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Jan 6, 2017 | 09:15 GMT

At the Heart of the Central African Republic's Struggles

France withdrew its forces -- shown patrolling the Muslim district of Bangui -- from the Central African Republic in October 2016, following three of the bloodiest years in the country's history since it gained independence in 1960. The Central African Republic's geographic challenges and political instability bode ill for its development.
(ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Political instability and difficult terrain will constrain the development of efficient transport networks in the Central African Republic and, by extension, the country's economic growth.
  • The Central African Republic's weak government in Bangui will continue to be susceptible to rebel groups operating in the country's vast ungoverned spaces.
  • Bangui will remain dependent on foreign powers such as France and Chad to compensate for its structural deficiencies and security challenges.

Africa's geography presents several challenges to development. Huge swaths of remote and sometimes impenetrable inland territory, combined with a relative lack of waterways, drive up the costs of moving goods in and out of the continent's more isolated areas. On top of this, many African countries must contend with the inherent constraints of being landlocked, along with a shortage of fertile soil and an abundance of political and security problems. Taken together, these factors can severely limit their prospects.

The Central African Republic — wedged, as its name suggests, in the middle of the continent between the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Cameroon, Sudan and South Sudan — embodies these dilemmas at their most extreme. In fact, the country, a nation slightly smaller than Texas, often falls short of satisfying the formal definition of a state. It has little means to control the violence within its borders, and its reputation in recent years has been that of a failing state rife with unrest and conflict amid a proliferation of armed rebel groups. At the heart of these problems is the Central African Republic's geography. The country's remote location has impeded its development and the government's efforts to exert its authority, a trend that will continue to hold the Central African Republic back.

A Periphery of a Periphery

As a landlocked nation, the Central African Republic depends on nearby coastal countries for access to markets abroad. Though this geographic affliction puts the Central African Republic at a disadvantage, on its own it is not enough to doom the country. After all, more than a dozen African nations are landlocked, and some, such as Uganda, have managed to thrive nonetheless. Uganda has access to the coast through Tanzania and Kenya, East Africa's longtime economic powerhouse. The stability and prosperity of its coastal neighbors, along with the relatively fertile soil of the Great Lakes region where it is located, have facilitated development in Uganda, notwithstanding its lack of a coastline.

The Central African Republic's lack of fertile soil has limited population growth and given rise to highly dispersed rural villages that are difficult for the central government to control. Many of its outlying regions are hardly connected to Bangui at all, sharing more infrastructure with neighboring countries.

The situation is much different in the Central African Republic. Most of the country lies within Africa's savannah zone, on the border between the semi-arid Sahel and the intertropical convergence zone, which begins south of the capital, Bangui. The savannah zone's soils, composed of limestone sand, are not conducive to agriculture. Although the areas surrounding the Ubangi River system — a major tributary of the Congo River — are more fertile, the soils there are still not rich enough to sustain a variety of bountiful crops. The Central African Republic's lack of fertile soil has limited population growth and given rise to highly dispersed rural villages that are difficult for the central government to control. Furthermore, the disparity between the fertile soils of the Ubangi River region in the country's south and the rocky earth of the north and center has created cultural and social rifts among the people in these regions. Bangui, located on the Ubangi River, has unrivaled influence in the Central African Republic. The capital is the country's economic center, providing its only sources of revenue beyond the diamond mining industry in the north, and a limited amount of commodity extraction elsewhere. The rest of the country, meanwhile, depends on subsistence farming. Indeed, many of the Central African Republic's outlying regions are hardly connected to Bangui at all, sharing more infrastructure with neighboring countries.

Compared with Uganda, the Central African Republic also has fewer options to reach outside markets. The country's most accessible port is Douala, about 1,400 kilometers (nearly 900 miles) away from Bangui in Cameroon. Because its border with the Republic of Congo, which also has a coast on the Gulf of Guinea, traverses some of Africa's densest jungle, developing transport infrastructure to link the two countries would be difficult and costly. Its transit options, moreover, are equally limited. The country has no railway, and water levels in the Ubangi River are too low to support cargo ships much of the year. Consequently, the Central African Republic's transport network relies almost entirely on truck shipping, which can be inefficient given the volatile (but generally high) price of gasoline and prevalence of bandits and rebel groups in the country. Even though the nation boasts natural resources such as uranium, oil, copper and gold, its infrastructural shortcomings and perennial security problems have largely deterred companies from taking the risk to mine them.

