The extensive area of central Africa from the Ubangi river to the Sahara has been a heartland of the slave trade during the 17th to 19th centuries. People captured here, usually by neighbouring tribes in warfare or slave raids, are sold to Arab traders to be taken north through the Sahara or to middlemen for the journey down the Ubangi and the Congo to the Atlantic coast.
The initial French advance into this area in the late 1890s is complicated by the strength of a local ruler, Rabah Zubayr, who has recently established a strong kingdom at Baguirmi, east of Lake Chad. An ex-slave and an active slave trader, Rabah proves a formidable adversary. He is finally defeated and killed by a French force in 1900.
French control is not secure for some while after this, but from 1910 the region is included in French Equatorial Africa as Ubangi-Shari-Chad. This inaccessible territory is difficult to administer, other than at a great drain to the public purse. So the French government leases large tracts of land to private companies, giving them virtually unlimited power over the people in their charge (a method of exploitation copied from the Congo Free State).
The result is often brutal exploitation, with Africans used as forced labour in the gathering of wild rubber or on newly established cotton plantations. These abuses are vividly revealed to the world by André Gide in two books – Voyage au Congo (Voyage to the Congo, 1927) and Le Retour du Tchad (The Return from Chad, 1928).
Gide’s revelations lead to improvements in social conditions. And by the time of World War II French investment is also proving more profitable, particularly in the export of gold and diamonds from the southern region, Ubangi-Shari.
From 1920 the territory has been separated into two colonies, Ubangi-Shari and Chad, within the broader French Equatorial Africa. Each sends its own deputies to Paris from 1946. In 1958 both opt to remain within the French Community after the dissolution of French Equatorial Africa. Both become independent in 1960, with Ubangi-Shari adopting the name Central African Republic.
Independence: from AD 1960
The first leader of the Central African Republic is a former Roman Catholic priest, Barthélemy Boganda, who is elected to the French national assembly in 1946. He forms a political party, MESAN or Mouvement pour l’Évolution Sociale de l’Afrique Noire (Movement for the Social Evolution of Black Africa), which is well placed to win control of the country after independence in 1960.
Boganda hopes that the new nation will comprise the whole of French Equatorial Africa, but Chad, Gabon and the republic of Congo reject his proposals for union. He therefore accepts the proposed French constitution for the Central African Republic on its own. But Boganda dies, in 1959, before full independence is achieved.
Boganda’s cousin, David Dacko, becomes the first president of the new nation. Dacko establishes MESAN as the only legal political party, but with a crumbling economy he is unable to keep control. He is removed from office in 1965 in a coup by the army commander, Jean-Bedel Bokassa.
Bokassa plunges the country into fourteen years of brutal and theatrical chaos. Like any dictator, he abolishes the constitution and maintains power through military strength. But this former captain in the French army has more fantastic dreams. He is much struck by France’s great example of a self-made man, the emperor Napoleon.
In 1977, in a direct imitation of Napoleon’s self-coronation in 1804, Bokassa spends $200 million on a lavish coronation ceremony for himself as the emperor Bokassa I. At the same time he changes the name of his country to the Central African Empire
France, under Giscard d’Estaing, appears willing to go along with this fantasy (indeed Giscard’s reputation suffers greatly from rumours that he has accepted a gift of diamonds from his friend the new emperor). But French tolerance snaps when it is proved that Bokassa has been personally involved in the massacre of 100 schoolchildren. In 1979 French paratroops stage a coup which sends Bokassa into exile and brings back Dacko as president.
Dacko proves no more successful in his second attempt at ruling the nation (now, for want of an emperor, reduced again to the Central African Republic). In 1981 he is toppled in a military coup headed by André Kolingba.
Like Bokassa, Kolingba has a dozen years in power – but he exercises a more conventional military dictatorship, ruling at first through a Military Committee for National Recovery and then, from 1985, through a cabinet including some appointed civilians. In the early 1990s civil unrest and pressure for multiparty politics lead finally to elections, in 1993.
Democracy: from AD 1993
Kolingba is defeated in the presidential election by Ange-Félix Patassé. (One of Kolingba’s last acts before leaving office is to release from prison Bokassa, who astonishingly has returned to the republic in 1986; he is convicted in 1987 of murder and embezzlement but is acquitted of another widely publicized charge, cannibalism.)
For the rest of the 1990s Patassé and his Central African People’s Liberation Movement (MLPC) remain in power as senior members in a coalition government. But the nation is frequently in turmoil.
In April 1996 a mutiny for wages by an unpaid army leads to a wider insurrection which is put down with military help from France. A further mutiny, in November 1996, brings fighting in and around the capital, Bangui, between rebels and French forces.
The tension eases for a while after the French troops are replaced by others from a group of neighbouring African countries. But by June 1997 the African peace-keeping force is itself shelling a riot-torn Bangui. More than 100 people are killed and thousands flee the city.
In April 1998 a UN peacekeeping force takes over responsiblity for maintaining order in the republic. In August it is announced that the parliamentary elections due this year will be held in November.
President Patassé’s MLPC wins 49 of the 109 seats in the assembly and again is able to form a coalition government.