The Fall of Bangui: State Failure in the Central African Republic

On the Sudan - Central African Republic Border

The Central African Republic is located in one of the most conflict-prone regions of Africa, which includes Sudan, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo credit: hdptcar (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Over the weekend of March 23-24, the brittle government of President Francois Bozize was finally overthrown. A coalition of rebels known as Seleka has now seized control of the capital city, Bangui. Bozize and many senior figures from his government have fled the Central African Republic (CAR). This new development re-confirms the country’s status as a failed state. Here are two key indicators of that status.

  1. Limited rule of law. The ousted president, Bozize, came to power through a military coup in 2003. Despite CNN’s designation of last weekend’s change of government as a “coup,” the successful rebellion has led to another unconstitutional change of government. In response to the illegal action, the African Union has suspended the membership of the Central African Republic. And, not surprisingly, the new Seleka government has suspended the country’s constitution, promising free and fair elections within a few years.
  2. A stark core-periphery pattern. As I have previously written, the divide between the CAR’s capital city and its hinterlands is immense and longstanding. The core region around the capital has been the main focus of government authority, while the outlying regions – especially in the North and the East – have largely existed outside national government influence. In the past decade, these “ungoverned spaces” have been regionally important as fighters and weapons have flowed across porous borders with Chad, Sudan, and the DRC. If the rebels are successful in retaining control of the capital, will they be any better at forging a geographically unified, well-functioning country?

Outside of obvious concerns about an intensifying humanitarian crisis in the CAR, it does not seem that the international community is all that concerned about the situation there. Notably, France did very little to oppose the fall of Bangui. Yet, we should applaud the African Union (AU) for quickly acting to suspend the CAR and sanction the country’s new leaders. For all of its dysfunction, the AU has at least created a regional political culture that stigmatizes unconstitutional changes of government. If only the AU would get tougher with African dictators that run sham democracies.

Weak and Failed States in 2012

The year 2012 was an eventful one for the world’s weak and failed states. What follows is a quick review of some key trends and highlights from the year that was.

In Afghanistan, the “forgotten war” continued. A long-sought political settlement with the Taliban proved elusive as NATO and the United States prepared for a full military departure in 2014. Insider attacks by Afghan government security personnel on NATO soldiers grabbed headlines, as did continued evidence of widespread corruption and dysfunction in the Afghan government. Afghan watchers are very nervous about the post-2014 era.

In 2012, Pakistan muddled along on a variety of fronts. Relations between Pakistan and the United States remained very strained, even as cooperation improved somewhat by the end of the year. Most critically, the military establishment has strengthened its position with regard to the country’s politicians. Civilian control of the military is only an aspiration at the present time, and true democracy is therefore on hold. Militant attacks on aid workers halted efforts to eradicate polio in Pakistan’s border regions.

In Syria, the ruling Assad clique fought a losing effort of regime survival. If last year was a tragic year in Syria, the year ahead may be catastrophic. The United Nations warns that this key crossroads state could produce more than one-half million refugees in 2013. Intense urban warfare in Damascus and Aleppo could lead to truly awful humanitarian conditions.

Tuareg Rebels in Mali

Mali, previously stable and democratic, suffered major setbacks in 2012. Photo credit: Magharebia (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

In three African states, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the Central African Republic (CAR), insurgents secured or expanded zones of open defiance. Governments lost the ability to control vast portions of territory, a key marker of state failure. The troubles in the DRC, related to the M23 rebel group, were particularly noteworthy. Rwanda and Uganda again meddled in the internal affairs of their large neighbor, as they did during Africa’s World War of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Despite gains in governance and economic development over the last decade, Nigeria continued to suffer the effects of a well-organized Islamist insurgency. Boko Haram does not seem to represent a mortal threat to the central government, but the Islamists’ activities are further straining religious coexistence in a deeply divided country.

Finally, I close this review with some hopeful developments. In Southeast Asia, the long-mismanaged Myanmar (Burma) is moving towards political openness and engagement with the rest of the world. Though sometimes ignored due to its location between China and India, Burma is an important, resource-rich state that deserves more attention. And Burma seems to be steadily moving in a positive direction, thanks in part to a more enlightened set of autocrats.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Burma’s opposition and pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo credit: World Economic Forum (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

In the Horn of Africa, 2012 was a relatively good year for Somalia. The Western-financed AU mission is helping the Mogadishu-based government push back militant Islamists. Al-Shabaab lost a huge amount of territory in the last year. And, whatever the reasons, maritime piracy off Somalia declined in the last 12 months.

In Latin America, a new narrative is emerging in Mexico, and perhaps all of Central America. In Latin America’s second giant, economic development and new political momentum is shifting the discourse away from drug violence, even though that violence is still stubbornly high.

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.