The Central African Republic is a verdant green place filled with the bounties of tropical vegetation. It is also a country with significant mineral resources, most of which lie untapped. Sadly, however, the Central African Republic ranks very poorly on the Human Development Index and has a very high Gini Coefficient. It is among the ten poorest nations on the planet. With a difficult and brutal history, it is easy to understand why this country has struggled in the modern era.
The area that now constitutes the Central African Republic has been inhabited for at least ten thousand years. The Aka peoples (also officially known as Pygmies, a term which can be seen as derogatory and offensive) are thought to be among the first inhabitants of this region.
During this period in prehistory, hunter-gatherers living in the Sahel were forced southwards as desertification disrupted their way of life and reduced the quarry on which they sustained themselves. As the Neolithic Era dawned, these first inhabitants found themselves abandoning their traditional ways of life, and they started farming.
For thousands of years, they worked the land, farming yams, millet, and sorghum. The cultivation of African oil palms added significantly to the diet and was instrumental in allowing population expansion. Apart from the edible fruit, the oil extracted became a common cooking ingredient, especially with the increasing prevalence of boats and better fishing techniques.
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Pottery was an important craft that contributed to the economy of these early people, and by 1000 BCE, iron was being worked. Soon after, bananas spread to the region, along with immigrants from the West and the East, creating a melting pot of ethnic groups. From the east came the Ubangian peoples, while from the west, the land was settled by Bantu peoples. Trade flourished as new resource industries were founded, including copper, salt, fish, and textiles.
Slavers & The Age of Colonization
The people of the northern Central African region lived an Iron Age lifestyle, mostly occupied with farming and trading. Their ways of life were severely disrupted with the advent of increased slave trading, which encroached on Central Africa via the slave routes across the Sahara and up the Nile River.
With little in the way of organized resistance or large armies to fend off the danger, enslaved people were taken and shipped to many parts of the world, including the Mediterranean, Western Asia, and the New World. Of note were the Bobangi people from the Congo region, who raided villages and sold their captives to Europeans headed for the Americas. They used the Ubangi River to ply their trade, and on the north bank lay the lands of what would become the Central African Republic.
In 1875, the lands of what would become the Central African Republic north of the Ubangi River came under the control of the Sudanese sultan Rabih az-Zubayr, a powerful warlord and slave trader. This territory would not be under Sudanese control for long, as European powers took more interest in colonial enterprises in the area. In 1894, the French seized most of the area that would become the Central African Republic and later set in place a system of brutal rule modeled after the inhumane system in place in the Belgian Congo.
The French idea was to strip the land of all its useful resources and take the wealth back to France. Local people were forced to work in miserable conditions without pay while their families were held hostage until quotas were met. Naturally, the human rights violations were rife, and an enormous amount of death and despair was spread throughout the entire region. Both men and women became forced laborers, gathering wild rubber, hunting for ivory and animal skins, and working on the growing number of plantations.
In 1920, French Equatorial Africa was established as a state which included the lands north of the Ubangi River. Cotton became the cash crop of choice, and many laborers were forced into the fields to work the plantations under the watch of French guards with whips and guns. Many of these laborers had come from agricultural backgrounds and were uprooted from their own farms. Without being able to work their own farms and without pay from their masters, famine became an ever-present danger.
Ubangians were forcefully relocated and shipped en masse to work on road and rail projects to the south and west in what is now the Republic of the Congo. Conditions were unsanitary, and diseases such as sleeping sickness and malaria were rife. Many thousands died while working on these French projects.
Into this dynamic, missionaries provided aid to the peoples of the region, and as a result, Christianity took hold, with both Protestant and Catholic denominations becoming embedded into the social fabric.
In 1928, a major rebellion started throughout French Equatorial Africa, which included the territory of the Central African Republic. Hundreds of thousands of people rose up in defiance of French governance and waged a war for freedom. French reprisal was without mercy, and tens of thousands were killed. The rebellion finally petered out, and the true breadth of it was kept from the French public, who the French government knew would not react positively to such brutal policies enacted in their name.
During the Second World War, French Equatorial Africa was administered as a province of the Free French Forces, opposed to Nazi Germany, with its headquarters in Bangui, the current capital of the Central African Republic.
Seeking a path for peaceful progress in French Equatorial Africa, Barthélemy Boganda of the Central African Republic was elected to the French National Assembly, which constitutes the Lower House of the bicameral French parliament. Within three years, however, he returned to central Africa. Disenchanted with French politics and with little hope for any real change through that avenue, he instead turned his attention to resisting French colonialism, not from within France, but from Africa, and in 1949, he founded MESAN, The Mouvement pour l’évolution sociale de l’Afrique noire (Movement for the Social Evolution of Black Africa).
This movement was both political and religious in nature. With a nationalist focus, it fought for the independence of the Ubangi-Shari region (Central African Republic) that existed as a region of French Equatorial Africa. The movement also promoted Black humanity and an end to racism.
Progress was positive, and the French government made many concessions, granting autonomy piece by piece. Barthélemy Boganda led the region until his death in 1959 when his plane crashed. His cousin, David Dacko, took over leadership of MESAN.
