Colonialism, Coups and Conflict: Understanding Today’s Violence in the Central African Republic

By Devon Douglas-Bowers


The Central African Republic is now awash in media coverage over the ongoing sectarian violence and general upheaval in the country. But while many outlets discuss the volatile situation in the CAR, few analyses have put the violence in a historical context to discuss the way that countries like France, Chad and the United States bear implication as well. The violence in the CAR is unprecedented and worrisome. Historically, however, it is but another unfortunate and bloody chapter in the country’s unstable history. This is the first in a two-part series on that conflict.

A History of Violence

The CAR is a former French colony that gained independence soon after a 1958 French constitutional referendum dissolving France’s African holdings. The first president, Barthélemy Boganda, died in a March 1959 plane crash and power was transferred to David Dacko who oversaw the CAR’s declaration of independence on August 13, 1960, and soon established a one-party state.

Dacko’s days, too, were numbered. In 1965, Jean Bedel Bokassa, a colonel in the CAR military, “was plucked by France to overthrow the Central African Republic’s first President, his cousin David Dacko, when Mr. Dacko began establishing close ties with China.” Bokassa was chosen due to his fierce devotion to France and his anti-Communist stance.

After overthrowing Dacko in a bloodless coup, Bokassa quickly broke off relations with China and took on a multitude of titles, which would culminate in his declaring himself king of the republic in 1977. In addition to changing the CAR’s foreign policy, Bokassa also suspended the constitution and dissolved the National Assembly, allowing him free reign to do as he pleased.

Though he showed increasingly strange behavior as time passed, the French government still maintained good relations with Bokassa, going so far as to congratulate him when he declared the CAR an empire and took the title of emperor. However, France eventually turned its back on him due to his increased show of deciding foreign policy on his own. The French then helped put Dacko back into power via a coup against Bokassa in 1979.

In 1981, elections took place and Dacko emerged victorious over challenger Ange-Félix Patassé, but charges of fraud remained. Just months later, Army Chief of Staff Gen. André Kolingba seized power in a military coup. While there was a subsequent coup attemptagainst Kolingba involving Patassé, the coup failed and Patassé fled to the Togo, eventually returning to the CAR in the early 1990s.

Meanwhile, Kolingba operated what was essentially a military dictatorship lasting well into the next decade, due to a new constitution approved in 1986 that “provided him a single-party state and six-year term as president.” This aided him in the 1988 elections since opposing political parties were not allowed to participate. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1990 a pro-democracy movement sprouted and blossomed in the CAR. Kolingba responded by detaining many protesters, but later agreed to hold free elections after having come under pressure from “countries like the United States and France, but also agencies and organizations like the UN.”

In 1993, Ange-Félix Patassé was elected president of the CAR. The instability of the country continued with three different army mutinies in April, May and November of 1996. The first munity occurred when some 400 soldiers demanded paychecks, with soldiers “[entering] the homes of business executives, demanding money and vehicles and beating those who refused.” Governments that have ruled over the CAR have generally been extremely corrupt, with the IMF and World Bank noting in 2013 that on a regional level, corruption hindered the growth of many Central African states. (According to Transparency International, the CAR today stands near the bottom of a list of least corrupt states, ranking 150 out of 175 nations in corruption.

In May of 1996, the army mutinied again as its leaders accused Patassé “of transferring the army’s armory to his presidential guard.” To put down the mutiny, Patassé requested aid from France, which eventually sent in 1,000 soldiers and 100 special forces commandos. The mutiny eventually died down with a ceasefire being negotiated.

After the April and May mutinies, Patassé “formed a new government that included Kolingba supporters, but the country’s main opposition groups refused to join the coalition.” However, a third mutiny in November occurred as soldiers took advantage of Patassé’s being out of the country. Once again, the French came to his aid and “rapidly deployed patrols throughout the city to protect key points and provide support to the Presidential Guard. Additional French Foreign Legion troops were flown into CAR from Chad to supplement the 1,750 soldiers already stationed in the country.” That mutiny too was eventually put down, but not before threatening to devolve into ethnic conflict.

