Central African Republic

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Central African Republic

Central African Republic, republic (2015 est. pop. 4,546,000), 240,534 sq mi (622,983 sq km), central Africa. The landlocked nation is bordered by Chad (N), Sudan and South Sudan (E), Congo (Kinshasa) and Congo (Brazzaville) (S), and Cameroon (W). Bangui is the capital and largest city.

Land and People

The terrain consists of a 2,000–3,000 ft (610–910 m) undulating plateau, mainly covered by savanna; dense tropical forests in the south; and a semidesert area in the east. The Bongo Massif in the northeast reaches a height of c.4,500 ft (1,370 m). The country is drained by numerous rivers, but only the Ubangi is commercially navigable. Rainfall is heavy in the south; the north is hot, dry, and subject to harmattan winds. There are no railroads, and the network of all-weather roads is inadequate; rivers are the chief means of transportation.

The population consists of approximately 80 ethnic groups, including the Baya, Banda, Mandjia, Sara, Mboum, Mbaka, and Yakoma. There is a small European minority. Considerable migration of inhabitants from urban to rural areas has led to the uneven distribution of the population. Population density is low relative to other African nations, and the eastern portion of the republic is largely uninhabited. French is the official language, but Sango, the national tongue, is used as a lingua franca; Arabic, Hausa, and Swahili are also spoken. About 35% of the population practices traditional religions, 50% are Christian, and about 15% are Muslim.


The overwhelming majority of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture, although only about 3% of the land is under cultivation. Manioc, yams, millet, corn, and bananas are the main food crops. The principal cash crops and agricultural exports are cotton, coffee, and tobacco; cocoa, rubber, and palm products are raised in the southwest. Timber is also an important export product. Cattle are raised in the western portion of the country.

Diamonds (the leading export), uranium, and gold are mined. Industry is limited to mineral, timber, and food processing and to the production of light consumer goods. Inadequate transportation has been a major obstacle to the country's economic development. Food, textiles, petroleum products, machinery, electrical equipment, motor vehicles, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals are imported. The Central African Republic's chief trading partners are Belgium, France, and the United States. Most exports are shipped via Pointe-Noire, in Congo (Brazzaville), more than 1,100 mi (1,770 km) away.


The Central African Republic is governed under the constitution of 2015. The president, who is the head of state, is popularly elected for a five-year term and is eligible for a second term. The government is headed by a prime minister, who is appointed by the political party with a parliamentary majority. The unicameral legislature consists of the 140-seat National Assembly, whose members are popularly elected for five-year terms. Administratively, the country is divided into 14 prefectures, two economic prefectures, and the Bangui autonomous commune.


Between the 16th and 19th cent., much of the region was subject to devastating slave raids. The Baya people, seeking refuge from the Fulani of northern Cameroon, arrived in what is now the Central African Republic in the early 19th cent.; the Banda, fleeing the Muslim Arab slave raiders of Sudan, came later in the century. French expeditions, pushing out from the Congo, made treaties with local tribal chiefs and occupied the area in 1887.

The region was organized in 1894 as the colony of Ubangi-Shari and was united administratively with Chad in 1906 and incorporated into French Equatorial Africa in 1910. Chad later became a separate French territory. Much of the region was leased to French concessionaires, whose fostering of forced labor and other abuses sparked rebellions in 1928, 1935, and 1946. The population of Ubangi-Shari actively supported the Free French forces during World War II.

In 1946 the colony was given its own territorial assembly and representation in the French parliament. In the French constitutional referendum of 1958 the country opted for membership in the French Community. It received autonomy and took its present name. Full independence was attained on Aug. 13, 1960, under President David Dacko. (The nationalist leader Barthélémy Boganda, founder of what was for years the country's only political party, the Social Evolution Movement of Black Africa [MESAN], had been killed in a plane crash in 1959.)

