* Rebel push forces President Bozize to power sharing talks
* Isolation, neglect have fuelled rural rebellions
* History of French military meddling is over - Hollande
* Future of Bozize, general of Bokassa's empire, is unclear
By Pascal Fletcher
JOHANNESBURG, Jan 7 The French dubbed it the
neglected "Cinderella" of their African colonial empire; modern
observers have called it a "phantom state".
Landlocked, isolated and poverty stricken despite reserves
of gold, timber, uranium and gemstone quality diamonds, Central
African Republic has been racked by rural rebellions for more
than a decade.
In the latest flare-up, loosely-allied insurgents, demanding
an end to years of exclusion from government, closed in on the
capital Bangui over Christmas and the New Year, forcing
President Francois Bozize to agree to talks about his future.
These negotiations under the auspices of the Central African
regional grouping ECCAS are to open in Libreville, Gabon this
week. They have the backing of the U.N. Security Council, which
says CAR's crisis cannot be resolved militarily.
While lacking the strategic attention gained by other
African hotspots such as Somalia, Mali or eastern Congo, Central
African Republic nonetheless remains a festering sore of
instability at the heart of an economically buoyant continent.
Some of the root causes of this lie in its history as a
colonial backwater. This was compounded after independence in
1960 by a history of coups and bloody mutinies, French military
meddling, and an interlude of rule by one of the world's most
bizarre and extravagant modern-day emperors, Bokassa I.
Bozize, who served as general in Bokassa's 1976-79 "Empire"
and then seized power in a 2003 coup before winning a 2005
election, opened a so-called Inclusive Political Dialogue with
his rebel foes in 2008.
But his failure to deliver genuine power sharing, followed
by his re-election in 2011 polls which the opposition boycotted
over alleged fraud, has led directly to the December offensive
by the Seleka, or Alliance, of five armed rebel groups.
"There is a frustration that has grown and grown with
Bozize's way of governing, which has been very uninclusive,"
said Louisa Lombard, a post-doctoral fellow in the University of
California, Berkley's Geography Department who has studied the
Central African insurgencies.
As Seleka fighters swept to within 75 km (45 miles) of
Bangui in December, capturing a string of major towns from
retreating government forces, Bozize said he was willing to
share power, and would not stand for a third term in 2016.
But he says he intends to finish his current mandate,
rejecting a rebel demand he quit immediately.
"NEW GAME IN AFRICA"
Experts point to the absence of economic development and
government control in Central African Republic's bush interior
as a major driver of discontent and revolt in a nation slightly
larger than France, but with a population of only 4.5 million.
This is seen as an inheritance of colonial times, when the
territory, named Oubangui-Chari after two prominent local
rivers, was an isolated and neglected outpost between better
developed French possession in Chad and Congo Brazzaville.
In recent years, CAR's extensive borders have been porous
and unprotected, with armed intruders from Chad, Sudan and
Democratic Republic of Congo crossing at will to raid villages
and poach wildlife, joining local bandits known as "zaraguinas".
A 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable from Bangui bluntly calls
Central African Republic "a country defined by its borders on
the map and not by effective state control of its territory".
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group termed it "a
phantom state" in a 2007 report.
After the end of colonial rule by France in 1960, Central
African Republic had the dubious distinction of being the state
that experienced the most frequent and blatant French military
interference in the continent's post-independence history.
French soldiers, known locally as "barracudas" after
France's 1979 "Operation Barracuda" that removed Emperor Bokassa
from power, have over the years installed and ejected CAR
leaders and helped quash rebellions and mutinies.
As recently as 2006 and 2007, French Mirage jets helped
government soldiers repel insurgents in the restless northeast.
But those days of cosy 'France-Afrique' ties are over,
French President Francois Hollande said at the end of December.
Despite appeals by Bozize to "our cousins" Paris and
Washington for help, France said its several hundred troops in
its landlocked former colony were there solely to protect French
nationals and interests and not the local government.
"This time the message was very clear, that 'we are not here
to save the regime'," said Thierry Vircoulon, Central Africa
project director for International Crisis Group.
He said France was now backing the use of a regional African
peacekeeping force, MICOPAX, to prevent another "battle of
Bangui" of the kind seen several times in past years when rebels
or mutinous troops ran amok in the ramshackle riverside capital,
killing and raping civilians and looting homes and businesses.
"Paris is playing a new game in Africa now ... and that is
that the region is handling its own crises," Vircoulon said.
"A FAILED STATE"
France still has the biggest mining investment in CAR, a
uranium mine at Bakouma in the southeast which is being
developed by French nuclear energy group Areva.
Estimated to hold some 32,000 tonnes of uranium, the Bakouma
project has suffered delays due to fluctuations in uranium
prices. In June, armed raiders looted food and computer gear
from the Bakouma site but there were no staff casualties.
The December rebel offensive from the northeast forced one
foreign investor, junior Canadian-listed gold mining company
Axmin, to make a force majeure announcement after its
operating camp was briefly occupied by rebel fighters.
In general, Central African Republic's mineral riches remain
largely undeveloped, due to a combination of logistical problems
in getting exports out of the landlocked country, restrictive
government bureaucracy, corruption and instability.
For long-time observers of the CAR, the rekindling of the
rebellion was a foregone conclusion after the failure of the
2008 peace process to form a genuinely inclusive government.
"There was a minor shuffle and opposition figures were given
insignificant ministries, but the result cannot be viewed as a
true power sharing accord," then U.S. ambassador, Frederick B.
Cook, wrote in a 2009 diplomatic cable revealed by Wikileaks.
Cook, who has since retired from the U.S. foreign service,
was blunt in his assessments of Bozize, calling him "leader of a
failed state", according to other 2009 cables.
The sense of exclusion among opponents of Bozize worsened
after 2011 presidential and legislative elections which handed a
sweeping re-election victory to the president and his Kwa Na Kwa
party but were boycotted as fraudulent by the opposition.
An internal European Commission report said opposition
candidates were "marginalised", while internationally-backed
security reforms and plans to disarm and demobilise the rebels
became stalled, sowing the seeds for the revival of insurgency.
GENERAL UNDER BOKASSA
Bozize remains a contentious figure, who rose to prominence
during the rule of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, a much decorated veteran
of France's colonial wars who seized power in a 1965 coup.
According to a 1997 book, "Dark Age. The Political Odyssey
of Emperor Bokassa" by historian Brian Titley, Bozize was
promoted from second-lieutenant to general by Bokassa after he
hit a Frenchman who was showing disrespect to the president.
Bokassa had himself crowned Central African Emperor in 1977
in a $22 million ceremony bankrolled by France - an extravaganza
of pomp in a pauper state that was pilloried around the world.
Titley said Bozize and another of Bokasa's generals,
Josephat Mayomokola, were ordered by the Emperor to suppress
student-led protests in 1979, along with the elite imperial
guard. Dozens of people were killed in Bangui's poor suburbs.
The arrest and deaths in jail of schoolchildren in these
protests destroyed Bokassa's relationship with main backer
France and led to his ouster by French paratroops in 1979.
More than two decades later, with no sign of "les paras"
coming to Bozize's rescue, his political future looks uncertain.
But there is uncertainty too over who might replace him, as
his rebel foes are themselves diverse and divided, split between
bush guerrilla leaders and exiled politicians and spokesmen.
"What unites everyone is a hatred of Bozize, but whether
that proves strong enough to hold them together is an open
question," said Lombard.