On Thursday 5th December 2013 French President Hollande announced the deployment of French troops to the Central African Republic, under UN mandate, to reinforce the local military presence. This is the 40th time France has intervened militarily in an African country since independence. What are the reasons for this resumption of military activity in Africa by French imperialism? And what role does Hollande envisage after the intervention in Mali?
Central African Republic: potentially a rich country
The country is replete with any amount of mineral resources: diamonds close to the surface, oil, uranium and much cultivable land. But all these resources are either under-exploited, or misused, or completely unused. The CAR depends heavily on cotton, one of the key export sectors alongside diamond and gold mining which are in decline. Miners earn no more than $4 a day. In most cases the 80,000 -100,000 diamond miners in CAR work independently on a small scale and without mining permits. The gems they extract are often sold on to smugglers or export firms for a very small percentage of their resale value. Diamond miners provide a living for hundreds of thousands of people but only on the basis of shared poverty. Diamond mining is done by hand with skilled miners selling individually to collectors who themselves sell to middle men who sell on to the big diamond houses, especially in the Belgian city of Antwerp.
A country stripped and bled dry
The CAR has been independent of France since 1958. From the very beginning rule of the country was passed from hand to hand without any real social or economic development taking place. Not one single leader of the country is remembered for any development of the country or its social infrastructure. Average life expectancy is 40 years and HIV is rife. There has been a slow collapse of the state and a decline in living conditions.
The current government, notwithstanding its complete corruption, has been forced to take measures against the illegal diamond trade following the deaths of several miners in March 2013. But these measures have only increased the miners’ fear of unemployment. In despair many independent diamond miners have turned to gold mining, given that gold prices are more stable than diamond prices. But the illegal gold trade is even worse than the diamond trade. The miners find themselves forced to take part in illegal extraction in dangerous conditions in order to sell into the black market. Areva owns a uranium mine in CAR which has been inactive since 2012 due to lack of security in the region.
Recent workers’ and popular struggles
Despite the fact that western media don’t mention them, workers’ and trade union organisations exist in this country and have not disappeared. At the start of 2013 several strike movements took place against the rising cost of living, for payment of back-pay, and for genuine access to water. In February there were demonstrations by part-time teachers in higher education who blocked the resumption of classes by demanding the pay they hadn’t received for 24 months. Primary school teachers joined the first strikers to demand civil servant status. On 13th February residents in the Gobongo district of the capital Bangui expressed their frustration at the recent appalling lack of water and electricity in their area. For more than 3 days they were without electricity and for months prior to that drinking water had been a rare commodity. The demonstrators resisted the massive deployment of police in the area. Street sellers were furious that early on the morning of 13th February police occupied the roadsides where they displayed their goods, and blocked off traffic.
Michel Djotodia took power through a coup d’etat in March 2013 shortly after this wave of strikes and protests. This was certainly no accident. Subsequently the right to strike was abolished and all public meetings banned. Djotodia’s allies, the Sélèka rebels, roamed the streets of the city and the countryside attacking people, and no day went by without talk of violent incidents. All this, unusually, took place without any reaction in France.
The historic role of France
Since the independence of CAR France has exerted strong political influence on the country. Under its previous presidents Mitterand and Chirac France supported all the regimes in power due to CAR’s economic value and increasingly now for its geo-strategic value in preventing the explosion of yet another African country.
This is illustrated by France’s military and financial support for President and self-proclaimed emperor Bokassa between 1966 and 1979. This support was rendered unforgettable by the sight of the tehn French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing joining Bokassa in hunting parties and accepting diamonds from this blood-soaked dictator. After the 1979 coup d’etat, orchestrated by France, the former colonial power put in place a number of puppet presidents under the direction, between 1980 and 1993, of a French lieutenant-colonel JC Mantion and especially under Patassé from 1993 to 2003.
France trained Bokassa’s youngest general, François Bozizé, who became president after the fall of Patassé. After several abortive attempts Bozizé took power in a 2003 coup d’etat, with the support of France.
In 2013 Bozizé seemed to want to switch economic allegiance and he promised contracts to China, with Petroleum of China, and South Africa, allies against French and American imperialism in the region.
In this situation Hollande’s tactics were not to intervene in March 2013 against the overthrow of Bozizé by the Seleka (or ‘coalition’ in the Sango language, which embraces all those forces whose common factor is opposition to Bozizé) and Michel Djotodia, since France was heavily engaged in Mali. No doubt he also preferred to hold back, with the prospect of gaining more when diplomatic conditions allowed, and especially given that the chaos created by a divided Seleka would justify intervention.
