Background: The Varied Causes of Conflict in CAR

Central African Republic’s Violent Political History

Since gaining independence in 1960, the poverty-stricken Central African Republic (CAR) has experienced dictatorial rule, corruption, and severe political instability. Almost without exception, every ruler of the CAR since independence—David Dacko (1960-66), Jean-Bédel Bokassa (1966-1979), David Dacko (1979-1981), André Kolingba (1981-1993), Ange Félix Patassé (1993-2003), and the current President, General François Bozizé (2003-current)1—either came to power or was ultimately overthrown in a military coup. In the last decade alone, the CAR has witnessed at least 10 military coup attempts and army mutinies, and an almost constant state of rebellion.

CAR’s neighbors—Chad, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Cameroon—have all involved themselves in the political dramas of the country, but France, the former colonial power, continues to play a dominant and influential role in deciding who governs. The CAR has also been affected by conflicts in neighboring Sudan, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with rebel groups and government forces from neighboring countries freely using remote rural areas as rear bases or for military operations.2  This has created a significant flow of small arms, further fueling instability, particularly in northern CAR. Conflict in its neighbors has also generated refugee flows into the CAR, which is housing some 11,000 recognized refugees from Sudan, Chad, and the DRC.3

The roots of the latest round of instability and conflict lie in the final years of the government of former President Ange Félix Patassé, who came to power in elections in 1993 and who was overthrown in a military coup by his former army chief of staff, General Francois Bozizé in March 2003. Patassé faced several military coups and army mutinies in his 10 years of rule, leading to deep ethnic divisions in the military, as the mutineers accused Patassé of tribalism and ethnic favoritism.4 A succession of military uprisings in 1996 led the Presidents of Burkina Faso, Gabon, Mali, and Chad to hammer out a peace accord, known as the Bangui Agreements, between Patassé and the mutineers, and to support the deployment of a 500-strong regional African peacekeeping force, the Inter-African Mission to Monitor the Implementation of the Bangui Agreements (Mission de surveillance des accords de Bangui, MISAB).5

In May 2001 former President André Kolingba, who had lost power to Patassé in the 1993 Presidential elections, sponsored an unsuccessful military coup which set off a series of events that ultimately led to Patassé’s removal. After the coup attempt, the president accused his Army Chief of Staff, François Bozizé, of involvement and fired him on October 26, 2001. Bozizé rallied troops to resist his sacking, but was ultimately forced to leave for exile in southern Chad. These events deeply split and weakened the CAR armed forces—the Central African Armed Forces (Forces armées Centrafricaines, FACA)—dividing it between Patassé and Bozizé loyalists.

On October 25, 2002, Bozizé launched another rebel offensive against Patassé, bringing his rebel troops to the outskirts of the capital, Bangui. Unable to rely on his weakened army, Patassé obtained the support of forces of the Congolese rebel Jean-Pierre Bemba’s Congo Liberation Movement (Mouvement de libération du Congo, MLC), which operated mostly in the southern CAR regions bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo. He also recruited a mostly Chadian mercenary force headed by Chadian-born Abdoulayé Miskine (born Martin Koumtamaji), which operated mostly in northern CAR. Patassé additionally received support from Libyan troops. Both Bemba’s MLC forces and Miskine’s mercenary force committed widespread atrocities, including massacres and rapes, during 2002 and 2003.6

Following the failed October 25, 2002 coup attempt by Bozizé, the regional economic bloc, the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (Communauté économique et monétaire de l’Afrique centrale, CEMAC) deployed a small regional peacekeeping force, the Multinational Force for the CAR (Force Multinationale en Centrafrique, FOMUC), supported by the French government and European Union. FOMUC was tasked with ensuring the security of President Patassé, to assist the CAR forces in securing the country’s borders, and to help restructure the armed forces. Three hundred and eighty FOMUC troops from Chad, Gabon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continue to be deployed in CAR until today and took part in a joint French/CAR military counteroffensive in northeastern CAR in December 2006 to retake rebel-held towns.

