DURBAN, South Africa (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 its reserves of gold, timber, uranium and gemstone quality diamonds, Central African Republic has been racked by debilitating rebellions for more than a decade.
In the latest revolt, fighters from a loose rebel alliance demanding an end to years of exclusion from government seized control of the riverside capital Bangui on Sunday, forcing President Francois Bozize to flee.
Bozize’s toppling by the rebel Seleka coalition is another setback for efforts in Africa to build solid foundations of constitutional rule to accompany the continent’s buoyant economic growth in an otherwise troubled global economy.
It is particularly embarrassing for South Africa, which is seeking to project itself as an influential regional power on the continent this week as it hosts a summit of the BRICS emerging states and welcomes new Chinese President Xi Jinping on his first visit to Africa as head of state.
South African troops, in Central African Republic under a defense cooperation agreement, suffered losses fighting alongside government soldiers in a failed attempt to stop the rebels entering Bangui and to keep Bozize in power.
While lacking the strategic attention gained by other African hotspots such as Mali, Somalia or eastern Congo, Central African Republic has nevertheless been a festering sore of instability at the heart of an economically rising continent.
Some of the root causes of this lie in a colonial history of isolation and neglect. This was compounded after independence in 1960 by coups and bloody mutinies, French military meddling and rule by one of the world’s most bizarre and extravagant dictators, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, self-styled Emperor Bokassa I.
Bozize, a veteran military strongman who served as a general in Bokassa’s 1977-79 “Empire” and later seized power in a 2003 coup before winning a 2005 election, had 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 disputed 2011 polls which the opposition boycotted over alleged fraud, led directly to the offensive by the Seleka coalition of five armed rebel groups.
Fighters from Seleka, which means “alliance” in the local Sango language, had already closed in on Bangui in December, forcing Bozize to agree to a mid-January power-sharing deal that saw the formation of a national unity government.
But last week the rebels ended the ceasefire accord, accusing Bozize of failing to keep his promise to send the South African troops home and incorporate 2,000 rebels into the army.
“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 at the University of California, Berkeley who has studied the Central African insurgencies.
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 remote and neglected outpost between better developed French possessions 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 2007.
After the end of France’s colonial African empire in 1960, Central African Republic had the dubious distinction of being the state that experienced the most frequent French military interference in the continent’s post-independence history.
French soldiers, known locally as “barracudas” after France’s 1979 “Operation Barracuda” regime change that removed 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 while France launched a major military intervention in the Sahel state of Mali in January to drive back al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters it considers a serious regional threat, President Francois Hollande has made clear he does not view the revolt against Bozize in the same strategic light.
Despite appeals by Bozize to “our cousins” Paris and Washington for help, France has insisted its several hundred troops in its landlocked ex-colony are there solely to protect French nationals and interests and not the local government.
France said on Sunday it would send more troops to Bangui to protect its more than 1,000 citizens there.
For long-time observers of Central African Republic, the rekindling of the rebellion was a foregone conclusion after the failure of the 2008 process to form an 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”, who presided over a “kleptocratic government”, according to other 2009 cables.
The sense of exclusion among opponents of Bozize worsened after the 2011 presidential and legislative elections handed a sweeping re-election victory to the president and his Kwa Na Kwa party, under the opposition’s boycott.
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 Bokassa, a much decorated veteran of France’s colonial wars who seized power in a 1966 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 Bokassa’s generals, Josephat Mayomokola, along with the elite imperial guard, were ordered by the Emperor to suppress student-led protests in 1979. 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 three decades later, the Seleka rebels who have toppled Bozize say they want to organize national talks and a transition to democratic elections.
But there are questions about whether this can end the cycle of instability in Central African Republic. The rebels who have replaced Bozize are themselves diverse and divided, split between bush guerrilla leaders and exiled politicians.
“What unites everyone is a hatred of Bozize, but whether that proves strong enough to hold them together is an open question,” said Lombard.
(This story corrects dates of Central African Empire to 1977-79 from 1997-99 in ninth paragraph)
Reporting by Pascal Fletcher