In the shadow of six surrounding neighbors burdened with their own problems sits the Central African Republic, a landlocked country that gets relatively little attention but that has been plagued by instability and conflict upending the lives of its citizens for many years.
The Central African Republic is once again enduring an acute bout of instability from an on-again, off-again civil war that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Despite the intervention of United Nations peacekeepers, Russian military advisers and Rwandan troops, peace is still elusive.
Almost one-third of all Central Africans have been displaced from their homes in recent years — including 200,000 who fled just since December, after a troubled election.
Here are basic questions and answers on the country’s history and what is driving its dysfunction.
Where is the Central African Republic?
Roughly the size of Texas, with a population of about 5 million, it is basically in the middle of the African continent, enclosed clockwise by Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo and Cameroon. All host refugees from the Central African Republic who have fled mayhem in their homeland.
The colonial name, Ubangi-Shari, stood for the land that straddles the Ubangi and Shari river basins. The name changed during the 1950s decolonization period of French equatorial Africa.
What is causing the fighting in the country now?
The latest turbulence can be traced to elections on Dec. 27, which rebel groups tried to disrupt. The incumbent, President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, won a second term, as rebels staged attacks and occupied major towns. Few people outside the capital, Bangui, could safely vote because of rebel violence, and the rebels even reached Bangui. The president’s opponents have accused him of fraud.
The rebels are an unlikely marriage of the remnants of two broader and formerly antagonistic armed groups: the Seleka, which means alliance and is a coalition of majority Muslim fighters from the north, along with some Chadian and Sudanese; and mostly Christian vigilante militias that call themselves anti-balaka, which sometimes translates as anti-machete. Both groups have been accused of committing atrocities against civilians, including rape and mass murder.
Why have rebel groups that were recently enemies teamed up?
The precise reasons are unclear. But they have combined in an alliance called the Coalition of Patriots for Change. And they are believed to have the support of a former president, François Bozizé. He seized power in a 2003 coup and was deposed by the Seleka in 2013. Disqualified from running in the December elections, he is believed to be in hiding and faces U.N. sanctions for his support of anti-balaka groups.
It’s not clear whom the coalition represents, but they present themselves as a legitimate political force. Abakar Sabone, a minor warlord who is something of a spokesman for the coalition, said in a telephone interview, “We would have taken power if that was what we wanted, but we are giving Touadéra a second chance to open an inclusive discussion.
“But if he tries to be stubborn,” he continued, “then we will head to the capital and get him out.”
What is everyday life like right now?
Bangui is under siege. Rebels are blocking the entry routes, constricting supply deliveries. A sack of flour in February tripled in price from a month before.
Alhadj Sali Abdou, 56, who lost the supermarket he owned when war broke out in 2013, now makes about $3 a day reselling baguettes outside his house. He said he had never seen things as bad as they are now.
“I don’t want to say that I am totally desperate,” he said, adding that if peace could be restored, he could get back on his feet.
With so many people displaced, families are camping out in churches. Many lack food, spare clothes, bedding or cooking utensils. Humanitarian groups working in the country say they have also faced rebel attacks, and some have stopped operating there.
Motorbikes, the vehicles of choice for most residents of the capital, are banned because the rebels use them, so people frequently find themselves stranded.
How long has the Central African Republic been unstable?
Outsiders have long exploited the area that is now the Central African Republic. When sultans ruled, it was plagued by slave traders. Then French colonialists leased it to companies who forced local people to work for them. About half the population died over the 50 years after French explorers first arrived.
The independence leader Barthélemy Boganda died in a mysterious plane crash in 1959, one year before full independence. And since then, the country has rarely been at peace, buffeted by political rivalries. In 1965 the president, David Dacko, was overthrown by a military commander, with French backing. Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who later proclaimed himself emperor, ruled for 14 years and was accused of atrocities including the killing of schoolchildren for not wearing uniforms with his image. Bokassa was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment. He died in 1996.
After the Bokassa era the country suffered a succession of coups, mutinies and more French military interventions. The United Nations has deployed a peacekeeping force there since 2014 to help protect civilians from antagonists.
Is the instability related to the country’s diamonds and gold?
It could well be. The country’s great agricultural and pastoral potential is undeveloped, and its people are among the poorest in the world. Nearly three quarters live below the international poverty line of $1.90 a day. The government has no control over roughly two-thirds of the country, including some major mining areas.
Rebel groups traffic diamonds and gold and collect taxes from miners and other people in the trafficking chains. So they have a financial interest in keeping things as they are, and keeping the government from gaining more control.
What is the government doing about the rebel alliance?
President Touadéra has enlisted aid from Russia in training Central African Republic soldiers, and a Russian is the president’s security adviser. Some see this as part of a pattern of expanding Russian military influence across Africa.
In December, in the face of a rebel offensive, Mr. Touadéra’s government asked Russia for more help. Three hundred Russian reinforcements were sent — Russia said they were military advisers. Rwandan soldiers were sent to help too, on top of the many Rwandan peacekeepers in the country with the United Nations.
The 13,500 U.N. peacekeepers are supposed to protect civilians and stop armed groups from inflicting violence on the population. They helped secure the election, but are powerless to disarm the rebels and are often subject to rebel attack. Some have also been accused of sexual abuses.
It remains unclear how long the costly peacekeeping mission will stay in the country.
Is there any hope?
The government forces, with their foreign allies, have started to push back the rebels, who in early February agreed to a cease-fire and voluntarily withdrew from the western town of Bouar, which they had taken a month earlier.
The impending trial of two anti-balaka leaders at the International Criminal Court in The Hague is the court’s first prosecution of crimes committed in the Central African Republic conflict.
The defendants, Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona and Alfred Yékatom, are the highest-ranking anti-balaka leaders ever to face trial. This may begin to fill what Human Rights Watch has called a “justice void” that has created a climate of impunity in the country. Mahamat Said, a Seleka leader, was handed over to the I.C.C. in January.
Ruth Maclean reported from Dakar, Senegal. Moussa Abdoulaye contributed reporting from Bangui, Central African Republic, and Mady Camara from Dakar.
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