When I asked people in north-eastern Central African Republic (CAR) about Michel Djotodia, whilst conducting research there in 2009 – 2010, most knew very little. If they knew one thing, it was that he was a man with major political ambition and very little to show for it. Last week, his luck changed: the Seleka rebel coalition he heads claimed power in Bangui, the CAR capital, and Djotodia declared himself president. If he remains in power, he will be the first CAR president from the remote, neglected, and largely Muslim north-east. What do the accounts of people in his home region tell us about the leader he might be? And how can the country start rebuilding?
Djotodia left the CAR during Bokassa’s rule in the 1970s. He went to the Soviet Union to study and ended up staying a decade, marrying a Russian and fathering two daughters. He has “something like ten diplomas” and speaks Russian and French in addition to the Arabic and Gula he learned as a child. He returned to CAR during the 1980s and sought a job in the public service. The central tax office took him on. “But he wanted nothing more than to be president,” I was told in 2009 by the imam of Tiringoulou, a north-eastern town that has also been a base of the UFDR rebels (Djotodia is their leader): “He really wanted power.”
Twice Djotodia ran for the position of deputy, but failed both times. He then headed to Bria, a diamond mining town where many of his fellow Gula work, and got into business. Through mining he got to know Damane Zakaria, who later became the leader of the UFDR on-the-ground. Djotodia married Damane’s older brother’s daughter. When the mayor of Bria was killed in the mid-90s, a group of the miners were arrested and brought to Bangui. Djotodia went as well and got to know the Sheikh Tidjani, the Gula’s religious leader, who otherwise served as CAR consul in Nyala, South Darfur. He became Tidjani’s adjunct.
When François Bozizé took power in 2003, Djotodia used his acquaintance with an officer who had been part of Bozizé’s “sursaut patriotique” to cultivate a relationship with the new president’s son, Francis, who became Minister of Defence. The outcome for Djotodia was a new post: he replaced the Sheikh as consul in Nyala. This move soured his relationship with many of his fellow north-easterners; his political manoeuvring breached norms of religious/social propriety. The position, however, became quite useful for him.
Little was heard from Djotodia until 2006, when the UFDR emerged and began taking north-eastern towns on its march toward Bangui. A proximate cause for the foundation of the UFDR was the fallout from Chadian rebels’ use of the Tiringoulou air strip earlier that year, an incident that brought Bozizé’s presidential guard out on a rampage through the area. Damane became the leader on the ground, while Djotodia (who was far away in Benin at the time) was, in Damane’s terms, the “intellectual” who could speak on their behalf to the broader world.
Although he eventually signed a peace agreement with the CAR government, Djotodia remained abroad, in Nyala and its environs, where he cultivated relationships with the class of men political scientist Marielle Debos has called “political-military entrepreneurs.” With their help, and the help of changing geopolitical circumstances including the fraying of Bozizé’s friendship with Chadian president Idris Deby, Djotodia finally had enough military strength to take Bangui.
In some ways, Djotodia’s rise to power represents a new chapter in the country’s politics. All the previous heads of state have either come from the southern riverine classes favoured by the French colonisers or, for the last twenty years, the Northwest. Both the South and the Northwest are densely populated in comparison to the Northeast, and both are predominantly Christian, whereas the Northeast is mostly Muslim. Many of the people currently living in north-eastern CAR are the descendents of groups who arrived in the late nineteenth century, fleeing the trans-Saharan slave trade. During much of the colonial period, north-eastern CAR (the prefectures of Vakaga and Bamingui-Bangoran today) was declared an “autonomous zone”, being too remote and impoverished to be able to follow governmental directives.
Because of the history of involvement (as participants and as refugees) in the trans-Saharan trades that swept up the area beginning in the nineteenth century, and because there are still active cross-border networks, people from southern CAR frequently refer to all north-easterners as “foreigners” (Chadian or Sudanese) meaning that regardless of their actual citizenship status, they do not belong in the country. When they travel, people from the Northeast are targeted for special surveillance because of their alleged ‘foreignness’. For instance, on the many roadblocks operated by branches of the state security forces, rebels, and/or others, people with Muslim-sounding names or dress are frequently subject to harassment and extra extortion.
Perhaps Djotodia’s rule will change this, but, as Andreas Mehler has shown, the regional provenance of Central African presidents has had little effect on the distribution of resources, which remain over-centralized in Bangui. Djotodia’s longstanding reputation as a seeker of political power is a dispiritingly familiar trait among the CAR’s recent leadership. His initial statements that he had suspended the constitution and would rule by decree, without organising presidential elections for three years, struck the wrong chord; it showed him to be, in Jeune Afrique’s phrasing, an avid user of “the good little putschist’s tool box.” Subsequent statements that he would stay out of the 2016 elections did little to allay the sense that he is a classic coup leader. After all, we have heard such promises many times before, including from Bozizé in 2003.
As frustrated as most Central Africans were with Bozize, who ruled in an increasingly unaccountable manner, Djotodia has little to no popular support. His home prefecture, Vakaga, has a population of some 50,000, whereas the CAR as a whole is home to four million. All but a fraction of a percent of those four million live in precarious circumstances, and hundreds of thousands of people have had their lives torn asunder by recent conflict. Long before this coup, Central Africans often lamented to me, “While the rest of the world is jumping forward, we keep going backward!”
In what turned out to be his final interview as head of state, Bozizé said that the CAR’s biggest problem is a “lack of patriotism and sense of public duty”. Educated Central Africans (as well as donors and ex-pats) frequently derided Bozizé as an imbecile, but in this final statement he got it right. If the dispiriting violence of the past months is to contribute to redressing the above, it will require Djotodia to step aside and a civilian leader to be brought in as head of state. Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye is the obvious choice. Djotodia shows no sign of doing that without massive pressure being placed on him.
There are other challenges too, not least the existence of other Seleka leaders demanding appeasement. But if donors unite in this demand, there is a good chance they would succeed, given how hugely dependent the country is on foreign aid. This would be a way to give substance to the anti-coup stance held by the African Union and other international organizations without requiring the reinstatement of the ousted leader. In this, the CAR could show a new path forward for places with coup-filled pasts.
Louisa Lombard is a Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellow in Natural Resource Economics in the department of Geography at the University of California at Berkeley.