In March 2013, the widely unloved François Bozizé was violently ousted as president of the Central African Republic. The government that succeeded him issued an international warrant for his arrest for incitement to genocide, but it has fallen in turn. And now Bozizé, without any apparent shame, hopes to return to lead his people to, well, what exactly? Will this poor god-forsaken country ever catch a break? By RICHARD POPLAK.
When I visited the Central African Republic last year, I found myself sitting across from a young man named Captain Ahmed Nedjad Ibrahim. He had a story to tell about the former president François Bozizé, who now hopes to return in order to run for the office from which he was forcibly flung in 2013.
About five years ago, when Captain Ibrahim was studying computer engineering in Bangui, he was picked up one night by “Bozize’s children.” He meant “children” both figuratively and literally—the president’s sons formed the core of CAR’s military and intelligence services (such as there were any), partly because Bozizé’s paranoia didn’t allow him to trust anyone other than his own kin, but mostly because CAR has always functioned as a nepotocracy.
Anyway, Bozizé’s Children chose Ibrahim because he was a Muslim from the restive north of the country. They stuffed him into a sack along with three other men, sprayed the sack with machine-gun fire, and dumped it into the Oubangui River. Later that night, a passerby opened the sack, and Ibrahim was the only one to crawl out alive—emerging as a born-again radicalized Muslim guerrilla. As a member of the Séléka rebel group, he locked and loaded and came looking for the president. By the time the Séléka rolled into Bangui in March 2013, killing thirteen South African National Defense Force peacekeepers en route to the presidential palace, Ibrahim served as one of the group’s national spokespersons.
When I met Ibrahim, we sat on low-slung couches in a makeshift headquarters in a warren of back allies in Bambari. The small city lurks bang in the middle of the country bang in the middle of Africa, divided in half by the Ouaka River. The French describe this place as “the fracture zone”—the line that separates Christians in the south from Muslims in the north, and the de facto frontline of the civil war. But Bambari is also along the tenth parallel, the line of longitude that divides Christian south from Muslim north all the way from West Africa to the Philippines. The tenth parallel is, in other words, the New World Order. And CAR perfectly articulates its terms.
Photo: Captain Ahmed Nedjad Ibrahim (Photo: Richard Poplak)
It didn’t have to be this way, though. While Ibrahim certainly described the Central African civil conflict as a religious war, he was one of the very few who did so. When the troubles properly kicked off in 2012, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands and the displacement of millions, CAR could still say that its 4.5 million citizens were some of the least sectarian-minded in the region. Muslim lived beside Christian, if not in harmony, than at least without mutual beheadings. “It is not a religious war,” explained General Issa Isaka Aubin, who headed up the Séléka in Bangui. “That is just what the politicians want.”
So let’s step back a bit, and consider the career of François Bozizé, who now hopes to rule once more. He was born in Gabon, attended military officers training school in CAR, and was promoted by legendary Big Man and self-proclaimed emperor, Jean-Bédel Bokassa after slapping an insolent Frenchman. He proved cunning if not smart, and was involved in coup attempts aimed at two of his predecessors, the second of which took. In March 2003, with backing from Chad, he entered the capital and relieved Ange-Félix Patassé of his presidential duties.
Bozizé had by no means starved in the lead up to his own maligned presidency, but he now ate with abandon. He won an election campaign widely believed to be fraudulent, and committed himself to fleecing the joint (as have all of CAR’s leaders—with the full encouragement of the French and their regional handmaidens.) It was nearly impossible for CAR to get worse, but under Bozizé it most certainly did: the country ranks 180th on the 187-country United Nations development index, and longevity stood at a miserable 49.1 years prior to the onset of the war.
If there was a centre to this swirl of chaos, it must be the onset of the Central African Bush War, which kicked off in the north of the country in 2007. The grandly named shoot ‘em up focused on a province called Vakaga, which was viciously slaved by the Sudanese and is nearly empty of people. And yet there is oil in Vakaga—or rather the promise thereof—and almost no development whatsoever. A range of rebel groups formed in order to fight for succession, and Bozizé made them a number of promises he had no intention of keeping. The biggest town in Vakaga was flattened with the backing of the French, and lo!—the Séléka took shape, led by Michel Djotodia, the man destined to take Bozizé’s place.
Come 2012, Bozizé looked around for his backers, and learned that they had deserted him. He offered the following lament before his fall:
There are no political prisoners at the moment, the press is free. Why did they start raping, killing and hurting the Central African population? We gave them everything. Before giving oil to the Chinese, I met Total in Paris and told them to take the oil; nothing happened. I gave oil to the Chinese and it became a problem. I sent [a representative to] Paris for the Uranium dossier, they refused. I finally gave it to the South Africans.
This little speech serves as a précis of the CARian condition: it is a place to be plundered. After Djotodia took Bozizé’s place, the ex-president’s own militias assembled into the anti-balaka (a Songo mash-up of “anti-machete” and “anti-AK”), and the prelude to a genocidal bloodbath took shape. The Muslim population was shipped up north to the fracture zone by the French, who through their UN-mandated Operation Sangaris had sworn to restore order in the country. Francois Hollande came to Bangui and assured the world he had no intention of partitioning the country.
But spend an hour in Bambari with Captain Ahmed Nedjad Ibrahim, and you learn that the country has been effectively partitioned.
And so CAR balkanizes along the tenth parallel, splitting into factions and factions of factions. François Bozizé was by no means the architect of this mess, but he has the blood of many thousands on his hands, and his rapaciousness certainly served CAR’s masters for a time. There is a growing exasperation with this sort of thing. Right in the middle of a continent that is said to be rising, changing, morphing, there is this suppurating wound—a country that is not a country, but a money-funnel. The tragedy is ultimately visited on CAR’s people, but it debases everyone who comes near it.
CAR isn’t far. It is the global condition writ small. And François Bozizé is returning to remind everyone just how bad it’s all got. It would be hilarious if so many people weren’t dying. And François Bozizé, not a man with a particularly good sense of humour, doesn’t see the non-joke. His return will tear apart what’s left of the country. Which does, come to think of it, sometimes seem like the plan. DM
Photo: Central African Republic President Francois Bozize attends a news conference with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana after their meeting at the EU Council in Brussels, Belgium, 25 October 2007. EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET.
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