Geopolitical instability too much of a threat
France, under UN mandate, is intervening now because Michel Djotodia’s authority is much weakened. The objective outlined by the UN and repeated by Minister of Defence LeDrian is to ‘rebuild a shattered country’. In reality, and rather like Mali, the main motivation is to avoid the complete collapse of the state and to restore a regime, any regime, as long as it remains under the boot of imperialism. But the country is so exhausted by the years of instability and has had so many of its resources stripped that the imperialists seriously doubt whether they can restore any regime unless it is under the permanent control of foreign armies in the service of the imperialists, but with a UN mandate for appearances’ sake. This country has been a hotspot for so long that it has become a factor for instability in the region.
The media have supported the French intervention with talk of a pre-genocide situation and the danger of a religious conflict. Is there any truth in this? The overwhelming majority of the population is Christian, especially in the southern regions. The Seleka rebels are mostly young jobless from the North and Muslim, as is Michel Djotodia, the first Muslim African leader. The majority of the population lived peacefully in religiously mixed areas, but the growing poverty, accelerated by the economic crisis, has increased tensions. In these circumstances the conflict is acquiring a religious character but not because of any ‘historic’ division. In the recent attacks on Muslims by ‘anti-balaka’ self-defence forces (‘balaka’ means ‘machete’ in Sango) anti-Islamic propaganda was spread, since Muslims are often traders in this area and are reputedly rich. This is clearly aimed at creating division in Seleka which would be to the advantage of Bozizé and his troops.
A potential regional powder keg
The CAR is in the middle of a region of border conflicts such as Sudan. The west of the country is close to north Cameroon which already is used as a fall-back zone by the Muslim fundamentalists of Boko Haram fighting the Nigerian government. Fighting has already taken place near the Cameroon border. It is clear that the breakdown of CAR has reached such an advanced stage that it increases the danger of a regional explosion. So the French intervention has above all a geostrategic role: pacify the region, and neutralise the Seleka troops who are destroying the country with no other aim than pillaging and looting. For the imperialists, especially France and the US, the complete collapse of the central African state would threaten the stability of the region. It could also limit the possibilities for further exploitation of Africa’s natural resources, notably diamonds and oil. This question is all the more critical for the capitalists given that the strike wave in the minefields of South Africa offers a warning of what might happen and constrains capitalist ambitions.
There cannot be any high expectations of the French intervention and a UN presence in CAR over the years to come. France’s ambition is to organise elections in 2014. This, alongside the transfer of power to the local UN mission, is their central aim. However, since this mission is largely made up of Chadian troops, and since the President of Chad Idriss Déby is in favour of keeping Seleka and Djotodia in power and providing cover for their pillaging of the country, hopes of an agreement are slim. It is true that the French troops have been warmly welcomed by the majority of inhabitants. Naturally if violence is reduced or comes to an end local inhabitants will be relieved. But it must be remembered that living conditions are so disastrous that when Fabius visited Djotodia last November the locals thought that he had brought a suitcase full of money to pay the Central African government employees! Does this mean then that the people would prefer a return to direct French domination? Certainly not. It is perfectly understandable that the majority of the population would seek a solution which would halt, even temporarily, the breakdown of society and the worsening of living conditions. Yet the French intervention is not a solution, even in the short term, and threatens to produce the very opposite.
Support the movement of the poor and workers
French and UN troops have never made any difference to violence and pillaging, let alone tackled them head on. They have no right to be in Central Africa! We can have no confidence in Seleka or Bozizé, both of whom are defending their own interests. What we need are non-denominational, self-defence militia, open to all and democratically organised.
Faced with the breakdown of the country, leading activists and strike leaders from the February 2013 movement need to play a key role in developing an independent movement of workers, peasants and urban poor to challenge the corrupt leaders of successive governments. This is what happened in South Africa with the founding of the Workers and Socialist Party following the historic miners’ strikes of last year.
Such a movement would be democratic, non-denominational and non-ethnic, and could bring forward demands for access to water, health, education etc. And in the face of the poverty of the country its enormous riches must be put to use and taken back from the companies which exploit them. Expropriation and common ownership through the nationalisation of the gold and diamond mines would allow the independent miners to escape from poverty, to feed and develop the country under democratic control and collective management by the workers and the people.