The Christian majority in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, are reported to be impatient and disillusioned with the French army intervention, which at first they welcomed.
The Muslim minority are reported to be flatly hostile.
France has long had troops in the CAR, and has been the power behind CAR thrones ever since the country became formally independent from French rule in 1960. France’s decision on 5 December 2013 to send 1,600 French troops onto the streets of Bangui, together with 4,000 troops from nearby African countries (all also countries where France has heavy influence), was spurred by a collapse of government in the country.
The collapse was and is real, not an excuse. About one million of the CAR’s five million people have fled their homes. At least a thousand have died. In Bangui, 100,000 people are sheltering in a refugee camp near the French-controlled airport.
What is now the CAR was a marginal part of France’s colonial empire. The territory was seized in the 1880s more as part of geopolitical ambition than with specific plans to develop it. By 1960 France had realised that it would do better to give formal independence to its colonies quickly, and be in a position heavily to influence the new governments, than delay and be forced out by militant nationalist movements as it had been forced out of Vietnam and would soon be forced out of Algeria.
The unit given independence as the CAR had no access to the sea, and borders which were drawn for the convenience of imperial officials and diplomats, rather than reflecting real frontiers of geography, language, or culture.
The CAR’s longest borders are with Chad in the north and the war-wracked Democratic Republic of Congo in the south. It also has borders with South Sudan and Sudan in the east, and Cameroon and Congo in the west. It is close to the exact geographical centre of Africa. Most of its trade, at least its legal trade, moves through Cameroon, which itself has only mediocre transport links.
On official figures the CAR is one of the poorest countries in Africa, despite having large mineral wealth (uranium, gold, diamonds) and fertile land for cash crops such as cotton. It may be a bit less poor, or at least some people in the CAR may be less poor, because much of its trade is illegal and unreported in official figures.
Wealth is very unequally distributed. The majority of the people suffer low life expectancies and the scrappiest of education and health provision. Some people have become very rich, most notoriously Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who rose in the French army through service in Indochina and then became ruler of the CAR, under French protection, from 1966 to 1979, when the French finally lost patience and replaced him by David Dacko.
The CAR is large in land area, about the size of the Ukraine or Texas, but much of its north is sparsely populated. Most of the population is concentrated in the south west, near the capital, Bangui, which has 700,000 people.
In March 2013, power was seized by a rebel militia called Seleka. The French military presumably reckoned that the incumbent ruler was too unpopular and unreliable to be worth defending (the CAR army made no attempt to halt the rebel forces), and that it could do business with Seleka.
Seleka originated with some rebel groups in the north, where much of the CAR’s 10% Muslim minority live. By the time it took power it had gained strength by the adhesion of many other groups who wanted to join the winners. It was mysteriously well-equipped, with armoured and other vehicles as well as light arms.
Experts have suggested the governments of over-50%-Muslim Chad or of heavily-Muslim Sudan as the source of Seleka’s equipment. Both governments have denied it. It is reported that most of Seleka’s equipment was Chinese or Iranian made, suggesting Sudan as the source. Many people in the CAR’s south refer to Seleka as “the Chadians”, though most Seleka fighters are from the CAR.
Further in the background, possibly, is China, which has strong ties with the government in Sudan, has increasing economic interests in Africa, and is now a major export destination for the CAR.
Whatever the plans behind the Seleka coup, they did not work. The Seleka alliance soon broke up. Its forces became scattered gangs, profiteering and terrorising the population. Rival gangs, called “anti-balaka”, developed in response. Much of the fighting has taken a Christian (southern, anti-balaka) versus Muslim (northern, Seleka) character.
The French and African troops are supposed to be disarming the militias on all sides, but the collapse of the country into mini-warlord strife makes that project difficult or maybe impossible.
The French government talks of organising elections late in 2014, and must hope that by then it can put together a team of allies within the CAR cohesive enough to form a working government.
France’s record over 130 years of domination in the CAR gives no reason to expect any solid good from the French plans.