On March 24, 2013, a loose coalition of rebel groups known as the “séléka rebels”, ostensibly dissatisfied with the Bangui government’s implementation of the January 2013 ceasefire agreement brokered by the 10-member Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the African Union and the United Nations, seized power and named Michel Djotodia as interim president of the Central African Republic (C.A.R). While the March 24th coup d’état in the C.A.R. was not a remarkable event on its own – power has violently changed hands at least four times in the short history of the country, including when the now-deposed President Bozizé seized power in 2003 – the coup nonetheless has some important implications for the country, the Central African region and for the international community.
For the C.A.R., a major implication of the coup is that, going forward, it is less likely that the country will experience political stability and advance towards democracy. Two broad arguments militate in favor of this prediction. First, the legacy of French colonial rule left the C.A.R. with no visionary leadership and an ill-developed institutional and physical infrastructure. The C.A.R. is a very small country– its population is comparable to the state of Alabama. Yet its huge surface area – comparable to that of the state of Texas – is richly endowed in natural resources, notably timber and diamonds, which explains the continued interest of its former colonial master and other foreign nations in the country. Since the colonial period when the C.A.R was called Oubangui-Chari, France’s colonialism (and subsequent neocolonialism) was aimed at extracting the C.A.R.’s resources at the expense of developing the country’s human resources, institutional and physical infrastructure.
For instance, right up to 1971 – almost a decade after independence from France – the C.A.R.’s gross secondary enrollment rate was barely 4 percent; less than 2 percent of the country’s total road network had been paved; and only about one physician per 50,000 people was available. The March coup, like previous ones, was anchored in economic grievances linked to an ineffective governance system inherited from colonial rule and which has been further compounded by international meddling. Furthermore, France’s strategy of super-imposing its military presence in its former colonies (in order to protect its economic interests) has greatly undermined the ability of French-speaking African states to constitute a veritable national army that is capable of defending their territories against internal as well as external aggressors. It is therefore easy to understand France’s frequent military intervention in its former colonies (as in Côte d’Ivoire in 2011 or recently in Mali), but it is also easy to see why France’s nonintervention in cases like the recent C.A.R. coup is perceived as a betrayal in some quarters. Consequently, France’s colonial rule in the C.A.R., like in most other sub-Saharan African countries, has greatly undermined the development of local leadership capacity both in civilian and military affairs. It is not surprising that the C.A.R. has been home to several mercenaries – some of whom eventually ruled the country – and also to bandits and gangsters of Joseph Kony’s caliber.
The second argument predicting continued instability in the C.A.R. is that the coup leader doesn’t have sufficient incentives to lay down a solid foundation in order for the C.A.R.to transition to democracy. Already, he has dissolved the parliament and constitution and is ruling by decree, and without a strong civil society, organized opposition parties, free press and independent judiciary, there is no counterbalancing power to keep his regime in check. Experience elsewhere in countries where military coups have preceded the development of democratic institutions, notably in Nigeria and Turkey, clearly demonstrates that democracy rarely emerges without established agencies of restraint. Further, the C.A.R.’s military also has little tradition of respecting the primacy of civilian rule. The C.A.R’s first and only democratic transition in the 1990s faced an attempted coup by the ousted dictator shortly after elections, and a successful coup by the country’s military chief another two years later. Furthermore, political transitions that are unaccompanied by rapid and sustained economic growth have seldom been sustainable and often give in to successive internal counter-coups. This prediction is likely self-fulfilling in the C.A.R.’s case, where economic growth is projected to decline this year from 3.8 to 2.5 percent as a result of political instability and the decline in foreign aid and investment by key European donor countries facing austerity at home. In sum, even if Djotodia’s good motives were unquestionable, with no agencies of restraint in place and with the C.A.R.’s economic prospects in decline, it seems unlikely that the groundwork for a stable transition to democracy exists.
It is probably in anticipation of continuing socio-political upheavals in the C.A.R. that the international community, notably, the United Nations, the African Union and the ECCAS have vehemently rejected the C.A.R.’s new leadership as well as its three-year transition plan to democracy. In its last summit meeting on the C.A.R. held on April 3, 2013, the ECCAS called for Djotodia’s instant removal and the creation of a five-person executive council that would oversee an 18-month transition to democratic elections. The international community’s rejection of the Séléka coup is commendable as it sets precedence that political power can no longer be accessed through the use of force. Happily, the Séléka leadership has announced its willingness to collaborate with the transition proposals set out by ECCAS. Notwithstanding, if the claims that child soldiers were used in the Séléka rebellion are true, then the Séléka rebel leaders must face trial for violating international conventions. Given the important ramifications that the crisis in the C.A.R. has for the entire Central African region – in terms of the potential of spill-over of rebel coups, influx of refugees to neighboring countries and the hunt for Joseph Kony – a more sophisticated and internationally backed solution for the C.A.R. is warranted. For instance, it might be a sensible option to place the country under a U.N. appointed administrator, as was seen in Cambodia, for a transitional period of three to five years, during which the critical ingredients needed for democracy to thrive (namely, an educated citizenry, independent courts, free press, a disciplined police force and army, vibrant civil society, independent electoral commission, etc.) are put in place. At the end of this transition period, elections could then be held and power transferred from the temporary administrator to a democratically elected C.A.R. government. The weakness of the ECCAS transition plan for the C.A.R. is that it assumes that democracy and economic prosperity would automatically emerge after holding a successful election, but experience doesn’t suggest that is plausible.