Yasmin Aliya Khan
Rebel Violence in the Central African Republic
Hello, and welcome to the Global Thread podcast. I’m your host, Yasmin Aliya Khan, and today, we’re talking about the Central African Republic.
You know, in the U.S., we tend not to think of Africa as a continent that’s full of countless and robust ethnicities and cultures, but rather as one large, homogenous landmass, which in a word, is racist. At best, we can call it ignorance and chalk it up to a poor and/or biased public education system here in the United States, but as Americans, we tend to gloss over our own involvement and contributions when discussing the modern-day struggles of nations abroad.
Today, we’re going to discuss the situation in the CAR, or the Central African Republic. The CAR is currently in the midst of some election drama, and if you’ve been following this podcast for the duration of its very young life, this probably won’t sound like anything new to you. So far, we’ve covered issues in different parts of the world - the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the U.S., and now central Africa - and I’ve done that deliberately. I’ve tried to jump around, at least for these initial episodes because eventually, I’ll obviously have to start repeating regions.
This might sound strange to some of you, but I was a little wary of covering Saudi Arabia after covering India out of fear that people would think that those two nations belong to the same global region. They’re not, but to lump India in with the Middle East is a pretty common thing - trust me, I would know. It’s just a bunch of brown people, right?
Something fun that people like to do with me is trying to determine my ethnic roots, and by “fun,” I mean it must be fun for them because it isn’t for me. For the record, as far as I know, my genes are all Indian. Both sides of my family came from India before my ancestors were essentially displaced into Guyana, South America as a result of British imperialism. So culturally, my family is English-speaking Caribbean, even though geographically they lived in South America before immigrating to New York, and my brothers and I were born in Connecticut. It’s a whole thing that I’m sure we’ll cover at some point on this podcast because there’s actually quite a bit going on currently in Guyana, but the point I’m trying to make is that for anyone looking at me, I’d assume that they’d assume I was Indian.
But for whatever reason, people seem stumped by me (and I’m sure I’m not the only one this happens to). People assume I’m Middle Eastern, sometimes even ascribing a specific country over there to me, seemingly at random, seemingly to flex their knowledge that whatever country they chose even exists. Good for you for knowing that Lebanon is a thing, but weird that you’re so certain I’m from there. People think I’m Hispanic, people think I’m mixed… Oh, but my favorite is when people think I’ve got some Brazilian in me since Guyana is right next door to Brazil. Of course, that’s not how ethnicity or immigration works. I must have gotten every brown-person ethnicity thrown at me at some point, which to me, just goes to show how culturally insensitive and ignorant we can all be. The “All [X kind of people] look the same” trope is not only annoying and dismissive, but it can have and historically has had dire political and cultural consequences.
This is almost perfectly exemplified in the case of Africa, a continent rich in natural resources that has been ransacked by foreigners for centuries with little to no regard for the people living there, not then, not today.
Many historians and anthropologists will tell you that what is deemed a third-world or undeveloped nation faces a kiss of death once a valuable resource is discovered there. It’s often more blessing than curse as the resource and the industry that springs up around it often exploits the land and the locals while enriching others abroad.
I mean, we’ve all seen "Blood Diamond," right? Even if you haven’t seen it, you know the basic story - militant groups force workers to mine diamonds under horrid and often deadly conditions for little pay. The diamonds are then hoarded by De Beers, which increases demand and raises the value of the stones. Then, young girls dream of the day when a nice boy will pay thousands of dollars to buy her one of them, just so she can flex on Facebook about how much this amazing man loves her.
In turn, the nation producing the stones sees little of those profits. There are plenty of reasons for this, including but certainly not limited to corrupt or broken local governments and police forces, but the end result is a nation in a perpetual and deliberate loop of disrepair.
Remember in "Black Panther" when Wakanda let the whole world think that they were farmers and textile workers instead of the most technologically advanced nation in the world powered by an unmatched alien resource? That was the whole conflict of the movie - whether they should share the resource for the world to benefit from it the same way they had or keep it secret, lest others try to steal it, use it for weaponry and destruction, and lay waste to the land from whence it came. As soon as word got out about the vibranium, that’s exactly what would have happened if the Black Panther wasn’t there to protect Wakanda, so you sort of can’t blame them for favoring isolationism. They saw what happened to their neighbors for lesser treasures. After all, a diamond is worthless apart from the value we assign to it. It’s just a rock.
And now I’m sad about Chadwick Boseman all over again. I’m probably going to watch the portal scene after I’m done recording this episode. Rest in peace.
The Scramble for Africa
Ok, let’s talk about the Scramble for Africa.
Back in the 19th century, there wasn’t a whole lot going on in Africa, at least not from a European perspective. The land was vast and wild, but it seemed, for lack of a better word, uncivilized. Naturally, the Europeans decided it was theirs for the taking, disregarding the millions of people already living on the land.