The Ragged Edge of Empire

The Central African Republic's weaknesses have ensured that more than 50 years after the country gained its independence from France, its leaders still bend to Paris' interests in return for aid — or else suffer the consequences. France held considerable sway in the Central African Republic in the decades since its independence, asserting itself in the country's affairs through coups, either by backing rebel groups or intervening outright as it did in 1979 and 2013. But Paris' interests in the country are fairly limited: Its main priorities are protecting the French expatriate and diplomatic communities in its former colony, primarily by guarding its only international airport. (France also has some small-scale economic projects in the Central African Republic, such as Areva Inc.'s on-again, off-again uranium production.) Even during its colonial days, the Central African Republic was something of an afterthought for France's strategic planners; it was once known as "la colonie poubelle," or "the trashcan colony." By contrast, Chad — a landlocked country at its northern border — has long held critical strategic value for France and has hosted a near-continuous French military presence within its borders.

Enduring instability, coupled with the country's tricky geographic position, will continue to hinder the Central African Republic's economic growth.

Some regional powers have also exercised influence in the Central African Republic over the years. In the mid-to-late 1970s, for example, Moammar Gadhafi's Libya tried to expand its influence throughout Africa by means of oil patronage. Jean-Bedel Bokassa, then the president of the Central African Republic (who later proclaimed himself emperor of the Central African Empire), quickly converted to Islam as a ploy to win aid from Libya. This move ended up backfiring, however. Despite Bokassa's grand gesture, Libya was not forthcoming with funding. France, meanwhile, grew uneasy about its former colony's sudden coziness with the North African country, and in 1979, French special operations forces ousted Bokassa from power.

Unlike Libya, whose influence in the Central African Republic declined — then ceased altogether when Gadhafi's government imploded in 2011 — Chad has maintained a steady power in the country. Chad's long southern border with the Central African Republic exposes it, and some of its oil production, to its neighbor's security problems — such as the rebel war in 2013 that sent tens of thousands of refugees pouring into Chad. Chad has also used the poorly governed northern reaches of the Central African Republic to achieve strategic depth in times of duress, for instance when Libya invaded in the 1980s. In addition, the country has an interest in the Central African Republic's diamond and gold production. These economic and security factors have compelled Chadian President Idriss Deby to play an active role in the Central African Republic's politics, alternately backing the leaders in Bangui and the rebel movements against them to suit his country's interests.

In 2013, thousands of rebels from a loose coalition of northern insurgent groups, invaded the capital and eventually overthrew Francois Bozize. Since Bozize's downfall, France has intervened in the Central African Republic to try to keep its former colony from chaos.

South Africa, too, flirted with extending its influence into the country for a brief time. In 2006, the Central African Republic's president, Francois Bozize, asked South Africa for help in reducing his country's overwhelming dependence on France. The two nations signed a defense cooperation agreement the following year, and in time, South Africa sent a close protection team to Bangui as an interim measure until it could train local personnel to guard Bozize. The situation changed dramatically in 2013, however, when thousands of rebels from the Seleka movement, a loose coalition of northern insurgent groups, invaded the capital and eventually overthrew Bozize, killing 13 South African soldiers in the process. The incident brought an untimely end to the burgeoning partnership between South Africa and the Central African Republic.

Since Bozize's downfall, France has intervened in the Central African Republic, alone and with help from other countries, to try to keep its former colony from chaos. In 2016, France drew down its latest unilateral mission in the country, Operation Sangaris, after the transitional administration led by Catherine Samba-Panza ceded power to the democratically elected government of President Faustin-Archange Touadera. Today, the Central African Republic is still woefully dependent on France and highly unstable. The country's rebel groups have shown little sign of disarming or turning over control to the feeble central government. This enduring instability, coupled with the country's tricky geographic position, will continue to hinder the Central African Republic's economic growth going forward.

Editor's Note

This analysis has been updated to more clearly and accurately describe the Central African Republic's geographic position.

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