Freedom in the World
Central African Republic
The Central African Republic's civil liberties rating declined from 4 to 5 due to the extent to which the deteriorating security situation inhibited freedom of association and the work of humanitarian agencies, particularly in the conflict zones of the north.
With at least three armed insurgencies under way, the Central African Republic (CAR) was in a state of profound crisis in 2007. Embattled President Francois Bozize continued to grapple with a medley of armed rebel groups, warlords, and bandits in the landlocked country, which together with Chad and Sudan constituted a vortex of violence in the heart of Africa. As the security and humanitarian conditions worsened, the country’s already scorched economy suffered further, and the work of aid agencies, especially in the northern conflict areas, was inhibited.
The Central African Republic (CAR) gained independence from France in 1960, after a period of brutal colonial exploitation. Colonel Jean-Bedel Bokassa seized power from President David Dacko in a 1966 coup. Erratic and violent, Bokassa exercised absolute power, and in December 1976, he proclaimed himself Emperor Bokassa I, converting the republic into a monarchy. His increasingly bizarre personal dictatorship was marked by numerous human rights atrocities. With the backing of French forces, former president Dacko led a coup against Bokassa in 1979. Dacko was in turn deposed by General Andre Kolingba in 1981.
Mounting political pressure led Kolingba in 1991 to introduce a multiparty system, creating a national commission tasked initially with rewriting the constitution. Ange-Felix Patasse, leader of the Movement for the Liberation of the Central African People (MLPC), won a second-round victory in rescheduled presidential elections in October 1993. Salary arrears, labor unrest, and unequal treatment of military officers from different ethnic groups led to three mutinies against the Patasse government in 1996 and 1997. French forces quelled the riots, and an African peacekeeping force occupied the capital, Bangui, until 1998, when a UN peacekeeping mission relieved it.
Patasse was elected to a second six-year term in September 1999. Although international observers judged the vote to be free, there were reports of irregularities. Kolingba and other candidates claimed fraud. UN peacekeepers withdrew in February 2000 and were replaced by a UN peace-building office. In May 2001, Kolingba led a failed coup attempt. In the country’s fourth coup since independence, General Francois Bozize in March 2003 deposed Patasse, who fled into exile in Togo. Bozize’s regime sought his arrest there on corruption charges, but issued a general amnesty for the participants in the failed 2001 coup and lifted a 2002 death sentence imposed in absentia on Kolingba. Bozize also created a National Transitional Council featuring delegates from the country’s 16 provinces, as well as from the political class and civil society. Voter turnout for a December 2004 constitutional referendum reached 77 percent, with 90 percent approving the new constitution.
An independent electoral commission was created to oversee elections in 2005, and despite some minor hitches, the first round of presidential and parliamentary elections was held in March 2005. Bozize backpedaled on his earlier promise not to seek office and ran as an independent candidate with the backing of the National Convergence Kwa Na Kwa, a grouping of smaller parties, military officials, and political leaders. Kolingba also ran, while former prime minister Martin Ziguele took up the banner of Patasse’s MLPC. Bozize won with 65 percent of the vote in a runoff against Ziguele. Kwa Na Kwa obtained 42 of 105 seats in the National Assembly, while the MLPC won 11. Several of the smaller parties and independent candidates who won seats subsequently joined Kwa Na Kwa to give it a majority in the legislature.
In keeping with a trend in recent years, security and humanitarian conditions in the CAR worsened in 2007, particularly in the northwestern and northeast parts of the country, where rebels seeking to overthrow the Bozize government, mercenaries from Chad and Sudan, bandits, and CAR security forces battled one another and indiscriminately targeted civilians. Human Rights Watch reported serious abuses against civilians. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) estimated that 265,000 people had either been displaced internally or were forced to flee to neighboring Cameroon and Chad, while thousands more sheltered precariously in the bush.