Fighting between Bozizé’s rebels, which included many Chadian fighters (some reportedly provided by Chadian President Idriss Déby, others who had joined on their own initiative) and Patassé’s forces continued sporadically from October 2002 to March 15, 2003, when Bozizé finally seized power. The prolonged fighting had a devastating impact in the north, as warring parties looted the civilian population, destroyed the limited state infrastructure, burned many villages, and committed widespread killings and rapes.7 According to international humanitarian officials who were present in northern CAR during both the 2002-2003 and the current fighting, the level of destruction and human rights abuses of the 2002-2003 conflict was at least as serious as during the more recent fighting, although it received even less international attention.8

Economic and social disparities as a source of conflict

The severe poverty of the CAR as a whole, but in particular the glaring economic and social disparities between the north and other areas, 9 especially the region around the capital, Bangui, are significant contributory factors to political instability. The population of the north is marginalized, and many who have joined the rebel movements complain of a lack of salaries and basic services such as schools and hospitals in their communities. The weak State in CAR means that much of the north is outside the control of the security forces. It is a lawless region where shadowy rebel and bandit groups operate freely and often prey on the civilian population.

Even when viewed in its entirety, CAR is shockingly poor. CAR ranks 172 out of 176 countries on the 2006 Human Development Index, and the average life expectancy is only 39 years.10  The most recent figures for maternal and infant mortality rates, an accepted indicator of the state of the health system, are extremely high, 1,355 per 100,000 and 132 per 1,000 in 2003, respectively.11  More than half of the population is illiterate, including more than 80 percent of rural women.12  CAR also has the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the region, with a national average of over 10 percent.13

The situation in the north is even worse. There are no tarred roads or electrified towns, and schools and medical facilities are primitive and understaffed, if functioning at all. In many villages, there are no water pumps to provide clean water. In the most remote areas of northern CAR, state structures are virtually non-existent—there are no police officers, administrative officials, teachers, or health professionals. There are almost no development projects in many parts of the north, in contrast with southern CAR, where the donor community and the World Bank are supporting large-scale development initiatives.

This marginalization is especially profound in the sparsely populated Vakaga province in the northeast, which takes four days of driving over bad roads to reach from the capital, Bangui. The people of the northeast are essentially cut off from the more prosperous south and are indeed physically cut off from the rest of the country during the rainy season, when the poorly constructed roads become impassable. A village leader in Vakaga province explained to Human Rights Watch how this isolation and neglect has fueled rebellion: “Since independence until now, the State has ignored us. We have the problems of bad roads, no hospitals, no schools, no clean water in our communities.”14

CAR’s Security Services and Civilian Protection

A long-standing problem for the civilian population in northern CAR is the failure of the state to afford them protection and the rule of law. In the face of banditry and rebellion they are basically left to fend for themselves. General Lamine Cissé, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in CAR and head of the BONUCA peace-support operation, accurately summed up the security situation when he stated that the security forces are “incapable of making the country feel safe,” and explained this is why the CAR authorities need “international baby-sitting” to deal with the security situation in the north.15

Poverty coupled with decades of political instability and military splits have left the country with security services that are ill-trained, abusive, and inadequate. Such forces are unable to provide effective security for the population of northern CAR. In effect, the CAR security services often find themselves outgunned by better-armed bandit and rebel groups, both local and from neighboring countries.

In most of CAR, but particularly the north, the military does not have barracks to house its troops–most have been destroyed in successive rebellions and mutinies. Troops find their own lodgings in civilian neighborhoods. This is an obstacle to army commanders asserting effective control over their soldiers and contributes to indiscipline, drunkenness, and abuses against the civilian population.16 Troops often do not receive food and other supplies, leading to looting and extortion.

The extremely limited capacity of the military was clearly visible to Human Rights Watch during its work in northern CAR. In Paoua, one of the largest towns affected by the APRD rebellion in the northwest, the local FACA contingent fluctuated between 30 and 60 soldiers, most of whom were out of uniform, undisciplined, and frequently drunk. A single FACA section of approximately 30 persons was responsible for the entire Batangafo-Kabo-Ouandago triangle in Ouham prefecture, which stretches hundreds of kilometers, all of them crammed into a single open landcruiser with a mounted machinegun. Even this section was not permanently based in the triangle, but had recently arrived on temporary deployment.

The population of northern CAR finds itself caught in a dilemma: they want the state to provide protection against bandits and other abusive non-state forces, but they are suffering disproportionately from reprisals and other abuses committed by security forces that ought to be responsible for their protection. Donors find themselves facing a similar dilemma: they want to contribute to building an effective security force in CAR, but do not want to become entangled with a security force with a brutal record of human rights abuses.

Ultimately, a military response to the banditry and insecurity in northern CAR is only a short-term palliative. In order to ensure security, law and order, and the protection of the human rights of the civilian population, CAR needs to establish an effective police force and legal system, with access to justice for victims of human rights abuses, and guaranteed fair trials for everyone.