And those millions of people were divided into tribes, each occupying a certain area of land on the continent. Calling them “tribes” tends to be misleading, though. These so-called tribes often had populations and occupied lands comparable to those of European nations. In coastal areas, as expected, the populations were especially dense, with many different tribes living beside one another, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not.
Once Europe got hip to Africa, they all wanted a piece of it. Rather than going to war over who gets what, though, they had a conference. The Berlin Conference of 1884 was a strange affair where a bunch of European leaders got together and divided up a continent that they were largely unfamiliar with as if it was just an empty chunk of land that they could just… have. They negotiated until each nation got a piece they were happy with, some seeking certain resources, some wanting access to specific waterways and geographic landmarks, some taking land just so someone else wouldn’t take it - you get the idea. To do this, with either complete ignorance or disregard for the tribes already occupying these lands, borders were drawn on the map that often split groups between two or more nations. Europeans have a long history of doing this across the globe on every continent, with the effects of these borders still being felt today. They literally have never learned or cared that this creates all kinds of problems.
So, the Berlin Conference is why you have things like “French vanilla” which comes from the vanilla pods of Madagascar, or the world-famous Belgian chocolate. Where did the Belgians get cocoa from?!
Speaking of Belgium, one notable player in all of this was its King Leopold II. Just to give you an idea of what this guy was about, he’s been compared to some of the worst people in history - Hitler, Stalin, etc. - for his cold-blooded brutality against the people he ruled over and his avaricious obsession with pillaging the land.
Through some smart and sinister negotiating, he managed to acquire the Congo in central Africa for himself - not for Belgium. For himself. He didn’t have a ton of power to wield in Belgium, so he figured he could get his kicks in Africa. Prior to the Berlin Conference, King Leopold had set up shop in the Congo with the help of an explorer who he had commissioned to enter into treaties with the local tribal leaders. Of course, the local leaders didn’t really understand what the Belgians wanted from them, so the treaties were easy to get signed in exchange for a few gifts. By the time the Berlin Conference rolled around, the European leaders let Leopold have the land he’d already been cultivating.
He did all of this work under the guise of preventing slavery and protecting lands. It was all very philanthropic and humanitarian, which is interesting considering it was all a front.
King Leopold, with the help of his private military force, basically enslaved the locals, demanding they procure ivory and rubber for him to sell abroad. Leading through fear, the military men killed and/or took the hands of workers who didn’t work. Historians seem to agree that somewhere around 10 million locals were killed during Leopold’s reign, though because of poor census data, estimates range anywhere from one to 15 million. The term “crimes against humanity” was coined in response to Leopold’s terror, and eventually, the Belgian government stepped in to take the Congo away from him.
What is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the DRC, wouldn’t gain independence until 1960.
While the atrocities in the Congo were a lot even for other European leaders to comprehend, they illustrate a specific point. King Leopold II never actually went to the Congo, but he made a fortune off of its riches. Also, while his contemporaries may have outwardly condemned his actions, he set the tone for other African colonies. You started to see similar situations all over the continent - locals forced into labor by militant forces. The militant forces were always led by Europeans, but they enlisted African soldiers to perform the most gruesome acts of discipline against the workers, ensuring that production quotas were met at any and all costs. This trans-continental trend created a strong foothold in African politics and economics that many - though importantly, not all - African nations are still struggling to overcome. This makes Africa an easy target for… let’s call them critics, to dismiss collectively along with its people, treating the continent as a monolithic entity rather than a complex terrain that’s been systematically and deliberately destabilized by oppressive and imperialistic overlords.
By the way, depending on your sources and which data points you’re looking at, both the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic rank among the poorest nations in the entire world today.
And now, the story you all came for - what’s going on in the CAR?
The Central African Republic, as I said, is currently one of the poorest nations in the world. It’s completely landlocked, but it has a bunch of rivers running through it, with the Oubangui River forming its southern border with the DRC. It’s comparable in size to France, its former colonizer, and to this day, French is its official language, though it’s not widely spoken.
Most of the population lives in the western portion of the country, with the more interior northern and eastern portions being pretty sparsely populated and less developed. People often rely on waterways to get around, which can cause issues regarding its import and export markets.
Speaking of, its major exports are primarily in agriculture, along with diamonds, gold, and timber. Also, ivory, for some reason, is still a thing.
Only about 15% of the population is Muslim, about 35% still observe indigenous beliefs, and the rest is split between Protestants and Catholics. The conflict between the Muslims and the Christians is pretty central to this story. I mean, what else is new?
Its history mirrors a lot of what we saw in the Congo under Leopold II. European colonizers moved into the region following the Berlin Conference, and after World War I, the French employed very similar tactics as Leopold to exploit the land and its people while filling French coffers. Over the course of 50 years under French rule, the local population declined by about half.
