France has sent 350 troops to counter the Seleka (rebel) forces that have taken control of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic.
The entrance of French troops follows closely a takeover of Bangui by Seleka forces which, on Sunday, also seized the presidential palace and forced Pres. Francois Bozize to flee the country. Some reports were that he had fled to Cameroon, others that he had gone to the Republic of the Congo.
The rebels are mostly fighters from previous rebellious armies who are angry because they accuse Bozizé of reneging on agreements which would have given them some economic benefits. Since December, Seleka had been in negotiations with Bozizé with the idea of forming a joint government, but this broke down earlier this year.
Bozizé himself originally came to power in a coup d'etat in 2003, in which he overthrew a former colleague, President Ange-Felix Patasse. Patasse had been elected in 1993. Neither Bozizé nor Patasse have been strangers to political and military intrigue. Both served former Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who ruled the country by bloody repression from 1966 to 1979, only to turn on him when this suited their political ambitions.
As for the Seleka rebels, it appears hard to characterize them in ideological terms. They are a collection of fighters whose roots are in different rebellions in the recent past. Their main demands were that the government live up to its commitments made in previous peace negotiations (in 2007 and again in 2011) to provide for ex-rebel fighters economically. The main Seleka leader, Michel Djotodia, has now declared himself president of the Central African Republic.
The rebellion was denounced by the African Union's Peace and Security Council. Both French and South African troops have been sent to the Central African Republic, with some of the latter being killed according to latest reports. In the past, France has interfered many times in the country's internal affairs, and the United States has a military presence there. Former Libyan Strongman Gadaffi and the government of neighboring Chad have also been involved in the Central African Republic.
The roots of this instability are economic. The Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its Gross Domestic Product (calculated by the purchasing power parity method), is only $767 a year. Although it is known to have fabulous subsoil wealth (gold, uranium, oil, diamonds and other things), this has not benefited the mass of the country's population in spite of inspiring the covetousness of outsiders.
As a result, the Central African Republic has poor infrastructure, a low level of education and health care, a high level of inequality, and a weak state which often cannot pay its employees or deal with corruption and armed rebellion. It does not completely control its own currency, but uses the Central African CFA Franc, a source of worry in the whole region because of the potential power it gives the French Finance Ministry.
In other words, the situation is just about the same as that of the other countries in the Sahel region which includes Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso: Landlocked, no industrial development, dependent on export of raw materials whose prices are at the mercy of international markets, and subject to rules of trade and finance made in Paris, New York, and Washington.
In many cases, the only present-day sources of financial aid for development are the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and governments of wealthy Western countries whose main interest is in assuring the profits of major corporations. In the past, those Francophone African leaders who have tried to make radical changes have been overthrown and often killed (Tomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, Patrice Lumumba in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Marien Nguoabe in the Congo Republic) by agents of the Western powers and their local allies.
As the worldwide battle for key resources such as gas, oil, and minerals intensifies, with China now a major player in Africa, the willingness of France, Britain, the United States and other wealthy and powerful countries to intervene to block any change in this state of affairs is likely to increase.
Before his untimely death earlier this month, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had been involved in an ambitious effort to try to extend the economic advances that he and others have been able to achieve in the Western Hemisphere to impoverished African countries.
The general idea was to include African economies in some of the structures of international cooperation which have had such success in South America. These are structures which, for example, offer aid and credit without demanding the measures of austerity, privatization and free trade that the IMF and World Bank demand. It is likely that if Chavez' colleague Nicolas Maduro wins the Venezuelan presidential elections on April 14, these efforts will continue. Other Latin American countries as Cuba, Brazil and Argentina are also involved.
Africa's death toll from poverty-related causes, especially preventable diseases of babies and children, and from the instability and internal conflict that now afflicts the Central African Republic and so many other African countries, is of holocaust proportions. In the Central African Republic, 105 of every 1000 babies born each year die before their first birthday.
In socialist Cuba, that number is 5. That means 100 African babies dead who could have been saved. One hundred sixty four out of every 1000 children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo die before their fifth birthdays. And no wonder: Only 34 percent of Central African Republic citizens have access to proper human waste disposal (for Cuba it is 91 percent). Other statistics are similarly shocking.
Capitalist apologists from the West who complain about Venezuelan or Cuban "inroads" in Africa need to be confronted with these figures.
Photo: French troops outside the town of Birao, Central African Republic. Schalk von Zrydam/AP