These mutinies were stirred up by Kolingba, who “is from the Yakoma group, which is part of the Ngbandi ethnic group found on the banks of the Obangui river in the south.” When Patassé first came to power, the military was mainly made up of soldiers from Kolingba’s ethnic group. In response, Patassé “created militias favoring his own Gbaya tribe and did not bother to pay the Yakoma-dominated regular army,” which actively contributed to the mutinies. A final rebellion occurred in 1997, but was put down by a pan-African force.

The troubles didn’t end there for Patassé, as Kolingba in May of 2001 sponsored an unsuccessful military coup setting off a series of events that ultimately led to Patassé’s removal. After the coup attempt, the president accused his Army Chief of Staff, François Bozizé, of involvement and fired him. Bozizé rallied troops to resist his sacking, but was ultimately forced to leave for exile in southern Chad. These events deeply split and weakened the CAR armed forces—the Central African Armed Forces—dividing it between Patassé and Bozizé loyalists.

Overall, Patassé’s time as president was problematic for the country, not only due to the mutinies and attempted coup, but also the fact that “the CAR underwent economic collapse, losing what was left of its institutional capacity to provide social services for its citizens, and increased its dependence on external aid for survival,” and Patassé “built up the Presidential Guard at the expense of the army, further ethnicizing the state security forces.”

In October 2002, Bozizé launched the next coup. Patassé, however, was able to beat him back with the aid this time of Libyan forces. Muammar Gaddafi had backed the CAR government since 2001, “in return for a 99-year monopoly on extracting the republic’s vast reserves of diamonds, gold and other minerals.” However, in 2003, when Patassé was out of the country in Niger, Bozizé swept into the capital with 1,000 troops and took control.

The next year, voters in the CAR accepted a new constitution, which “provides for a five-year presidential term, renewable only once, and the appointment of the prime minister from the political party with a parliamentary majority.” Quickly following this change was the 2005 presidential elections in which Bozizé ran as an independent and won.

From this election came the rise of the Peoples Army for the Restoration of the Republic and of Democracy (APRD), led by Jean-Jacques Demafouth, and made up of mainly former Presidential Guard members. Another group that emerged from the elections was the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), which “is made up largely of the mainly-Muslim Gula ethnic group” and “include men who helped Bozizé overthrow Patassé in 2003 but who subsequently felt disgruntled with the lack of recompense.” Both of these groups are from the northern region of the CAR and have actively fought against the Bozizé government.

That rebellion occurred due to economic and political weakness within the CAR government. At the time, Bozizé had little poweroutside of Bangui, the capital, “while extreme poverty and a lack of both strong government institutions and economic development have contributed to declining support for the government among CAR citizens.” Citizens from the north, generally anti-Bozizé, accused him of “favoring southerners since taking power, of failing to uphold democratic commitments, and of delaying implementation of promised political and economic reforms.”

The rebel groups actively fought the CAR government, and in 2006 it was reported that an escalation in fighting between the APRD and government troops caused 70,000 people to flee the country. To bring an end to the fighting, a comprehensive peace agreementwas brokered in 2008, quickly following what was called an Inclusive Political Dialogue. The Dialogue “called for the creation of a government of national unity; the holding of municipal elections in 2009, and legislative and presidential elections in 2010, which actually took place in January and March 2011; the creation of a national human rights commission; the launch of a program for the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of former combatants.” However, the goals of the Dialogue never came to fruition, as the report states:

“[N]early five years later, the overwhelming feeling is bitter disappointment: the inclusive government was never put in place; the 2011 elections took place but, according to observers, were marred by many accusations of fraud; the state disintegrated further; the “grey zones” outside state control expanded; most of the agreed essential reforms were never implemented; and the attitude adopted by both the government and rebel groups meant the demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) program never saw the light of day for combatants in the north east.”