In the late 1950s, opposition to French rule came to a head, with Barthelemy Boganda playing a key role in negotiating independence and establishing the new Central African Republic. Boganda was a Catholic priest who entered politics as an anti-colonialist and anti-racist. He was the first African to earn a seat on the French National Assembly, the lower house of French Parliament, but after getting nowhere, he returned home to form a pro-working class party, MESAN.
By December 1958, the Central African Republic was established with Boganda as its first prime minister. Boganda was set to be its first president, but he died in a plane crash prior to taking office. Of course, foul play is expected. There are reports that there may have been explosives on board, but it’s not hard to believe that the French wouldn’t have been keen on having a civil rights activist-turned politician ruling over the territory. Even though the CAR would have had independence from France, the French still sought to maintain some kind of economic stronghold over the region. A guy like Boganda would have been bad for French business.
Also, maybe his wife was in on the alleged assassination plot to get her hands on his life insurance policy.
So in 1960, his cousin, David Dacko, took over. Dacko was seen as more likely to be accommodating to foreign interests, so he was backed by French officials even though he wasn’t the locals’ first choice to replace Boganda. During Dacko’s initial stint as president, he did a few key things. He established one-party rule and expanded the powers of the presidency, and he expanded the diamond industry, significantly increasing production and cutting. His focus was on rapid growth, but as is usually the case with rapid growth, it comes at a price. The workers and bureaucrats he put in place to facilitate the growth were often corrupt, leading to inefficiencies at all levels of government and production. Dacko struggled to pay their salaries, too, plunging the nation further into economic distress.
On top of all of that, Dacko was still seen as being largely subservient to France, which expectedly, turned people against him. In an effort to assert his autonomy, he cozied up to China, another unpopular stance. So… he got couped.
This kicked off several decades of instability and leadership changes, either by way of elections, coups, or mutinies, with international donors, superpowers, and human rights groups attempting to influence the situation one way or another. At the same time, tensions were growing between different ethnic and religious groups within the CAR, specifically between the northerners and the southerners, the Muslims and the Christians. Since there were a series of different leaders in quick succession, many people were still loyal to certain ones, feeling that their guy was the rightful president and that the current administration was illegitimate. The democratic elections that were held were often disputed, and over the course of time, these grievances just kept compiling, building upon one another.
Fast forward to 2003, François Bozizé assumes power via coup. Almost immediately afterward, rebel groups emerged, plunging the nation into the Central African Bush Wars, a series of civil conflicts that led to death, destruction of property, and the displacement of thousands of residents. By the end of it all… well, it never really ended. There was a brokered ceasefire, but the fighting never really stopped, especially regarding the control of diamond mines. In 2012, Séléka, a mostly Muslim rebel coalition turned on Bozizé. By 2013, Séléka had taken the capital city, Bangui, forcing Bozizé into exile and replacing him with their leader, Michel Djotodia.
There’s a lot of names, I know. I’m sorry.
But here’s another one - anti-balaka. Anti-balaka is a mostly-Christian coalition that started fighting against Séléka. With Séléka, you had a case where a minority group gained unprecedented power in the region and weren’t cool about it. Djotodia was declared illegitimate by leaders of other African nations, and steps were put in place for his removal from office. However, during his short time in office, Djotodia suspended the constitution and dissolved the government and National Assembly. Séléka was also officially disbanded, though ex-Séléka still acted forcefully and brutally against the citizenry with militant force.
By 2014, Djotodia was replaced by Catherine Samba-Panza, someone who was decently liked by both sides and seen as being pretty bipartisan. However, the actions of the anti-balaka had been getting worse, with some onlookers claiming that their anti-Muslim attacks were verging on genocide. Finally, the UN was called in to help keep the peace.
In the 2015 election, Faustin Touadéra was elected as president, having formerly served as prime minister under Bozizé. He ran on a platform of restoring the CAR’s lost economic opportunities and keeping the peace. Bozizé had actually tried to run for office, too, but in both 2015 and 2020, the Constitutional Court barred him from doing so, citing his past crimes, his previous promise to not run for office, and even his generally immoral character. The problem with this was that Bozizé still had a ton of supporters, even while he was still in exile.
When Touadéra was re-elected in December of 2020, many claimed that the election had been rigged and was therefore illegitimate. They may have actually had a point, though - maybe not that the election was rigged, but it was definitely highly flawed. Due to incessant rebel violence, many polling locations were either shut down or inaccessible. There were reports of voter intimidation, and 29 of the nation’s 71 sub-prefectures (which are sort of like sub-provinces) didn’t have any voting at all. In some areas, rebels prevented voter registration leading up to the election and threatened violence prior to and following the election.
