Speaking at a United Nations event marking 20 years since the Rwandan genocide, France’s ambassador to the UN, Gerard Araud, said his government had seriously underestimated the level of hatred between Christian and Muslim communities in the Central African Republic. He said on 15th January that African Union and French forces deployed in the CAR were facing a “nearly impossible” situation. The crux of the problem was that they were dealing with “two communities who want to kill each other”. He emphasised that “they desperately want to kill each other…We knew that there was some inter-sectarian violence, but we didn’t forecast such deep ingrained hatred.”
Forgive me if I seem cynical about this, but the French have been involved in CAR for over 120 years – carving out a territory that bore no relation to ethnic, linguistic or other indigenous factors and did not take into account existing boundaries of communities. Before colonial occupation, the region was no different from any other – experiencing trade, inter-marriage and, at times, raiding and conflict between different communities. It wasn’t some peaceful Eden, but nor was it riven by endemic warfare or hatred between its peoples.
France granted independence in 1960 but kept troops in the country until 1997 and backed or even organized coups in 1965, 1979 and 1981 to ensure the CAR remained friendly to France – they even bankrolled Bokassa’s coronation as Emperor. During demonstrations by schoolchildren and students in 1979, French army officers and NCOs commanded forces of Zairean and CAR troops that brutally suppressed the protests. France has remained a major political, economic and military player in CAR – intervening for ‘humanitarian’ reasons several times.
With this long and intense involvement, if there were such wells of hatred and a desperation on the part of Christian and Muslim communities to kill each other, then why didn’t they spot it before and why is it only surfacing now?
The CAR has diamonds, gold and uranium which over decades have drawn in the French, Libyans and Chadians. Libya’s Muammar Gadaffi became close to Bokassa as his excesses drove away even the French, who plotted to overthrow and replace him with the CAR’s first president, David Dacko, against whom the French had supported Bokassa in his 1965 coup. Bokassa was in Libya in September 1979 arranging for Libyan use of military bases in the CAR near the border with Chad (in return for Libyan security support for Bokassa), when the French flew commando units to Bangui to overthrow him. They were then involved in a number of subsequent coups.
Despite Bokassa’s overthrow, Libyan involvement continued – largely because of the CAR’s usefulness as a route into Chad, where Libya was backing forces opposed to President Hissène Habré. Libya saw the CAR as being part of its southern hinterland and its sphere of interest in central Africa. Successive Central African leaders would try to bolster their unstable power base by bargaining between Libya and France – and latterly Idriss Déby’s Chad. Even after Habré’s demise and the end of the war there, Libya remained closely involved in the CAR supporting President Patassé against an uprising by former military leader Andre Kolingba.
Libyan, Chadian and Congolese rebel forces all fought for Patassé against the rebels and the Chadian government of Idriss Déby became heavily involved in the CAR and remains a key player. Chad seemed willing to support Bozizé after he seized power, while still retaining links with rebel groups from the Muslim communities along the porous borders with Darfur and Chad. It was the Chadian decision to ditch Bozizé and put its forces (already in the CAR) behind the Séléka rebel alliance which enabled the movement to quickly overthrow the government.
At various times over the last 15 years, conflict in the CAR between rebel groups (grown out of the rivalry between military or political leaders unable to accept anything other than a ‘winner takes all’ approach to power and resources), has involved the Chadians fighting on one side or another. At times substantial numbers of Muslim Central Africans have fled into Chad or Darfur, where the Ndjamena or Khartoum governments received them and then trained or armed them for future use in their regional strategies. With the fall of Gadaffi, Chad’s Idriss Déby has become the regional kingmaker and shows no sign of leaving CAR alone.
So, for Ambassador Araud to say that France misunderstood how much Central Africans “desperately want to kill each other” is mendacious and a cover for the results of their decades of mercenary interference in CAR along with neighbouring states like Libya and Chad. People do not just harbour primitive hatreds – an excuse also trotted out by the international community for non-interference in Rwanda and Bosnia – but they do become brutalized by years of oppression, of being the victims of the swirling regional conflicts that criss-cross the borders of the central African region.
Not only have the people of the CAR suffered the depredations of their own governments and their foreign backers, but also of the Congolese rebels of Jean-Pierre Bemba and of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Brutalization begets brutality and killing in desperation, not desperation for killing. It seems the French have either learned little from their years of meddling in Africa or think others are stupid enough to swallow their simplistic stereotyping to hide their own complicity in this humanitarian crisis
Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, teaches in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, and runs the Africa – News and Analysis website (www.africajournalismtheworld.com)