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Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday. I want to talk today about what's going on in the Central
African Republic, but first a couple prefatory notes.
One, in the US especially, we tend to image Africa monolithically as, like, poor and undeveloped
and generally other, even though it is a large continent full of vastly different nations.
And, while today we are going to talk about an African state that has struggled more or
less continually since its independence, it's worth remembering that seven of the world's
ten fastest growing economies are in Africa. Two, this is speculation, but I think one
of the reasons we don't hear about what’s going on in the Central African Republic,
is that it's complicated. You know, we like narratives, like the Rebels versus the Empire,
or Harry versus Voldemort, or Dora versus Swiper the fox. I'm sorry; I watch a lot of
children's TV. Like, we can stand some shades of grey in our heroes and our villains, but
we love to know who the heroes are and who the villains are. And I think a lot of times
when new stories don't fit that narrative, we just ignore them because the idea of good
guys and bad guys is so central to our understanding of ourselves and our world that we can't abandon
it. And I also think, if I can tangent on a tangent, that this is part of why our interest
lags when international news stories grow, like, less narratively powerful. Like, it's
easy to root for the rebels in Cairo's Tahrir Square when they want freedom and democracy,
but the actual complex business of rebuilding a state, as we’ve seen in Egypt and elsewhere,
gets somewhat less attention.
Okay, with all that noted, the Central African Republic is here in, you guessed it, the centre
of Africa; although, to be fair, it has not often been much of a republic. Life expectancy
in the CAR is 51 and it's one of the poorest countries in the world today. So after declaring
independence from France in 1960, there were several decades of military rule, but then
in 1993, there were multi-party elections, and the elected president was Ange-Félix
Patassé, and initially, the economy grew under Patassé, but he failed to be able to
pay the military and civil servants which is, like, one of the central things that governments
do. Also there was quite a bit of corruption, and there were several coup attempts over
the next decade. So Patassé remained president until 2003 when a military coup finally succeeded.
Military leader François Bozizé succeeded by using the time-honored tactic of waiting
until the president was out of town and then quickly seizing the government.
So obviously the CAR has long struggled with security and political stability, like in
the east of the country, the Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony whom you might remember
from his brief moment of 'Kony 2012' internet fame. Yeah, that guy. His group has been murdering
and torturing people for decades. In fact, it's believed by many that Kony is hiding
out in the Central African Republic. But also, both the Patassé and Bozizé regimes relied
on foreign armies from Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere to help, like,
shore up their governments. But, security-wise, after Bozizé took power in 2003, things got
significantly worse. So there was this group, the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity that
combined with other rebel groups and began to fight against Bozizé's regime in what
came to be known as the Central African Bush War. This involved lots of groups, like the
People's Army for the Restoration of Democracy, and the Convention of Patriots for Justice
and Peace, but anyway, they all banded together and tried to take down the government. It
didn't work. Finally there was a peace treaty in 2007, but the fighting never, like, totally
Okay, so flash forward to 2012: several of the groups from the Central African Bush War
unite with some other rebel groups to form Séléka which means 'union.' And most members
of Séléka belong to the CAR's Muslim minority which is about 15% of the country's population.
They quickly take control of a bunch of towns in the north and the centre, and then other
African countries, including Chad, send in troops to try to protect the capital of Bangui.
But it doesn't work, so in March 2013, the capital of the Central African Republic, Bangui,
falls to the Séléka rebels, and Bozizé flees the country. And one of Séléka's leaders,
a Muslim, Michel Djotodia, becomes president, but almost as soon as Séléka takes power,
there's a lot of in-fighting among all of these groups that formed the union; like,
it's easy to unify when you're all battling the government, but then when you have the
power, everybody kinda wants some of the power.
Meanwhile, there was never anything approaching peace, and Séléka militias committed all
kinds of atrocities. Like, according to Human Rights Watch, they burned dozens of towns
and villages, they shot fleeing civilians in the back, and also a huge percentage of
the population has been displaced. There are tens of thousands of Christians who’ve fled
to the Bangui airport and have remained there for months. And now we come to the Christian
anti-balaka, or anti-sword militias. These anti-balaka groups have sought to respond
to Séléka’s violence with much more violence, and the anti-balaka mass murder of members
of the Muslim minority is now being called by many a genocide or at least the beginning
of one. So in January 2014, President Djotodia resigned and was replaced by a woman named
Catherine Samba-Panza, but there isn’t currently much of a government to lead in the Central
African Republic. Last week, the UN approved and 11,000 member security force that will
hopefully bring an end to the violence, but for now it continues.
Hank, like I said earlier, this conflict is difficult and complicated. It looks nothing
like, you know, Hobbits versus Sauron. But that isn’t only the case in the Central
African Republic. I mean who were the good guys in the American Revolution? The Americans
were for freedom and democracy, right? Well yeah, except for slaves who probably would
have been much better off under the rule of England. Or what about the Vietnam War or
the French Revolution or World War One in which so many people died for so little? Hank,
we can’t just ignore stories that don’t fit our understanding of the world and we
also shouldn’t try to, like, change them to make them fit our preconceived narratives
of humanity. We have to make room in our stories for the world as we find it. And the Central
African Republic reminds us that war is not, finally, a story of good versus evil as much
as we might wish it were so. Let’s hope the UN peacekeepers arrive soon and can live
up to their name. I’ll see you on Friday.
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Understanding the Central African Republic

1386 Folder Collection
W published on July 20, 2014
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