In August 1960, amidst a wave of independence movements in Africa, the Central African Republic became fully independent, with David Dacko as its first president. Sadly, Dacko’s vision was one of repression, and he eliminated his political rivals by forcing them out of government and effectively ruling the country as a one-party state under the leadership of MESAN.
Successive Coups & Dictatorships
This authoritarian style of leadership led to economic problems, and within a few years, the Central African Republic was facing complete bankruptcy. The crisis ended with a military coup that saw Colonel Jean-Bédel Bokassa take control of the government. Bokassa, however, did not restore any form of democratic governance. Instead, he declared himself president for life, and in 1976, even declared himself Emperor over the “Central African Empire.”
An end to Bokassa’s rule came in 1979 in the wake of a decree that all school children had to wear uniforms obtained from a company owned by one of Bokassa’s wives. This caused widespread protests in which 100 children were killed. In response, and with the help of France, Operation Barracuda was launched to oust Bokassa from office. The coup was a success, and David Dacko returned to power.
Dacko’s second stint at ruling the country did not last long, however. He maintained his grip on power with the help of French paratroopers, but on September 1, 1981, he was ousted in yet another military coup, this time led by General André Kolingba.
Kolingba ruled with a military junta. He allowed very limited democratic reforms, such as holding semi-free parliamentary elections (in which his main rivals were not allowed to participate). Kolingba’s authoritarian rule and opulent lifestyle made him hugely unpopular with the people, and resentment grew.
At the beginning of the 1990s, a pro-democracy movement gripped the country, and pressured by Western countries, including France, Germany, the UK, and the United States, Kolingba agreed to hold free and fair democratic elections. In 1993, the elections were won by Ange-Felix Patassé. The change did not bring the prosperity and freedom that many hoped for.
Patassé’s governance was characterized by the purging of political rivals, which won him many more enemies. Economic problems persisted through the 1990s, and several times, the capital of Bangui was looted as unpaid soldiers went on rampages.
In the wake of a failed coup attempt, unrest and violence gripped the capital of Bangui, and witch-hunts were called, looking for those responsible. General François Bozizé, an enemy of Patassé, was suspected of planning another coup attempt and was targeted. He fled the country and bided his time in the neighboring country of Chad. In March 2003, while Patassé was out of the country, Bozizé launched a surprise attack and took control of the government.
In an attempt to placate his enemies, Bozizé formed a government that included many of his rivals (but not Patassé). Before elections could even be held, the Central African Republic Bush War began as rebels opposing Bozizé took up arms against the government. The following election in May 2005 did not settle the issue. Bozizé won, and fighting continued.
A brittle peace was brokered in 2007 in which most of the rebel groups agreed to lay down arms in exchange for the release of political prisoners and integration into the government. A few rebel groups, however, refused the deal and continued to fight.
In 2011, Bozizé won again in elections that were accused of being fraudulent. In the wake of these elections, a rebel group called Séléka was formed and quickly took over large parts of central and northern Central African Republic.
Foreign support was needed to prop up Bozizé’s hold on power, and South African troops arrived to defend the capital of Bangui from the rebel groups. Government troops fled before fighting even began, and the South Africans, numbering just 200, were forced to defend their position against 5,000 to 7,000 rebel troops.
Despite killing 500 to 800 rebel soldiers and wounding over a thousand, the South Africans took 40 casualties, of which 13 were KIA. The South Africans were forced to evacuate, thus leaving the capital to the rebels and ending the Battle of Bangui.
With the fall of Bangui and the fleeing of Bozizé, Michel Djotodia became the next president, and the country descended into even more chaos as Christian militants (known as Anti-Balaka) began rising up against Séléka control, which was made up mostly of Muslims. Thus began a religious aspect to the conflicts in the Central African Republic. Places of worship continue to be targeted as part of his civil war, and the vast majority of the country’s hundreds of mosques have been destroyed as a result.
Djotodia attempted to defuse the situation by disbanding Séléka, but many members refused to lay down their arms. With thousands of UN troops deployed to the region, negotiations were sought, and agreements were made to end the conflict. In a bid to end the violence, Djotodia resigned from his post as president, and in 2014, Catherine Samba-Panza was elected as president. As not representative of either Séléka or Anti-Balaka, she was seen as a way forward for peace. Samba-Panza served until 2016 when new elections saw the election of Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Like his predecessor, he represented none of the rebel groups.
The Central African Republic Today
As of late 2023, Touadéra is still president, and the government controls most of the western half of the country, including most of the major urban areas. In the east, the country is divided amongst various rebel groups who administer their own governance. The civil war continues to the present.
There is a strong interest from several foreign powers to support the current government in the Central African Republic. Of note is the presence of Russian influence, and the Russian private military company, Wagner, has significant assets in the country.
In 2022, war claimed the lives of 5.6% of the country’s population. A million people have been displaced, and in the first quarter of 2023, 5,000 cases of gender-based violence were reported, which included perpetrators being UN peacekeepers. Even aid workers are targeted.
The Central African Republic exists as a very sad tale of how foreign intervention in the region set off a cascade of events that plunged Central Africa into a vortex of misery and destruction. Continued involvement over the centuries exacerbated the situation and created a complex dynamic that has been nigh impossible to resolve.
Thus, the future of the Central African Republic remains uncertain.