Violent and Chaotic, Central African Republic Lurches Toward a Crisis

Adam Nossiter, New York Times, August 7, 2013

The two men lay still in the back of the pickup truck, staring up. Over them stood the uniformed rebels, rifles pointing out as the truck sped forward.

The rebels had just picked up two more citizens, caught reading fliers calling for a general strike, their friends said shortly after. Beaten as they were shoved into the truck, the men were unlikely to be heard from again, the friends feared. A similar seizure had occurred nearby the day before. Four had been shot dead and dozens wounded protesting another abduction less than a week before that.

The rebels, known as Seleka, or “alliance” in the Sango language, make the law in the Central African Republic, where coups and violent seizures of power have outnumbered fair elections four to one since independence.

Now, even their handpicked prime minister calls the country’s condition “catastrophic.” The rebels have held unchecked sway since they swarmed into this bedraggled capital in March, looting, abducting, raping and killing—even breaking into an orphanage to steal whatever they could, according to Amnesty International.

With its suffering largely cut off from the outside world, this landlocked former French colony, population 5.1 million, has catapulted into place as one of Africa’s most troubled countries. It has a rebel leader occupying its presidential palace, an ousted president who fled for his life into exile and a Constitution that protected residents’ rights minimally before being suspended.

Nowadays, the rebels cruise conspicuously in their Toyota Hilux pickups in the sparse traffic here, ragtag fighters from the lawless north, some of them Chadians, turbaned or wearing looted fatigues, guns bristling. Rifle-wielding boys as young as 12 have been spotted in the trucks. The men are accustomed to living in the bush, but in the capital there is not much left to steal. Many of the battered storefronts are shuttered or empty. The citizens keep their distance; everyone has an abduction story.

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“It’s anarchy, a nonstate,” said the prime minister, Nicolas Tiangaye, a former human rights lawyer kept on by the rebel leadership as the emissary to an outside world that does not recognize it. “Looting, arson, rape, massacres of the civilian population—they are sowing terrorism,” he said, staring at the floor in his darkened office.

Local residents have accused Seleka rebels of killing 15 people last month because the minibus in which they were riding contained T-shirts supporting the deposed president; the bodies of seven, recovered from the Ubangi River, showed signs of torture. The International Federation for Human Rights, a French group that sent a delegation here, said the rebels had killed more than 400 people since they took power.

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The United States abandoned its embassy here months ago. “Now we are in a phantom state,” said a Western diplomat who has stayed on here. “It’s extremely dangerous. People are afraid for the future, and they are right.”

The crisis has been a long time in the making. Isolated in the middle of the continent, with few roads out or natural resources, the Central African Republic became independent in 1960 after a brutal six-decade colonial reign by France. But the former colonial power would continue to meddle in the cycles of coups, rebellions and violent transitions that have marked the country’s history ever since, though it is taking a back seat now. “Weariness” has overtaken Western officials faced with the turmoil, the diplomat here said.

The state had already nearly disappeared under the corrupt rule of Mr. Bozizé, who was president for 10 years before being chased out by the rebels. He had led a previous rebellion himself and is now in hiding, probably in the region, though even the government says that is not certain.

The rebels emerged from the barren, more-Muslim north, angered at the neglect of a region inaccessible from the capital for half of the year because of heavy rains and poor roads, accusing the president of reneging on an agreement to integrate some of their fighters into the army.

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