes me extremely sad.

The C.A.R. has had a rough history. It was governed by the French during the colonial period. Because of its poverty, lack of prospects and landlocked status, it always got short shrift from its colonial overseers. The man who led it to independence, Barthelemy Boganda, was killed in a plane crash before it actually became independent in 1960. (Most Central Africans believe the French killed him, although I have always doubted that. Not that they weren't capable of it, but, having visited the site of the crash, I found it more likely that it was a "natural" event.)

A nice but undistinguished nephew of his, David Dacko, became president. He was overthrown by a national police officer, Col. Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who crowned himself emperor in 1976 -- in a ceremony financed mostly by the French. Emperor Bokassa became more and more greedy, cruel and, finally, insane. (He was confined when I was there.)

But he did take care of the French, providing them military bases to defend their other African ex-colonies and to provide diamonds and hunting opportunities to French leaders, including an unwitting President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who allegedly was fed human flesh.

France without its dependent African colonies has been characterized in terms of world influence as "Spain with nuclear weapons." I didn't mind the French in the C.A.R. They were more straightforward than the British were in their colonies and they did maintain some structure in the country, which has now been lost. The current French president, Francois Hollande, has indicated that he does not intend to use French military resources to save Mr. Bozize's bacon this time.

After Emperor Bokassa departed the scene, he was succeeded by Mr. Dacko, who then was overthrown again in a military coup engineered by the French. This put Gen. Andre Kolingba in power.

Mr. Kolingba was defeated in elections in 1992 and 1993 by Ange-Felix Patasse. Mr. Patasse was elected honestly, but then descended into a kind of megalomania that ultimately resulted in his being overthrown by the current president, Mr. Bozize, 66. Mr. Bozize was in exile when I was there, so I can't say what he is like from personal experience.

The C.A.R. has some resources, including diamonds, well-watered agricultural land and nice people who work hard if they are paid. It has remarkable wildlife resources which, if managed well, could support a flourishing tourist industry. There are lowland gorillas, forest elephants, the rare bongo and an amazing variety of butterflies.

But the C.A.R. has always been badly governed, by the French and since independence. It has many tribes, with conflicts between those in the north and south. There is also a Muslim-Christian problem that parallels the north-south problem, although when I was there it wasn't an issue.

One of the C.A.R.'s curses in 2013 is the fact that it borders on six countries: Cameroon, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo. Its population, 5 million, is too small to provide armed forces sufficient to defend its borders and some of its neighboring countries are somewhat out of control, with insurgents of their own and no particular reason to respect C.A.R.'s boundaries. When the French were interested in maintaining their bases in the C.A.R. they kept the neighbors at bay for the most part.

The rebel movement, Seleka, has grievances against Mr. Bozize, mostly that he hasn't done for their regions -- nor for much of the country at all -- anything he has promised. Seleka is allegedly composed of at least five anti-Bozize parties. It is armed and motivated and the C.A.R. army has so far been unable and unwilling, probably over pay issues, to stop Seleka's offensive southward toward Bangui.

For better or for worse, some neighboring states reportedly have sent troops to defend Mr. Bozize, and Seleka reportedly has halted its drive and is ready to negotiate with Mr. Bozize if he is willing.

As usual with these matters, the civilian population of the C.A.R. is paying the price of the conflict. Many have fled their homes, and all public services, including health care and education, have ceased.

C.A.R. is in a first-class mess. It may be that Mr. Bozize can cut a deal with Seleka, but there is no reason to think that either governance or the way of life of Central Africans will be improved much if at all by such a development. If an agreement can be reached and the fighting stopped, that should occur as soon as possible. These poor people do not deserve more suffering.

There is not really anything that the United States can do about any of this. Urging the French to intervene militarily would not be useful. Besides, they could use this as leverage to drag the United States into the situation in Mali. America should avoid this assiduously, no matter what the French or anyone else wants.

dansimpson

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1976).


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