On Christmas 2020, two days before the election, rebels attacked national security forces, international peacekeepers, and aid workers despite a ceasefire having been declared. Since Christmas, nearly a quarter-million Central Africans have fled the country in the wake of increased violence, many of them crossing the Oubangui River into the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
This new rebel group, the Coalition of Patriots for Change, or the CPC, is believed to be comprised of former members of both the Séléka and Anti-balaka. It’s also believed that they’re being backed and led by Bozizé, though he denies this. The CPC has been responsible for much of the violence across the nation leading up to the 2020 election, but even before then, they had already taken over much of the country by way of controlling the diamond and gold mines.
Now, they’re hoping to destabilize the re-elected administration, not just by killing, beating, and raping people, but they’re also quite effectively blocking major transportation routes, preventing humanitarian aid from reaching the people who need it most. Doctors Without Borders can’t get to where they need to be. Supply lines have been cut, leading to a food shortage and extremely inflated food prices. Schools have been occupied by rebels and closed. People are literally living in the jungle awaiting some form of help or salvation.
And that pretty much brings us up to date.
I wish there was a happier or more optimistic note to end on, but there really isn’t. Officials say that the election results will hold despite continued violence and intimidation attempts from rebels, and aid workers are making some progress here and there, though not nearly enough. The U.S., for its part, is largely uninvolved in the conflict apart from providing aid, but Russia is providing military support to Touadéra.
It seems like most of the time, these stories have sad endings. Maybe every once in a while you’ll get a somewhat satisfying resolution to a conflict, but more often than not, these stories leave you feeling incredibly helpless, which is worse than just feeling sad. In most cases, people abroad have the option to donate to charities and humanitarian groups, but this time, you can’t even do that much.
There’s also a tendency for Americans or people in more-developed nations to adopt a savior complex regarding less-developed nations. You know what I’m talking about… the missionaries or wannabe philanthropists who travel to Guatemala or Uganda, only to perpetuate the cycle of disregarding the culture, beliefs, and ways of life of the country they’re visiting while enforcing their own culture, beliefs, and ways of life on them because their way is supposedly better. Then, they return home to their comparably luxurious lives to disparage the local populations while patting themselves on the back for being so empathetic, charitable, and Christ-like.
Alright, before you all call me a hater, yes, I know that many places and people do need and welcome help. Obviously they do. And they need volunteers and workers to deliver and administer foreign aid. Of course they do. And yes, I fully believe that there are people with all of the purest intentions and selfless desires to help people who need help without asking for anything in return. I like to think I’m one of them. What concerns me is that part of helping others involves listening to their specific needs and concerns, understanding the whys behind what they believe, how they’ve chosen or have been forced to live, their history, their diversity, their beauty. There’s also danger in assuming you have all the answers to a problem that you don’t fully grasp and probably never will.
I actually just watched the movie “Blood Diamond” again the other day, completely unrelated to me working on this story. There was a scene when Leo’s character meets up with Jennifer Connelly’s character. She plays an American reporter. He asks her,
“You come here with your laptop computers, your malaria medicine and your little bottles of hand sanitizer and think you can change the outcome, huh?”
He goes on to say,
“Peace Corps types only stay around long enough... to realize they're not helping anyone. Government only wants to stay in power... until they've stolen enough to go into exile somewhere else. And the rebels, they're not sure they want to take over. Otherwise, they'd have to govern this mess.”
The two characters take opposite approaches to the injustices they see. Leo stays within the lines, adapting to the situation as it is, getting by as he can until he can finally get out. Jennifer wants to help but at every turn, finds herself feeling helpless, insignificant, and disillusioned.
Still, she never stops trying to help, and ultimately, through a few small, collective acts, she’s able to make an actual difference for a man and his family.
But that’s Hollywood.
I do want to address one thing very quickly - the actual blood diamond thing. A lot of people, myself included, have no interest in purchasing a diamond from one of these regions. They call them “conflict diamonds,” but of course, similar practices aren’t limited to just diamonds. With anything, you need to be careful of what your dollar is supporting and enabling, but I do want to mention that many people working in these mines depend on the income they receive, however insufficient it may be. While it’s nice to boycott an entire industry on the premise that things should be different and that the workers should be paid adequately for the work they do and the goods they produce, “shoulds” can be easy to hide behind from an ocean away, and they don’t take into account the massive cultural, economical, and governmental overhauls that would be required for those “shoulds” to become realities. Just something to consider.
Anyway, that’s it for this episode. As always, I truly, truly appreciate you taking the time to listen. If you’d like to read a transcript of this episode, or if you’d like to support this podcast, you can do so at globalthread.org. Any and all contributions are greatly appreciated! Thanks for being here. I’ll talk to y’all soon.