1 David Dacko was the Prime Minister prior to independence and became CAR’s first President with strong French support. He introduced a one-party system and suspended the constitution in 1962. In the face of a French-backed coup, Dacko resigned in 1966 in favor of his cousin, Jean-Bédel Bokassa. Bokassa’s rule was marked by brutality and massive human rights abuses, as well as erratic behavior, for example when he crowned himself “Emperor” of CAR in 1976. In 1979, Bokassa was ousted in a French-backed coup that brought David Dacko back to power. In 1981, André Kolingba seized power in a military coup and introduced military governance. Donor pressure forced Kolingba to return to civilian governance and hold elections, and in 1993 Kolingba lost in Presidential elections against Ange Félix Patassé. Patassé faced almost continuous military coup attemps and army mutinies, fueled by economic instability, mismanagement, and corruption, before losing power to his former Chief of Staff François Bozizé in March 2003. See Fiona McFarlane and Mark Malan, “Crisis and Response in the Central African Republic: A New Trend in African Peacekeeping,” African Security Review, Vol. 7 No. 2, 1998; Yarisse Zoctizoum, Histoire de la Centrafrique: Violence du développement, domination et inégalités, Vols. 1-2 (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000).

2 For example, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) had bases in the remote northeastern Vakaga province of the Central African Republic for much of the north-south civil war in Sudan (1983-2005), and the Sudanese Armed Forces also used the province to launch attacks against the SPLA in Bahr el-Ghazal during the 1990s. See Small Arms Survey Human Security Baseline Assessment,” A Widening War Around Sudan,” Sudan Issue Brief Number 5, January 2007; Africa Confidential “Enemy’s Enemy,” Vol. 43 No. 7, April 5, 2002; Eric G. Berman, La République Centrafricaine: une étude de cas sur les armes légères et les conflits (Geneva, Small Arms Survey Special Report, June 2006); “CAR: Report on the Anticipated Sudanese Peace Accord,” IRIN, March 24, 2004. In April 2006, Chadian rebels launched an offensive on N’Djamena partly from bases in the remote Vakaga province of CAR.

3 UNHCR, “Fact Sheet: Central African Republic,” February 2007.

4 McFarlane and Marlan, “Crisis and Response in the Central African Republic”.

5 Ibid.

6 Fédération Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l’Homme (FIDH), “War Crimes in Central African Republic: When  Elephants Fight, the Grass Suffers,”  (Crimes de Guerre en République centrafricaine : Quand les éléphants se battent, c’est l’herbe qui souffre,)  no 355,  February 13, 2003, (accessed July 11, 2007); FIDH, “Central African Republic: Forgotten, Stigmatised: The Double Suffering of Victims of International Crimes,” (République centrafricaine: Oubliées, stigmatisées: la double peine des victimes de crimes internationaux) no 457, October 12, 2006, (Hereinafter, FIDH, “Forgotten, Stigmatised.”), (accessed July 11, 2007). The widespread crimes committed by Bemba and Miskine’s troops in and around Bangui since October 2002 caused human rights groups like the Fédération Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l’Homme (FIDH) to call for the ICC to investigate the situation in CAR in February 2003. In December 2004 the government of CAR referred the situation of crimes committed on CAR territory during the 2002-2003 to the ICC. On May 22, 2007, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo formally announced that he would open an investigation into crimes committed in the CAR from 2002-2003.

7 United Nations Human Rights Committee, “Central African Republic: Consideration of Country Situation in the Absence of State Report,” July 22, 2004; FIDH, “Forgotten, Stigmatised.”

8 Human Rights Watch interview with international humanitarian official who was present during 2002-2003 fighting as well as the current conflict, northern CAR, February 2007.

9 United Nations, “Consolidated Appeal for the Central African Republic 2007”, November 30, 2006, (accessed June 18, 2007).

10 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Human Development Report 2006 (New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2006).

11 Humanitarian Community Partnership Team CAR, “Central African Republic Fact Sheet,” February 2007.

12 UNDP, Human Development Report 2006.

13 UNAIDS, “Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic 2006”, May 2006, (accessed June 18, 2007).

14 Human Rights Watch interview with a community leader, Ouandja, February 24, 2007.

15 FIDH, “Forgotten, Stigmatised,” p. 48.

16 When asked what needed to change to stop military abuses, one FACA commander told Human Rights Watch that the first priority was to construct proper barracks for the soldiers: “We need to reconstruct the barracks, because soldiers and their commanders need to be on bases so they can be trained and supervised. If the soldiers stay with the civilians, there are always problems.”  Human Rights Watch interview with Lt. Armand Djongasso, Batangafo, February 19, 2007.