The Central African Republic had a parliamentary government until Dec., 1965, when a military coup led by Col. Jean-Bédel Bokassa (Boganda's nephew) overthrew the Dacko regime, dissolved the national assembly, and abrogated the constitution. The military regime, with Bokassa as both president and head of MESAN, dealt harshly with dissenters. Despite the brutal nature of Bokassa's regime, France continued to invest heavily in the country's economic development and financed the 1977 ceremony in which Bokassa crowned himself emperor of the renamed Central African Empire. His excesses aroused intense public opposition and, after a government-ordered massacre, the French military intervened.

Bokassa was removed from power in a 1979 coup and Dacko was reinstated. In 1981, Dacko was reelected president but was overthrown by General André Kolingba in a bloodless coup. Kolingba became president and head of the military and of MESAN, establishing a dictatorial rule. Parliament legalized opposition parties in 1991, and in 1993 Ange-Félix Patassé won the presidency in the country's first multiparty elections. A new constitution adopted in 1995 sought to decentralize the government through the establishment of regional assemblies. However, the cash-poor government encountered mounting unrest over its failure to provide steady pay to civil servants and soldiers, as well as allegations of corruption and incompetence.

After army mutinies in Apr. and May, 1996, Patassé formed a new government that included Kolingba supporters, but the country's main opposition groups refused to join the coalition. A third mutiny erupted in Nov., 1996, and degenerated into ethnic feuding before it was crushed by French troops in Jan., 1997. Patassé announced a new national unity government, naming Michel Gbezera-Bria, an independent, as prime minister. Mutinous troops continued to occupy a military base in Bangui, however, and new fighting broke out in June, 1997. France ended its military presence in the country in 1999 and was replaced by an all-African peacekeeping force. In Sept., 1999, Patassé was reelected.

Unsuccessful coup attempts were mounted against the president in 2001 and 2002; they were put down with aid from Libyan and other forces. Libyan troops were withdrawn after the Nov., 2002, coup attempt and replaced by peacekeepers from the Central African Economic Community. In Mar., 2003, while Patassé was abroad; supporters of former general François Bozizé, who had twice before attempted to oust the president, seized power, and Bozizé was named president. Some 30,000 people fled to Chad after the coup. Patassé remained abroad in exile; in 2006 he was convicted in absentia of corruption. Some of Patassé's supporters have continued to fight in the country's northwest.

Bozizé subsequently established the broad-based National Transitional Council to draft a new constitution, and announced that he would step down and run for president after it was approved. In Dec., 2004, the new constitution was approved. National elections were held in Mar., 2005, followed by a runoff in May. Bozizé, who was the front runner after the first round, was elected president in May, and his National Convergence coalition won 42 of the 105 seats in the national assembly. Attacks beginning in mid-2005 by unidentified armed groups in the northern part of the country caused several thousand people there to flee to Chad.

In Jan.–Mar., 2006, Bozizé was authorized by the national assembly to rule by decree, and reorganized the civil service and took anticorruption measures, including dismissing three government ministers. In June there were clashes between government forces and Chadian rebels, who had entered the Central African Republic in the north. A rebel uprising in the northeast that began in Oct., 2006, captured several towns there. Although it was put down by mid-December with the assistance of forces from France and several French-speaking central African nations, fighting recurred in the region in 2007.

Several rebel groups signed accords with the government in Feb. and Apr., 2007, but despite this fighting continued into 2009. The instability in the north also led to an increase in lawlessness and banditry in the region, especially in 2008. In June, 2008, the government signed a peace agreement with two rebels groups, and subsequently passed (September) an amnesty law designed to further the peace talks that began in Dec., 2008 and included Patassé. Meanwhile, in Mar., 2008, a European peacekeeping force began operations to protect refugees in the northeast; a year later the operations were transferred to a UN command. In 2009, Joseph Kony's Ugandan rebels, fleeing from Ugandan-Congolese operations against them in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, began raiding in the southeast, and they continued their attacks in subsequent years. In Aug., 2009, Ugandan government forces, with the permission of the Central African government, began offensive operations in the region against the rebels. Small-scale Ugandan operations against the rebels continued, and in 2012 Central African forces were included in plans for a joint four-nation anti-Kony force.

