Time to Pay Attention to the Central African Republic

In the infrequent event that mainstream news coverage deals with the Central African Republic (CAR), it is almost always in the context of another country’s troubles. The Lord’s Resistance Army of Uganda, which has wreaked havoc in northern Uganda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, began making incursions into southeastern CAR in 2008. The conflicts in Sudan and Chad have also spilled into CAR, with Chadian rebels establishing a base in northeastern CAR toward the end of 2006 and allegations around the same time that Khartoum was supporting CAR’s rebels. And by 2010, in pursuit of the LRA, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army was patrolling the Sudan-CAR border.

Yet CAR faces its own internal challenges and conflicts. The political history of CAR is described in detail in the US Department of State’s Background Note. This political background is important because the country’s colonial origins, long line of coups (some bloodless, some not so bloodless) and periodic transformations of government structure represent significant underlying influences on the nature of instability in the country.

There are a number of opposition movements and rebel groups in CAR, with disparate grievances. Most of these grievances concern ethnopolitical representation and human security, access to services, and economic stability. Peace agreements and ceasefires between most of the rebel groups and the government were signed in 2007 and 2008. According to Global Voices blogger Lova Rakotomalala, a dissident branch of one of the opposition groups has also recently decided to join the peacebuilding process.

Elections were held in January and March 2011, but were invalidated by the Constitutional Court in 14 constituencies due to irregularities. Journal des Elections reports that opposition parties began boycotting the elections after the president, François Bozizé, in power since overthrowing Ange-Félix Patassé in 2003, claimed 64.34% of the vote in the first round. The political opposition was outraged at the conduct of the elections, and international observers reported “massive fraud” and “terrorization of voters and certain candidates by the state officials and security forces.”

On September 4, voters in those 14 constituencies where election results were invalidated had the chance to vote again for their parliamentary representatives.

Last week violence erupted at an opposition rally ahead of the September 4 elections. Supporters of the president’s party (KNK) disrupted the rally, and the opposition party holding the rally (MLPC) is demanding that the current electoral monitoring committee be replaced. Rakotomalala, reviewing some of the recent francophone news, notes that the atmosphere surrounding the elections has been indifferent and unenthusiastic – even “sad” – as the general feeling is that the outcome of the elections can’t be trusted. Centrafrique-Presse reported on Sunday that voter turnout was very low and voters interviewed by Radio Ndeke Luka in the capital city of Bangui were more interested in the football match against Morocco that day.

Louisa Lombard recently wrote for the African Arguments series of the Social Science Research Council that part of the problem is a lack of contextual understanding of the ethno-political landscape in CAR, and the fact that “the transitional structures that international agencies advocate – for example political dialogue, disarmament, and elections – have grown out of a vision of how the state ought to be and ignore how politics actually play out on the ground.”

A number of great resources, such as Lombard’s study, do exist. But generally speaking the country does not appear to be on the international media’s radar, particularly if you’re exclusively anglophone (or speak any other language besides French). In a Google search for “Central African Republic elections September 4,” one relevant story appears in English: the blog post by Lova Rakotomalala cited above, which appears on the Global Voices blogging community. (Much better results were obtained with a Google search for “République Centrafricaine élection Septembre 4.”) Even in French, coverage is less than impressive in both quantity and quality.

Because the conflicts in central Africa are so interwoven, a better understanding of each of them is important for assessing how they interact with each other and how peacebuilding efforts can succeed. But as long as international coverage of CAR remains poor, this understanding will be out of reach.