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CAR, Bangui, and the Capital as the Prize

By Taylor Marvin

Violent unrest in the Central African Republic continues. Nearly a million people have been internally displaced, nearly 60 percent of of the capital of Bangui have fled their home, and UN officials warn that half of the country’s population require immediate aid. Rural areas are reportedly nearly devoid of medical professionals, who have fled to the capital.

The current unrest in the landlocked central African country escalated in March of 2013, when a diverse rebel coalition termed Séléka seized the Bangui and  overthrew President François Bozizé. Fleeing the country, Bozizé was replaced as president by rebel leader Michel Djotodia (who may step down shortly), who in September disbanded Séléka but lost control of the disaffected fighters. Since then former Séléka rebels have rampaged through the countryside, opposed by anti-balaka, or anti-machete, militias. The conflict is frequently characterized as religious in nature: CAR is roughly 50 percent Christian and 15 percent Muslim, with both interim President Djotodia and most ex-Séléka fighters belonging to the country’s marginalized Muslim minority. “We will kill all the Muslims, and we will kill all of your livestock,” one militia leader reportedly told captured Muslims.

Citing fears of “genocide”, French and AU forces deployed to the country to halt the violence in early December under UN authorization with the goal of disarming both ex-Séléka fighters and militias, with the French occupying Bangui and Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian promising an “end to impunity” for militants. However, the violence has continued and French popular support for the military intervention in CAR is declining.

Challenging the common media narrative that the violence is driven by religious divides, Emily Mellgard writes that “the roots of the current conflict are, however, less religious than they are economic and political.” Arguing that political factions have mobilized their supporters by co-opting religious rhetoric, Mellgard concludes that “what is going on in the CAR is neither a jihad nor a crusade. It is rather a struggle for political power with Bangui as the prize.”

states_powerRegardless of how or how not religiously motivated the conflict is, this logic recalls an argument about Sub-Saharan African state formation advanced by Jeffrey Herbst in his book States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control. After gaining independence from European colonial empires, Sub-Saharan African leaders made the deliberate decision to retain the hard colonial borders and most often capitals, even when these administrative units did not reflect local realities. Since postcolonial states were often weak, “basing boundaries on what each state actually controlled would result in the territory of most states becoming smaller,” something self-interested leaders unsurprisingly sought to avoid.

While this decision preserved the established means of state control and forestalled the possibility of destructive, boundary-redrawing interstate warfare, it, combined with the postwar consensus that states no longer have to earn their sovereignty — or the “overly optimistic hopes that domestic control and legitimate authority” follow sovereignty — left postcolonial African states unable to exert control over their nominal territory. Postcolonial governments also suffered military coups, and many African countries housed long-running insurgencies or independence-minded regions only nominally under state control. Interestingly, “African politics were the exact opposite of traditional political science models of domestic and international politics: the politics between countries was extremely well ordered (as opposed to the Hobbesian model of international relations), while domestic politics did not evidence many signs of stability.” With interstate warfare and violent boundary redrawing relatively rare in postcolonial Sub-Saharan Africa, leaders faced much greater danger from within than without.

Because of the dual challenges of weak states and the desire to avoid interstate conflict, the Organization of African Unity made the deliberate decision to award international legitimacy to any government that controlled a country’s capital city, regardless of how it came to power or how much territory it actually controlled. This offered African governments the benefits of international recognition while avoiding the costly need to exert control over their entire countries — something that was impossible for most African states, anyway. “Large countries such as Ethiopia, Zaire, and Angola at various times did lose control of parts of their territories to opponents,” Herbst writes, “but the international community always recognized whoever controlled Addis, Kinshasa, and Luanda as the unquestioned leaders of those territories.” This consensus was popular with the international community — not only did it support the postwar goal of preventing interstate war, but benchmarking legitimacy around control of the capital and its flashy public buildings simplified the narrative of postcolonial Africa into 50 or so sovereign states.

If Bangui really is the prize in CAR, this dynamic reflects the legitimizing power of control of the capital city. While Séléka’s victory was widely condemned and regional leaders were initially reluctant to recognize Djotodia as transitional leader, control of Bangui is a powerful legitimizing force for the interim government.

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