(Reuters) - 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 “marginalized”, while internationally-backed security reforms and plans to disarm and demobilize the rebels became stalled, sowing the seeds for the revival of insurgency.
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.
Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Philippa Fletcher