Although stone tools provide evidence of human life from 6000 BC, the most notable ancients resided around present-day Bouar some 2500 years ago. Little is known about them, though it must have been a highly organised civilisation because it left behind about 70 groups of megaliths, some weighing three or four tonnes. The country's present cultures most likely arrived in the 15th century, probably fleeing Arab slave traders, but by the 18th century they, too, were sending their captives across the Sahara to markets in Egypt or down the Congo River to the Atlantic Ocean. This industry, which didn't completely end until 1912, decimated entire cultures and largely depopulated the eastern half of the country.
France launched into CAR in 1885, finding a shattered society rich in agricultural potential and under the rule of Sudanese-born Sultan Rabah. France killed Rabah in 1900 and soon after consolidated its control of the country, which it divided into 17 parts that were offered 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. The labourers resisted for decades, but opposition was eventually broken through a combination of French military action, famine and severe smallpox epidemics.
The first signs of nationalism sprang up after WWII via Barthélemy Boganda's Mouvement d'Evolution Sociale de l'Afrique Noire (Movement for the Social Evolution of Black Africa). In 1960, a year after Boganda was killed in a suspicious plane crash, his party forced the French to grant independence.
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 brutal regimes Africa has ever experienced. In one instance Bokassa reportedly ordered the killing (some claim he participated) of schoolchildren who protested against expensive mandatory school uniforms made by a company owned by his wife.
France, coveting the uranium deposits at Bakouma and the abundant big-game hunting grounds near the Sudan border (personally sponsored by the former French president, Valéry 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 of this money. His final fantasy was to have himself crowned 'emperor' of a renamed Central African Empire in 1977. Despite the worldwide derision, France helped to fund much of his coronation's price tag of more than US$20 million.
Such excess, together with the out-of-control violence, 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 an undercover French commando squad, special forces and at least 300 French troops. Dacko did no better this time around and was overthrown again in 1981 and replaced by André Kolingba, who in 1986 created a one-party state that was also widely seen as corrupt. At this point 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 the palace he'd constructed at Berengo.
Coups & Chaos
Kolingba's 12 years of absolute rule ended when he was defeated in presidential elections in 1993, held at the insistence of the US and France, and Ange-Félix Patassé became the leader of CAR's first real civilian government. Patassé immediately stacked the government with fellow ethnic group members, which prompted a 1996 army mutiny, led by officers from a southern ethnic group. The capital became a war zone, although a peace deal signed the next year was backed up by an 800-strong African peacekeeping mission, later replaced by UN forces. Patassé's 1999 re-election was followed by riots over government mismanagement and corruption in 2000 and attempted coups in 2001 and 2002.
Former army chief of staff General François Bozizé, who led the 2002 coup attempt, didn't stop fighting after Libyan forces sent to protect the regime thwarted his initial bid on Bangui. The next year, when Patassé made the familiar African mistake of popping out of the shop (for a state visit to Niger), Bozizé marched into the capital and made himself president. Patassé scooted off to exile in Togo. The euphoria was short-lived, however, as little changed under the Bozizé regime. He made the usual promise to hold elections, but abandoned the second part of the promise, not to stand himself. Bozizé won the election in 2005, though Patassé was not allowed to run.
After Bozizé came to power the safety situation in Bangui improved dramatically, as did the economy, but not much changed elsewhere. Fighting continued upcountry, and by the end of 2006 rebel attacks in the northeast and northwest forced some 300,000 people to flee their villages. In June 2008, after most rebel groups signed a peace agreement with the government, fighting slowed down considerably although it didn't stop. A unity government, including leaders of the main rebel groups, kicked off 2009; just a few months later rebel attacks were back on the increase, including by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) of neighbouring Uganda, whose insurgency had spread to the wider region.
From Bad to Worse
By 2010 things were finally starting to look up in CAR with an element of peace arriving in the country. In January 2011 elections were held in which General François Bozizé again won with some 60% of the vote, though the opposition denounced the process as fraudulent. The peace turned out to be paper thin.
In November 2012 a Muslim rebel alliance called New Séléka suddenly overran large, traditionally Muslim regions in the north of the country. By March 2013 it had taken control of much of CAR and marched into Bangui, causing Bozizé to flee. There was an almost total breakdown of law and order, and hundreds of people were killed. After fighting between Christian militia groups (known as anti-Balaka) and New Séléka had led to thousands more deaths, French paratroopers arrived to try and stabilise the situation in December 2013. They were later joined by a UN force. Catherine Samba-Panza took over as interim leader, but the situation remained very volatile with numerous atrocities committed by both sides.