The violence included government assaults on villages suspected of supporting rebel groups, and aid workers reportedly criticized Bozize’s presidential guard in particular for carrying out such attacks. The roughly 380 peacekeepers from neighboring Economic and Monetary Union of Central Africa (CEMAC) countries, deployed in late 2005 to help the government reassert its influence over rebel-controlled areas, have been unable to restore law and order. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council approved a peacekeeping force for Chad and the CAR to protect civilians bordering Darfur. The peacekeepers, made up of EU troops and UN police, will have the right to use force. The security situation remains precarious, however, and the government’s writ does not extend beyond Bangui and the surrounding area. A negotiated settlement appeared unlikely, given the fractious nature and uncertain aims and identities of the various armed groups.
Despite abundant natural resources, including diamonds, gold, uranium, and timber, the CAR is one of the least developed countries in the world, and approximately 80 percent of the population relies on subsistence agriculture. Decades of conflict and poor governance have led to economic and social collapse. The economy suffered further in 2007 from declining security conditions and political turmoil, and population displacement has had a negative effect on agricultural yields. The CAR was ranked 172 out of 177 countries surveyed in the UN Development Programme’s 2007 Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, literacy, education, and living standards.
The CAR is an electoral democracy. Its independent electoral commission organized the March 2005 presidential and parliamentary polls, which were deemed free and fair by international and domestic monitors. President Francois Bozize won a six-year term, while representatives from seven parties and 34 independent candidates won five-year terms in the unicameral, 109-member National Assembly. The president has broad powers, and the executive dominates the legislative and judicial branches. The president is limited to two elected terms in office. Though Kwa Na Kwa is the country’s dominant political force, other political parties operate freely, including former president Ange-Felix Patasse’s MLPC and General Andre Kolingba’s Central African Democratic Assembly.
Corruption remains pervasive, despite some steps toward reform in recent years. The CAR is the world’s fifth-largest producer of diamonds, but approximately half of its diamond exports are smuggled out of the country privately. Insecurity has exacerbated poor governance and left the dysfunctional bureaucracy even more susceptible to graft and rent-seeking. The CAR was ranked 162 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index. It was ranked 177 out of 178 countries surveyed in the World Bank’s 2007 Doing Business index.
The government generally respects the right to free speech, but many journalists practice self-censorship. While libel and slander were decriminalized in 2004, journalists still face prison terms for inciting hatred or violence. In late 2005, the government announced penalties for reports that disrespect women. The state dominates the broadcast media, although some private radio stations exist. Private newspapers, while critical of the government, have limited public impact because many residents are illiterate or lack the financial means to buy newspapers regularly. Insecurity prevents journalists from traveling freely outside the capital and reporting on conditions in the volatile northwest. There are no restrictions on internet access.
Religious freedom is generally respected, and many university professors and students are able to engage in political activity without reprisal.
Freedoms of assembly and association have typically been observed by the government, but the deteriorating security situation, especially in the north, has restricted both freedoms in practice. Several hundred human rights and other civic organizations operate in the country, and with the government serving as the single largest employer, active public sector trade unions play an important role. However, such activity has been hindered by the growing violence, and some humanitarian agencies have curtailed operations in volatile areas.
Corruption, political interference, and lack of training hinder the efficiency and impartiality of judicial institutions. Judges are appointed by the president, and judicial proceedings are prone to executive influence. Limitations on searches and detention are often ignored, and although the penal code prohibits torture, police brutality remains a serious problem. Prison and detention conditions are poor, aggravated by dilapidated facilities. Much of the country remains subject to violence and human rights abuses perpetrated by government security forces, rebels, and other armed groups.
Members of northern ethnic groups, especially Bozize’s Baya ethnic group, hold all key positions in the government and the military, and discrimination against indigenous ethnic groups, such as the Aka, persists. Insecurity restricts the movement of citizens and greatly undermines the protection of private property. Constitutional guarantees for women’s rights are not enforced, especially in rural areas. Violence against women is common, and the incidence of rape has increased in conflict areas. Female genital mutilation has been illegal since 1996 and is reportedly diminishing. Abortion is prohibited. The law does not prohibit human trafficking, and there have been reports in previous years that the CAR is a source and destination country for child trafficking.