The Former French Colony Struggles to Maintain its Equilibrium

By Liz Goldner

The Central African Republic is a sea of disharmony, corruption, poverty and disease. The C.A.R. is classified as one of the world's least developed countries in the world with a 2002 annual per capita income of $260.

Further, the United Nations estimates that approximately 11 percent of the population, ages 15 to 49 is HIV positive. Only percent of the country has antiretroviral therapy available, compared to 17 percent coverage in neighboring Chad and the Republic of the Congo.

The C.A.R. is entirely land-locked, about 500 miles north of the equator. Cameroon, Chad, the Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Republic of Congo border the country. The Ubangi and the Shari are the largest of many rivers. Much of the country consists of flat, or rolling plateau savanna, about 1,640 feet above sea level. There are scattered hills throughout the country, while to the northwest is the Yade Massif, a granite plateau with an altitude of 3,750 feet.

The C.A.R. is comparable in size to the Ukraine, and is somewhat smaller than Texas. Much of the southern border is formed by tributaries of the Congo River, with the Mbomou River in the east merging with the Uele River to form the Ubangi River. In the west, the Sangha River flows through part of the country. The eastern border lies along the edge of the Nile River watershed.

There are more than 80 ethnic groups in the Central African Republic, each with its own language. Only a small part of the population has more than an elementary knowledge of French, the official language.

The C.A.R. is overwhelmingly agrarian, with most of the population engaged in subsistence farming and 55 percent of the country's gross domestic product arising from agriculture. Principal crops include cotton, food crops (cassava, yams, bananas, maize), coffee, and tobacco. In 2002, timber accounted for about 30 percent of export earnings. The country has rich but largely unexploited natural resources in the form of diamonds, gold, uranium, and other minerals. In 2002, diamond exports comprised nearly 50 percent of the C.A.R.'s export earnings.

More than 55 percent of the population of the C.A.R. lives in rural areas. The chief agricultural areas are around the Bossangoa and Bambari. Bangui, Berberati, Bangassou, and Bossangoa are the most densely populated urban centers.

The C.A.R. has had a large variety of wildlife. Among these are forest elephants, leopards, lions and rhinos. However the population of wildlife has severely diminished over the past 20 years due to poaching, particularly from neighboring Sudan.

The population of the C.A.R. has tripled since achieving independence. In 1960, the population was 1,232,000; the current population is at 4,303,356. However, high mortality due to AIDS and infant deaths make for variable population rates.

The climate of the C.A.R. is generally tropical The northern deforested, desert areas are subject to harmattan winds, which are hot, dry, and carry dust. The remainder of the country is prone to flooding from nearby rivers.

In addition to Western rock and pop music, native music continues to be popular. This includes Pygmy music, the trumpet-based music of the Bandas, which has a jazzy structure.

Tumultuous History

The C.A.R. appears to have been settled from the 7th century on by overlapping empires, including the Kanem-Bornou, Ouaddai, Baguirmi, and Dafour groups based in Lake Chad and the Upper Nile. Later, various sultanates claimed present-day C.A.R., using the entire Oubangui region as a slave reservoir, from which slaves were traded north across the Sahara and to West Africa for export by European traders.

In 1875, the Egyptian sultan Rabah governed Upper-Oubangui, which included present-day C.A.R. Europeans, primarily the French, German, and Belgians, arrived in 1885. The French consolidated their legal claim to the area through an 1887 convention with Congo Free State. Two years later, the French established an outpost at Bangui, and in 1894, Oubangui-Chari became a French territory. However, the French did not consolidate their control over the area until 1903.

In August 1940, the territory responded to the call from Gen. Charles de Gaulle to fight for Free France. After World War II, the French Constitution of 1946 inaugurated the first of a series of reforms that led eventually to complete independence for all French territories in western and equatorial Africa.

The country achieved a modicum of independence in the 1950’s, thanks to various provisions by France, including elimination of some voting inequalities and provisions for the creation of some organs of self-government in each territory. But on January 1, 1966, following a swift and almost bloodless coup, Col. Jean-Bedel Bokassa assumed power as President of the Republic. Bokassa abolished the constitution, dissolved the National Assembly, and issued a decree that placed all legislative and executive powers in the hands of the President. On December 4, 1976, the republic became a monarchy.

Following riots in Bangui and the murder of between 50 and 200 schoolchildren, former President Dacko led a successful French-backed coup against Bokassa on September 20, 1979. Dacko's efforts to promote economic and political reforms proved ineffectual, and on September 1, 1981, Gen. Andre Kolingba overthrew him in a bloodless coup. For four years, Kolingba led the country as head of the Military Committee for National Recovery (CRMN).

In 1985 the CRMN was dissolved, and Kolingba named a new cabinet with increased civilian participation, signaling the start of a return to civilian rule. The process of democratization quickened in 1986 with the creation of a new political party, the Rassemblement Democratique Centrafricain (RDC), and the drafting of a new constitution that subsequently was ratified in a national referendum.

General Kolingba was sworn in as constitutional President on November 29, 1986. The constitution established a National Assembly made up of 52 elected deputies, elected in July 1987. Due to mounting political pressure, in 1991 President Kolingba announced the creation of a national commission to rewrite the constitution to provide for a multi-party system. Multi-party presidential elections were conducted in 1992 but were later cancelled due to serious logistical and other irregularities. Ange Felix Patasse won a second-round victory in rescheduled elections held in October 1993, and was re-elected for another 6-year term in September 1999.

In May 2001 rebel forces within the C.A.R. military, led by former President and Army General Andre Kolingba, attempted a military coup. After several days of heavy fighting, forces loyal to the government, aided by a small number of troops from Libya and the Congolese rebel Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC), were able to put down the coup attempt. In November 2001, there were several days of sporadic gunfire between members of the Presidential Security Unit and soldiers defending sacked Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Francois Bozize, who fled to Chad. In mid-2002 there were skirmishes on the C.A.R.-Chad border.

The first round of presidential and legislative elections were held in March 2005, and in May, President Bozize defeated former Prime Minister Martin Ziguele in a second-round runoff. On June 13, Bozize named Elie Dote, an agricultural engineer who had worked at the African Development Bank, his new Prime Minister.

The C.A.R. maintains fairly close ties to France. In the late 1990s, France withdrew forces stationed in the C.A.R. Multilateral organizations, including the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, UN agencies, European Union, and the African Development Bank, as well as bilateral donors, including Germany, Japan, the European Union, China, and the United States, are significant development partners for the C.A.R.

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