Over the past week, France has sent 1,600 soldiers to the Central African Republic as an advance guard for African troops who, helped logistically by the United States, are assigned to restore order.
The current disturbances in the Central African Republic (population 4.5 million) are the result of the overthrow earlier this year of President Francois Bozizé by a group of rebels called the Seleka. The Seleka sent Bozizé fleeing and installed their own man, Michel Djotodia, as president, but when he tried to govern the country, his own former Seleka comrades turned on him and went on a rampage causing much death and destruction. Most of the Seleka are Muslims in a country where a majority professes Christianity and indigenous African religions (only 15 percent of the population is Muslim). Christian militias then turned on Muslim residents with violent attacks, creating a situation that French authorities said was verging on "genocide".
It's the same old story. The Central African Republic is one of the richest countries in Africa and one of the poorest in the world. It has diamonds, uranium, gold, oil, forestry products and fertile soil. But at the same time, its per capita gross domestic product stands at about $800 per year by the "Purchasing Power Parity" method. Infrastructure and services are a mess. The country is highly dependent on aid from non-governmental organizations and on Foreign Direct Investment, neither of which have contributed to the country's balanced development. Vast wealth is extracted but not enough comes in to maintain stability and growth.
What is now the Central African Republic was colonized by the French in the late 19th Century, in the context of Franco-British rivalry over control of the headwaters of the White Nile. It was organized into a French colony under the name of Ubangi-Shari. The French colonialists admired the economic and administrative practices of the neighboring Congo Free State, the personal project of the genocidal King Leopold II of the Belgians, and emulated the pattern of contracting out concessions to private companies, as well as the extensive use of forced labor for government projects. French colonial control of Ubangi-Shari was, in other words, a brutally exploitative affair.
The colony got its independence under the name of Central African Republic in 1960, but heavy-handed French interference in its governance has continued ever since. In 1965, President David Dacko, himself deferential to French interests, was overthrown in a military coup by French-trained soldier, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who proclaimed himself emperor, later turning out to be a brutal despot. The French overthrew Bokassa and restored Dacko to power, but there were several more coups. The man overthrown by the Seleka rebels earlier this year, Francois Bozizé, also close to French interests, had himself overthrown the legally elected President, Ange-Felix Patassé, in 2003, though he was later chosen again by voters in 2011.
The situation of the Central African Republic resembles those of a half dozen other countries in Central and West Africa, which, while legally independent, are subject to a high level of control and interference by the former colonial power.
In the case of the Central African Republic, France's investment is comparatively small (Belgium's is much higher, followed by that of China) but geopolitical considerations are also great; the country's neighbors are much more crucial states including Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Congo Republic (the former French colony) and Cameroon. The region in which the Central African Republic is located is supremely important for the production and export of many items needed for modern industrial production and especially high technology. This should bring wealth, prosperity and development to the area, but instead it brings plunder and chaos.
What's the way out? The present state of neo-colonial dependency has brought poverty and a weak state that cannot defend itself from either internal rebels, outside infiltrators or its own predatory politicians and officials. The same is true of Mali, another destabilized country subject to French intervention, and other places.
Photo: French troops take position in the Miskine neighbourhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Dec. 13. Jerome Delay/AP