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.

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France and State Failure in Mali

On January 11th, France began air strikes in Mali, in an effort to defeat an Islamist insurgency. Cynics can be forgiven for seeing this latest military intervention in Africa as just one more chapter in a long narrative of post-colonial meddling by France in its former colonies. There are indeed some key parallels between the current operation and previous French engagements in places like Chad, Togo, and Central African Republic. This intervention, though, is different in key ways. And, critically, the multi-lateral intervention in Mali could provide some pointers about longer-term efforts to deal with failed states.

During the Cold War, the United States and other Western states largely allowed France to intervene in Africa at will, even in areas outside its former colonial domain. Publicly, France usually justified its efforts as supporting anti-Communist ends. In practice, French commercial and geo-political interests often drove decisions to utilize troops in African countries. Remember, France has long maintained military bases in places like Dakar, N’Djamena, Libreville, and Djibouti, though that military footprint has shrunk in size in the post-Cold War era.

So, has France simply replaced Cold War aims with global counter-terrorism, in its justification of African interventions? There is some truth to this assertion, but France no longer has the interest or the resources to sustain unilateral adventures in Africa.

In the current operation in Mali, it is quite telling that France seems content to let neighboring West African states supply ground forces to support the beleaguered Malian government. The ECOWAS ground forces do not yet seem to be ready, but the regional organization does have a history marked with some successes in security affairs.

In addition, France’s air strikes are supported – at least in broad terms – by a December 2012 United Nations Security Council resolution. Russia, China, and the entire Security Council do not want to see gains by the Malian Islamists. So, even if not all states agree on the timing of France’s move, there would appear to be broad consensus in support of a coalition to defeat the Islamists.

In terms of the longer-term effort to address state failure, neither the French public nor others should believe that a few weeks of air strikes will be enough to deal with the root causes of ineffective governance in critically weak states. Indeed, Mali’s current turmoil is partly the result of imported fighters and weapons from Algeria and Libya. The international community will need to do a much better job of addressing “regional conflict formations,” an issue that I address in my recently released book.

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.