Central African Republic: An Obscure Failed State

Afghanistan. Somalia. The DRC. These are familiar failed states. This month, the landlocked and obscure Central African Republic (CAR) is also grabbing a few headlines as well.

It is no great surprise that CAR generally receives little attention from the global news media. It is a small, economically marginal country of little geo-political interest to major powers. And it is located on a marginalized continent.

Nonetheless, this former French colony of about five million people is a powerful example of a key aspect of state failure in the contemporary world. Like many other post-colonial states, the Central African Republic has long been a critically weak state with a strong core-periphery pattern. CAR is also part of a bad neighborhood, what some analysts have referred to as a “regional conflict formation” (not unlike the situations in the Great Lakes region of Africa, or the Afghanistan-Pakistan region). (I discuss both of these issues in greater detail in my book Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.)

In recent weeks, a rebel coalition based in CAR’s northern and eastern peripheries has gained the upper hand over government forces. Last week, the United Nations withdrew about 200 personnel, and the United States evacuated its embassy in the capital, Bangui. Tellingly, protesters in Bangui gathered at the French embassy to berate the former colonial master for NOT sending soldiers to support the government.

Like many other critically weak and failed states, the Central African Republic exhibits a stark core-periphery pattern. Government presence and resources are concentrated in the capital city and a limited sphere of influence. More distant areas – and especially rural areas – largely exist outside Bangui’s control.

This core-periphery pattern is not new in the case of CAR. Here I quote from the abstract of an influential 1997 article by Thomas Bierschenk and Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan

. . . the absence of the state in the rural areas of the CAR is so striking that the position in certain respects has almost reached the level of caricature. It also reflects the more general situation in other parts of the continent where the excesses of a centralised, over-staffed post-colonial régime can coexist perfectly with the pronounced absence in the rural areas of certain functions which are commonly supposed to be provided by the state, including basic administration and justice, as well as social, educational, and health services.

Fifteen years after the publication of this research, there is striking evidence for the limited influence of government outside the national capital, a phenomenon so characteristic of other failed states.


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