Coupled with the fact that democratic rule had effectively ended due to Bozizé’s authoritarian ways, and “conditions inside the CAR rapidly declined as economic under-development, nepotism and corruption fostered dissent and emboldened political opponents,” Bozizé was finally ousted in 2013 by the rebel group Séléka, which installed its leader, Michel Djotodia, as interim president.


Sectarian Violence

While the Central African Republic is home to several different ethnic groups, historically speaking it can be said that “the CAR has no significant history of sectarian conflict or deep-seated religious enmity.” So, then, why is this violence occurring? In order to understand it, one must discuss Séléka and Michel Djotodia.

The Guardian reported in December 2012 that the rebel group Séléka had formed, and among its demands was “the implementation of the recommendations of the inclusive political dialogue, which was held in 2008 among government, civil society, the opposition and the rebels; financial compensation for the rebels; the release of political prisoners; and the opening of an investigation into the disappearance of former CPJP (Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace) leader Charles Massi and other ‘crimes.’” Thus, the group formed, at least partially, in response to the failed political dealings with the CAR government.

As Séléka members “were recruited from Muslim communities settled in CAR or in the three border areas” (Chad, Sudan, and CAR), the formation of the group aided in the heightening of sectarian tensions. While Séléka fighters have notional inclinations toward political Islam, they share a strong sense of communal identity and a will to avenge previous CAR regimes and their beneficiaries identified as Christians. (Though this isn’t such a discriminating factor, as the CAR population is more than 75% Christian.) Lay Muslims in CAR today are less likely to be harassed by the Séléka, and most often there is cooperation. The broader Muslim community is therefore perceived as supporting the Séléka while being hostile to the core Christian population.

This anti-Christian bias was revealed soon after the group took control of the capital. The Congressional Research Service reported in May 2014 that “once in power, Seleka leaders presided over the collapse of an already fragile state, and they oversaw brutal attacks on rural Christian communities in the northwest, Bozizé’s home region.”

In response to that violence, the Christian communities formed anti-balaka (anti-machete) militias and began to fight Muslims. The Christian militias attacked Muslims viciously, with “scenes of cannibalism and the dismemberment of Muslims by Christian mobs in Bangui,” prompting France to send 2,000 soldiers into the country as well as the UN which sent in 12,000 peacekeepers.

In January 2014, Séléka’s leader Michel Djotodia stepped down as President, following pressure from Chadian President Idriss Déby. Djotodia was replaced by Catherine Samba-Panza, the former mayor of Bangui. All of which raised the question: What interest does Chad have in the Central African Republic? And for that matter, are there any other interested parties?

Foreign Involvement, Foreign Interests: Chad, France and the United States


Chad is a neighboring country and has been involved in the internal politics of the CAR for quite some time. President Déby sponsoredFrançois Bozizé’s rebel movement and “capitalized on this behind-the-scenes power grab by enabling his forces to operate in the north of the CAR to eliminate Chadian rebel groups using the territory as a staging ground for attacks.”

A main reason for Deby’s interest in the CAR is security. There has been significant activity among Chadian rebels operating in the CAR, as “many [Chadian rebels] who took part in the attacks from 2008 to 2010 on N’Djamena and Abéché sought shelter in the north-west of the CAR, which was virtually untouched by Bangui’s authority.” Some even linked up with CAR rebel groups, eventually helping to form Séléka. Many accused Chad of backing Séléka in order to draw the Chadian elements of the group deeper into the CAR, and thus stop them from launching attacks into Chad.

Another clear interest for Chad is oil. Al Jazeera reported that according to Kasper Agger, a field researcher for Enough Project, “’Chad is drilling oil from that border region and it’s actually a shared oilfield with CAR.’ While there is no drilling on the CAR side yet, Chad has high interest in keeping tight control over the area.” Thus it may be no wonder that Chad is keeping a close eye on the CAR, despite having withdrawn its troops earlier last year.


