Central African politicians recognize that one of the best ways to draw attention to their beleaguered home is to play up the “bad neighborhood” they found themselves in, through no fault of their own. In 2010 and 2011 donors and diplomats in Bangui became increasingly frustrated with then-President François Bozizé’s not-quite-overt-but-nevertheless-obvious efforts to stack the National Assembly in his favor so he could change the constitution (which he had himself written!) and stay in power longer than the two-term legal limit. But they felt their hands were tied. Better undemocratic Bozizé than the further encroachment of regional anarchy -- the Lord’s Resistance Army, Baba Laddé’s Peuhl freedom fighter-bandits, and so forth -- this usually unstated reasoning seemed to go.
In the end, Bozizé overplayed his hand. He kept tightening his grip on power without realizing that at some point he would be straining so hard that even just a tickle would cause him to lose everything. The result, as we all know, has been a huge amount of suffering over these past months of violence, mistrust, and uncertainty in the country.
I have had occasion to (re)immerse myself in the classics of CAR history, and I’ve been struck by how longstanding the problem of regional politics determining donor stances toward the country has been. Throughout its history as an independent country, interested outsiders (bi- and multi-lateral diplomats) have allowed concern over conflict and instability in the region more broadly determine their positions on CAR leaders’ maneuverings.
David Dacko, the country’s first president, played this card expertly, as colonial administrator-turned-CAR-historian Pierre Kalck described:
A select constitutional committee met in October 1960 to define the means of choosing the first President. Goumba suggested that a minimum age of forty should be fixed, thereby putting both Dacko and himself out of the running, but the committee could not arrive at a decision. Dacko consequently felt more encouraged to work out his own way of staying in power, knowing he could count on the support of the French circles in Bangui, who were prepared to do all they could to strengthen his authority if it meant avoiding a crisis like that in the Congo. In effect, over the last few months, Dacko had been drawing up a number of measures that were destined to put an end to the democratic regime Boganda [the incarnation of the independence ideals] had cherished so dearly (120-121).
Dacko went on to place his adversary Abel Goumba under house arrest. Meanwhile, the Assembly debated what was of utmost importance to them: “namely, the sale-price of whisky, champagne, and lemonade, and why the prices were different in the cafés in the town and in the bar attached to the Assembly” (124). Dacko lasted four years in power before being ousted in a coup.
My discipline, anthropology, is far better suited to describing problems than finding solutions to them. As Clifford Geertz, writing in 1966, memorably reflected on the aporia of the research on development challenges facing the “new states”,
one result of very extended, very thorough, periods of careful research is usually a much keener realization that the new states are indeed in something of a fix. The emotion this sort of reward for patient labors produces is rather like that I imagine Charlie Brown to feel when, in one “Peanuts” strip, Lucy says to him: “You know what the trouble with you is Charlie Brown? The trouble with you is you’re you.” After a panel of worless appreciation for the cogency of this observation, Charlie asks: “Well, whatever can I do about that?” and Lucy replies: “I don’t give advice. I just point out the roots of the problem” (142).
That being said, I’ll hazard a suggestion. It would appear to be possible to draw from the unfortunate pattern of CAR politics described above the conclusion that regional stability would ultimately be better served by substantive democracy in CAR, not by the propping-up, however half-hearted or ambivalent, of an antidemocratic president.