Country profile: Central African Republic

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Country Profile: Central African Republic

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In the middle of Africa, the Central African Republic (CAR) – with no coastline and full of forest, is one of the remotest and least-known countries on Earth.

The airport is very small. There are many aid workers, gold prospectors, missionaries, African and French soldiers coming and going – but no tourists. In the last 12 months, tourists have been told "don't come".

When you drive from Bangui airport into the city, you go past some of the most dangerous areas with strange names – like Combatant, Boy Rabe and Bimbo. In the day, these areas are noisy and crowded with markets, small restaurants and many bars. But by nine o’clock in the evening most streets are empty. Families go home, lock their doors and windows and stay quiet. There are groups of burglars with guns walking around the city, breaking into houses and taking cars. There is no security now because of colonialism, fighting, cruel leaders and several violent military coups.

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Women run most of the stalls in Bangui's central market. (Ruby Diamonde)

The French first came to control this area of central Africa (bigger than France), at the end of the 19th century, after they saw all the riches the Belgians had taken from ‘Belgian Congo’ nearby. The French took CAR’s gold and diamonds and timber (wood). They often used forced local labour. White missionaries tried to make everyone Catholic. When the French finally left, in 1958, Bartholemy Boganda (a priest) became the Central African Republic’s first independent leader. Months later he was killed, maybe murdered, in a plane crash. Then there were several dictators. One, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, said he was the ‘Central African Emperor’ in 1976. Bokassa was very powerful and cruel – he sat on a gold eagle throne and he murdered schoolchildren.

In 1979 the French took Bokassa from power. They made a weak man the leader. Then the military took back power. And it continued like this.

These leaders, who were not elected, only helped people from their own ethnic groups. This created a lot of tension across the country. There was a small civil war in northern CAR for years. Peace talks could not stop the violence. The rebels were fighting the government and each other and the civilians suffered. At the end of 2012 a few different rebel groups came together. Their name was Seleka, or ‘Alliance’ in the national Sango language. They said the government betrayed them, and they got a lot of fighters, including mercenaries (people paid to fight) from Chad and Sudan. Three months later they marched into Bangui.

When Seleka tried to take over, killing, raping and stealing, the world suddenly remembered the Central African Republic. All foreigners left the country and civilians escaped to the forest. Seleka became the country’s first Muslim-led government by force. There is often fighting between the majority Christian and minority Muslim populations with some horrifying violence, especially in northern CAR.

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Motorbikes are a common way of travelling around the country (Ruby Diamonde)

After months of state brutality, thousands of local people took over Bangui airport in protest. Seleka President, Michel Djotodia, promised to bring back lawful control. Regional peacekeepers are now trying to take away all the weapons. But different people are fighting for power inside Seleka, and large areas of the country have no law. For most Central Africans, small farmers, life is a physical struggle. They are afraid of politics. It has been in near chaos for years, but he most amazing thing about this beautiful, fragile country is that it has not collapsed.

Country Profile: Central African Republic Fact File

Leader President Michel Am-Nondokro Djotodia.

Economy GNI per capita $470 (Cameroon $1,210, France $42,420).

Monetary unit Central African CFA franc, shared with Cameroon, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

Main exports diamonds, precious metals and timber have traditionally been CAR’s strongest exports, followed by cotton, beeswax, spices and coffee. But there is no organisation in the country now because of years of conflict, military coups and neglect. So very few exports now.

People 4.5 million. Annual population growth rate 1990-2011 2.0%. People per square kilometre 7 (UK 257).

Health Infant mortality 108 per 1,000 live births (Cameroon 79, France 3). Malaria is a major child killer. Because of the political crises, and stealing from hospitals and clinics, the healthcare system is very bad.

Culture There are more than 80 different ethnic groups across the country, the largest are the Gbaya, the Banda and the Mandjia. The M’Baka forest peoples (also called “pygmies”) are 4-7% of the population, and they live in the equatorial forests of southwestern CAR. Muslims have come from Chad and Sudan to live in the north and east.

Religion Christians (mainly Catholic) 80%, Muslims 10-15%. Indigenous beliefs are also celebrated.

Language The official language is French but the national language is Sango. In rural areas many people speak only basic French, and Arabic is also widely spoken in the north.

Human development index 0.352 – 180th of 187 countries (Cameroon 0.495, France 0.893).

Country Profile: Central African Republic in detail

Income distribution International investors have left, and many businesses have collapsed due to Seleka groups looting (stealing and destroying). Outside the capital, most people survive by growing their own food and small-scale trading.

Life expectancy 48 years – the world’s joint lowest. This is because of very bad health resources, dangerous types of malaria and respiratory infections, and poverty.

Position of women Foreign Minister Banga Bothy Leonie is one very good woman in a position of power. Many have said Seleka have raped young women and girls. People often say widows with no children are witches.

Literacy 56%. Many rural schools have not reopened this year, because Seleka demands money from teachers, and parents to keep their children safe.

Freedom When Seleka came to power, a culture of fear spread across the country. The Bagui government is now trying to improve, but it will be difficult to control the Seleka rebels, and other groups of fighters in the bush. Sexual minorities Homosexuality is technically legal but there is little toleration of it. Other sexual-minority statuses are not really understood.

Reviewed before 2001

NI Assessment (Politics) The public are angry at Seleka’s terrible violations of human-rights, and other countries are criticising the new regime, and this is having an effect. But in villages across the country, where life is already very difficult, people still live in fear of Seleka rebels. There is no real political opposition. It is very important to keep the international pressure on Seleka. The elections planned for the end of 2014 must give Central Africans a real opportunity to make their leaders change.

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: http://newint.org/columns/country/2013/12/01/central-african-republic/