The CAR’s former colonial power, France, also has interests at stake, a situation stemming mainly from Bozizé’s rule. Just before he was overthrown, Bozizé, in 2012, called on the French to aid him in beating back the Séléka rebels. His call went unanswered, mainly due to problems with the CAR government as well as CAR-China relations. A 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks revealed the constant frustrations facing French commercial giants such as Total and AREVA. While France used to count on the CAR as a valuable reserve for uranium, it is clear that double-dealing contract negotiations by the Minister of Mines, among others, has pushed the French beyond even their normally generous limits.

Though France has “extensive interests in Africa, in oil, minerals, infrastructure projects, telecoms, utilities, banking and insurance,” wrote Newsweek, “its market share is being eroded by competition from China, Brazil, India and others.” Bozizé actively worked with the Chinese to the ire of the French; it was reported in December 2012 that earlier that year, “the South African company DIG Oil had been awarded two exploration contracts and that a Chinese company had also obtained such authorization” to explore for oil in the CAR.

Bozizé was quite wary of the French, noting in a December 2012 speech that he was being attacked for giving an oil exploration contract to the Chinese. “We gave [the French] everything. Before giving oil to the Chinese, I met Total in Paris and told them to take the oil; nothing happened,” said Bozizé. “I gave oil to the Chinese and it became a problem. I sent counselor Maidou in Paris for the Uranium dossier, they refused. I finally gave it to the South Africans.” Due to his dealings with the Chinese and other problems, the French became disinterested in propping up Bozizé, and thus let him fall.

In 2013, the French sent in troops to aid in the peacekeeping, along with other African forces, but drew their numbers down in January 2014 from 2,000 troops to 800, noting that UN peacekeepers had arrived.

United States

The U.S. sent its UN ambassador Samantha Power to the CAR in late 2013 to appeal for peace. Power has made it a point that the U.S. intervenes more in violent international conflicts, and “has made a career out of scolding the U.S. for not intervening around the world enough.” In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 2002, “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, Power lamented that the U.S., among other inactions, didn’t intervene to stop the Armenian genocide during the First World War. Power endorses the “Responsibility To Protect” doctrine and “was one of the driving forces behind the United States intervention in Libya,” so it shouldn’t surprise some people if she pushes for further U.S. intervention in the CAR.

So far, the U.S. has delivered aid to peacekeepersairlifted African troops into the CAR, and sent troops to support the U.S. embassy resuming its activities there, but not much else.

On a more regional level, the U.S. is also interested in the CAR specifically for its oil. A 2013 Brookings Institution report, titled “Top Five Reasons Why Africa Should Be a Priority for the United States,” noted that “significant new discoveries have prompted the [International Energy Agency] to anoint sub-Saharan Africa the ‘new frontier’ in global oil and gas,” and “the emergence of new oil and gas producers in the region presents potential benefits for U.S. national security interests, if this newfound wealth is managed appropriately, several countries could also potentially become oil suppliers to the U.S., further diversifying the sources of U.S. imported oil.”

U.S. interest in African oil is hardly new. In 2002 it was noted that 15 percent of the U.S.’s imported oil supply comes from sub-Saharan Africa. Oil experts predict that the amount of oil the United States receives from the prolific fields of Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Angola will double in the next five years.

“African oil is of strategic national interest to us and it will increase and become more important as we go forward,” Walter Kansteiner, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for African Affairs, said during a July 2002 visit to Nigeria, the largest oil producer in West Africa with an estimated 24 billion barrels in reserve.

And like the French, America is also concerned about China. From that same report:

“China’s engagement in Africa has profound geopolitical implications for the U.S. global strategy… China is looking beyond the traditional pursuit of economic benefits and aspires to increase and solidify its strategic presence through enhanced political, economic, diplomatic and academic resources. The failure to perceive and prepare for China’s moves would be dangerous, unwise and potentially detrimental for the United States in the near future.”

More recently, in January 2015 the UN stated it had found evidence of ethnic cleansing committed by Christian militias against Muslims, confirming the alarms that had been raised in June of last year, and even before that in late 2013. Unfortunately, the violence is only continuing.

Central African Republic conflict, CAR conflict, Séléka, Michel Djotodia, sectarian violence, colonial abuse