Patassé returned to the country in Oct., 2009, to run in the 2010 presidential election. Opposition objections to the electoral process delayed the elections originally scheduled for Apr., 2010, and days before the June expiration of the mandates of the president and parliament the constitutional court extended their terms. Opposition leaders said they would accept the extensions as long as there was progress toward new elections. In Nov., 2010, after UN peacekeepers ended their mission in the northeast, the last main Central African rebel group seized the town of Birao, but they were soon routed by army forces from neighboring Chad. The group signed a peace deal with the government in 2012.

Elections were finally held in Jan., 2011; Bozizé was declared reelected with two thirds of the vote; Patassé, who received a fifth of the vote, and other opposition figures challenged the results. After the second round of parliamentary elections in March, the president's party secured a majority of the seats.

A new uprising broke out in Dec., 2012; rebels who accused the Bozizé of failing to honor peace agreements seized much of the north, east, and central section of the country, and advanced as close as 60 mi (100 km) outside Bangui before they halted. A number of African nations, including Chad and South Africa, sent forces to the Central African Republic in an attempt to stop the conflict. In Jan., 2013, Bozizé, opposition leaders, and the rebels agreed to form a government of national unity with Bozizé as president and an opposition prime minister.

By March, however, the agreement had collapsed, with rebels, known as Seleka, accusing Bozizé of failing to honor the accord. With help from Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries, the rebels quickly advanced on and seized Bangui, and Bozizé fled the country. Rebel leader Michel Djotodia suspended the constitution and proclaimed himself president and defense minister, but after foreign criticism he created a transitional council that then elected him president.

Subsequently, lawlessness reigned in the capital and country as the rebels committed crimes with impunity; the African Union began establishing an enlarged peacekeeping force in August. In September, forces seen as aligned with Bozizé began attacks in the country's northwest. By the end of the year the situation had degenerated into a cycle of barbarous communal violence, despite the presence of increased AU and French forces whose intervention now occurred under the mandate (Dec., 2013) of the UN Security Council. Hundreds died in revenge attacks by the mainly Muslim Seleka and the Christian and animist anti-balaka (self-defense militias formed under Bozizé). Djotodia was forced into exile by neighboring governments in Jan., 2014, and Bangui's mayor, Catherine Samba-Panza, was chosen to succeed him by the transitional council.

The violence continued into 2014, with anti-balaka engaging in looting and mob violence and driving the Seleka and Muslim civilians from many areas in the country's west; there were increased attacks on civilians in mosques and churches. In April, European Union forces began entering the country in support of AU and French peacekeepers, but Chad began withdrawing its forces; they had been accused of siding with the Seleka and attacking Christians. Also that month the United Nations authorized a UN peacekeeping force of some 12,000 that would include existing peacekeepers; the UN officially assumed peacekeeping duties in September. In mid-2014 Ugandan troops deployed against Kony's forces fought Seleka forces and accused them of aiding Kony. By July, 2014, control of the country was largely divided between the Seleka in the east and the anti-balaka in the west, and a quarter of the population was displaced by the violence.

Violence diminished in the latter half of 2014 but remained a recurring problem through 2015 and 2016 even as the country prepared for and held presidential and parlimentary elections. A new constitution was approved in a referendum in Dec., 2015, and Faustin-Archange Touadéra, a former prime minister, was elected president in Feb., 2016, after a runoff. The Dec., 2015, legislative elections, however, were annulled by the constitutional court, and rerun in February and March; the seats were divided among 17 parties and several dozen independents. Most French peacekeepers left the country in Oct., 2016.

With Touadéra's authority largely limited to the capital, various militias retain power elsewhere in the country and lawlessness continues to be a significant problem. As a result of a 2014 factional split within the Seleka, ethnically based fighting among Muslims also became a problem by late 2016; clashes between Christians and Muslims increased significantly beginning in late 2016 as well. The government and all but one of the militias signed a cease-fire in June, 2017, but fighting continued, and by the end of 2017 more than 500,000 people had fled the country and almost 700,000 were displaced internally.


See V. T. LeVine, Political Leadership in Africa (1967); P. Kalck, Central African Republic (tr. 1971) and Historical Dictionary of the Central African Republic (1980).

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