CAR was home to one of humanity’s earliest civilisations. Thousands of years ago there was an advanced culture whose artisans and work found a ready market from nations far afield. They were extensively settled and relatively sophisticated even before ancient Egypt’s time in the sun. However, beginning in the middle of the last millennium the slave trade gradually decimated this well-organised society. Tens of thousands were dragged westward to the Americas, while Arab conquerors from the north completed the devastation. As recently as the 19th century, 20, 000 slaves were sold each year on the Egyptian market.
France launched into CAR in the 1880s, finding a shattered society rich in agricultural potential. It divided the country into 17 parts and offered them to European companies in exchange for a fixed annual payment plus 15% of agricultural profits. Vast cotton, coffee and tobacco plantations were established and worked by an often brutally conscripted local population. Resistance to the French was there from the outset and continued until the late 1920s. This resistance was finally broken as a combined result of French military action, famine and severe epidemics of smallpox.
The first signs of nationalism began to spring up after WWII via Barthleméy Boganda’s Mouvement d’Evolution Sociale de l’Afrique Noire. In 1960, one year after Boganda was killed in a mysterious plane crash, his party forced the French to grant independence. CAR has been an unhappy mess ever since.
The leadership was taken over by David Dacko, who became the country’s first president. Dacko’s rule quickly became repressive and dictatorial and in 1966 he was overthrown by an army commander and close relative, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, kicking off 13 years of one of the most sordid, brutal and notorious regimes Africa has ever experienced. All opposition was soon snuffed out and offenders were publicly clubbed to death – often with Bokassa’s personal involvement.
France, wanting the uranium deposits at Bakouma and the abundant big-game hunting grounds near the Sudan border (personally sponsored by the former French president, Giscard d’Estaing), supported Bokassa and bailed out his floundering economy.
Using the country’s mineral resources as carrots, Bokassa also negotiated loans from South Africa and private US banks. He then squandered virtually all this money on prestigious projects, many of them never completed. His final and most foolish fantasy was to have himself crowned ‘emperor’ of a renamed Central African Empire. Despite the worldwide derision provoked by the 1977 coronation, France picked up most of the tab of more than US$20 million – equivalent to CAR’s annual earnings.
Such excess, together with a massacre of schoolchildren in Bangui, made Bokassa an embarrassment to his backers. In 1979, France abruptly cut off aid to the ‘empire’ and, while Bokassa was in Libya seeking still more funds, flew in former president David Dacko together with loads of French paratroopers.
Despite Bokassa’s reputation, Dacko proved equally unpopular and was overthrown in 1981 and replaced by André Kolingba, who in 1986 created a one-party state. All opposition groups were banned and their supporters jailed, harassed or forced to flee the country. At this point the unstoppable Bokassa popped up again but was promptly convicted of treason, murder and, for good measure, cannibalism, and sentenced to death. This was changed to life imprisonment and he was confined to a folly he had constructed at Berengo.
Kolingba’s 12 years of absolute rule ended when he was defeated in presidential elections in 1993 and Ange-Félix Patassé became the country’s leader of the first real civilian government. Patassé immediately stacked the government with fellow tribesmen, which prompted a 1996 army mutiny, led by officers from a southern tribe. The capital became a war zone although the Bangui Accords, a regionally brokered peace deal between Patassé and the rebels, was signed in 1997 and backed up by an 800-strong African peacekeeping force. Elections were held in 1998 and won by Patassé, who was then re-elected in 1999 amid claims of vote rigging.
In late 2002, the former army chief-of-staff, General François Bozizé, led ex-soldiers in an unsuccessful coup attempt. Civil war resumed and Bozizé soon gained control of areas in the north and south and even, at times, part of the capital. People were forced to flee their homes, villages and even the country. Tens of thousands fled over CAR’s five borders as life became unbearable: women and young girls were raped by fighters allied to the government from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and towns held captive by government or rebel forces were cut off from outside supplies. Less than six months later Patassé made the familiar African mistake of popping out of the shop, on this occasion on a state visit to Niger. Bozizé promptly marched into Bangui and Patassé, having survived seven previous coup attempts, scooted off to exile in Cameroon.
Patassé was deservedly hated: soldiers and government workers had not been paid for months and the Congolese rebel group employed as enforcers had spent most of their time raping and looting. The euphoria was short lived as Bozizé’s men also seemed to enjoy a little looting and the new ruler had imported his own unpopular support team, in this case Arabic-speakers from neighbouring Chad. The French backing Patassé once enjoyed had been replaced by Libyan backing, in exchange for a lucrative monopoly on the country’s diamond and gold production, but in turn that was replaced by the support of Central African Economic & Monetary Community (CEMAC) peacekeepers who quickly departed
Bozizé made the familiar promise to hold elections but the second part of his promise, not to stand himself, was conveniently forgotten. Despite opposition from another former coup leader, André Kolbinga, the election in 2005 was won by Bozizé with, it appears, only a moderate amount of vote fixing and intimidation. Since then the safety situation in Bangui has improved (it’s now merely bad, not awful), but the government still does not control all of the country and the economy remains close to bankrupt. Relations with neighbouring Chad may mean that the CAR is used by the Sudanese government to attack rebels in Darfur.