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Story Publication logo June 7, 2010

Central African Republic: Bangui, la Coquette

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Burundi, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and the Central Africa Republic were the targets of a UN...


Nestled in a hilltop that overlooks Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (the CAR), is a sign that feels, to an outsider, like a comforting anachronism. In tall letters that glow at night, the hill cries, "BANGUI, La Coquette." The yellow-ish color of the lights, the fonts – BANGUI is strong and bold, with crisp corners an clean lines; "La Coquette" is in script, rounded and feminine as the woman the word, French for "flirt," might conjure – and even the sheer decision to erect such a call forward a nostalgia.

It's hard not to think that this electricity-sucking thing isn't supposed to be here. It's like finding a drive-in theater in Appalachia, or a roadside toy museum in upstate New York.

It's too much, and if it were true would be too easy, to say this is a metaphor for the country itself. But it can sometimes be difficult to understand how this troubled nation persists, in an unwelcoming corner of Africa, and holds itself together – how, indeed, it even manages to be a country.

To start with, the name is a problem. I heard expats repeat, with learned indifference, the same story I could tell: "I told people I was going to the Central African Republic, and they said, 'Oh, how exciting! Where in Central Africa?'" (It's tempting to chalk this up to general American ignorance about Africa, but I heard it from Europeans too.)

I'm not being cheeky. The confusion is telling. The CAR – the preferred acronym is "the see-ay-ar," not "car" – cuts across different Africas. It borders Sudan in the east, which has been destabilized by the conflict in Darfur and is currently home to the latest atrocities of the Lord's Resistance Army. In the west, it borders Cameroon, and the road connecting the two capitals is literally the only way of getting retail goods into the country. To its south lies DR Congo, whose rebel groups staged sideshows in the CAR in 2003. Almost every expat I talked to, in the capital and in the countryside, said, "This place is really more than one country."

The history is a challenge, too. The CAR was long a ward of the French state, which de facto ran the political show on and off even after colonialism. Its elections tend to lead to coups, which then tend to be followed by elections. These days, the president controls everything in practice, although he's making an effort at using the vocabulary of power-sharing beloved by the international community. And that, some observers tell me, is because he has no choice: He may be the president, but the money that makes the country go comes from outside. The UN estimates that 80 percent of Central Africans live on less than $1 a day.

But it's the security problem that preoccupies the CAR government, humanitarian agencies and the international diplomatic community. There are 190,000 internally displaced people in the CAR, and 140,000 Central African refugees in Cameroon and in Chad. That's nearly 8 percent of the country's 4.3 million people who feel too unsafe to live in their own homes.

The national army is too small and ill-equipped to protect the country, and in the absence of that protection, various rebel groups have sprung up. They responded to very real threats – the zaraguinas (road bandits in Sango) in the northwest, maurading merceneries in the northeast, even the CAR government, which ran a scorched earth campaign against communities as a way of eliminating political opposition – and ran it successfully, to judge from the empty villages I saw.

The government and various rebel groups signed a peace accord in 2006; they reconvened in 2008 for the Inclusive Political Dialogue, designed to set the stage for power-sharing and democratic elections, which were supposed to be held earlier this year. National and international players want to stabilize the country and make good on its potential: the CAR is loaded with diamonds and uranimum and gold, among other things the world might want – or even, eventually, need, like surplus land or timber or water.

The formalities of peace accords and political dialogues made the CAR eligible for assistance from the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), and its companion Peacebuilding Fund (PBF). I'll be visiting all four countries on the PBC's agenda, starting in the CAR. These blog posts are early sketches of my findings.

This reporting project is made possible through the support of the Stanley Foundation.


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