An open space

Part 1 – Impressions

Along the Boganda Avenue, the main road in the rather run-down capital Bangui, slightly away from the busy traffic, stands a nondescript three-storey block. It is the Administrative Building, the principal physical manifestation of the government of the Central African Republic, CAR for short. The right half of the building is, well, not exactly missing but you can see right through it. There are no windows, parts of the inner walls are no longer there, the wood that used to be the window frames has ether disappeared or has taken on strange forms. Furniture is strewn everywhere.

This is what the government looks like in an open space in Central Africa, larger than France with anywhere between 4 and 5 million inhabitants. We do not know exactly; the last census was conducted in 2003 and yielded a figure of less than 4 million. Since then, two major crises have chased so many people from their homes, their villages and their neighbourhoods that it is impossible to tell who lives where in what numbers.

The CAR has hardly ever lived in the collective consciousness of the world, except perhaps for the time, now almost 40 years ago, when a former army officer who had fought for the French in Southeast Asia crowned himself Emperor Jean Bedel Bokassa I at a ceremony in 1977 that may have cost as much as US$20m, the entire national budget for that year and then some.

And perhaps some may remember the civil wars that have traversed the country between 2003 and 2013, when any number of armed gangs (the latest incarnations were called Seleka and Anti-Balaka) terrorized the civilian population. In the last such display, which has not ended yet, the world’s mainstream media, using their habitual lazy journalistic shorthand, reduced the conflict to “Muslims” against “Christian”. As usual, it is more complicated than that. But how does one make sense of it all?

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That is the title and the subject of a collection of essays that has just been published by Zed Books, of London. The book is Making Sense of the Central African Republic; its editors are two scholars, Tatiana Carayannis and Louise Lombard. It fills a gap in the knowledge of the English speaking worlds about this unknown and little cared-for chunk of central Africa.

The longest chapter in the book is on the CAR’s history. It explains a lot – without justifying current behaviour, to which we will come later. But the present flows from the past and in order to understand why this country is the way it is, an understanding of history is essential.

Reading through it, you will appreciate the fact that for the past 200 years, if not longer, the area that is now known as the CAR has been the theatre of somebody else’s geopolitical designs. The slave raids of the Arab sultanates of the 19th Century, the French colonial project from the late 19th Century to the late 20th. And after independence, in 1960, the agendas of the neighbours, of which the CAR has six: Chad, Cameroon, The Republic of Congo, the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo), South Sudan and Sudan. Reading through the book and travelling through the CAR, you realise that this is not a country, but an open space. It has a flag, a national anthem, a capital and a state, whose authority – as the joke goes – ends at the city limits of the capital and even within those limits it is not always assured. Its borders are fiction, which makes the meddling of others so easy.

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The flag is a powerful depiction of the contradictions that history has given this country. Horizontal white and blue and vertical red are the colours of the former (reluctant) colonizer, France. Horizontal yellow and green and vertical red are the colours of independent Africa. Some say that the colours individually also refer to the neighbours and if that were the case there is one conspicuous by its absence: Sudan. There is also a yellow star at the top left hand corner of the flag. It refers to the freedom and the emancipation of the Black people. Why then, are the Pan-African colours at the bottom half of the flag and the French colours at the top? The constant in all this is the red, superimposed on all the others: the blood of the martyrs. It continues to flow.

Arguably, the two most pernicious legacies that Arab slave hunts and French colonialism left behind are permanent insecurity and the concession system. The French decided to leave the exploitation of the country’s riches (timber, ivory and diamonds principally) to private companies, as the colonial state could not even be bothered to do that herself. The companies squeezed as much out of the country and its people as possible, which led to predictable scenes of extreme exploitation that jolted French public opinion into action in ways perhaps not seen since King Leopold’s excesses in the Congo. In 1910, the CAR became part of French Equatorial Africa, a collection of disparate countries including Gabon, the Republic of Congo and Chad. We will come back to the concession legacy later.

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