Book review: France in Centrafrique

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“France in Centrafrique” is the second in a new series on African conflict, “Africa@War”, and concentrates on French misadventures in the Central African Republic (CAR).

Peter Baxter chronicles the CAR’s turbulent path to independence, notably the public beating to death of a chief in late 1927! That chief was a distant uncle to one Jean Bokassa – and his rise to power is the second strand of this tale of woe. Bokassa joined the French Army just before World War Two and served with Free French forces during that time. He would later imagine much about this service, including the grateful thanks for Free French leader Charles de Gaulle. He served in Vietnam after the war and was commissioned, serving in the signal service. In 1962 he transferred to the CAR armed forces and was appointed battalion commander. In December 1964 he was promoted the CAR’s first colonel. “Most historians would agree that the deeloping tragedy of the CAR began at this moment.

It is not the intention to summarise Baxter’s work, suffice to say Bokassa next became army chief I what was now a one-party dictatorship marked with a withering state, kleptocracy, corruption and a consuming paranoia. On New Year 1966 President David Dacko’s fears realised when Bokassa took power. In 1972 he was “president for life” and in 1977, in a replay of the Brothers Grimm fairytale The Fisherman and His Wife, this too was soon not enough. In 1977 he became “emperor” In a lavish ceremony paid for mostly by France.

This and Bokassa flirting with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi – thereby threatening the French position in Chad – meant his number was up. France decided to restore Dacko while Bokassa was in Libya in September 1979. This largely set the tone to the present day, with Chad and the DR Congo and Sudan sometimes drawn into the fray too. However, Baxter believes (the insecurity I the CAR [remains] a phenomenon related more to banditry, the internal political see-saw and the revolving carousel of ethnic ascendency and decline.”

As France gradually tired of interventionism – in the CAR at least, Organisation of African Unity troops were deployed (with little success) and when the latest round of trouble broke out in 2007, a UN force, MINURCAT was deployed, with a “European Union Force” (EUFOR) in support. “It was the French, as might be expected, who were the primary force behind the deployment, and they who contributed the lion’s share of troops, equipment and logistical support. The launch of the operation as somewhat fated from the onset, with numerous delays experienced in generating troops and equipment … which was seen by many as symptomatic of a noticeable reluctance on the part of EU members other than France to throw their weight behind an operation that few trusted an fewer wanted to be part of.”

And MINURCAT? “On the whole the mission attracted very little positive reportage , with the exception perhaps of the airy and institutionalised optimism of the United Nations itself. It coul not, therefore be reasonably claimed that the deployment was a success. Certainly, the operational and logistical, and indeed perhaps more importantly, the geographical difficulties, rendered much of what was attempted symbolic, expensive an irrelevant. An apt epitaph for UN missions – an expensive fraud.

Tought-provoking to say the least and excellent pictures by veteran combat photographer Yevs Debay.

Peter Baxter

Africa@War Volume 2

France in Centrafrique – From Bokassa and Operation Barracuda to the days of EUFOR
30o South Publishers

Johannesburg
2011
64 pages

Illustrated, some maps

No index

No bibliography