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Central African Republic
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Central African Republic's political rights rating improved from 7 to 6 due to preparations for democratic elections in 2005.
The Central African Republic (CAR) edged closer toward restoring democratic rule in 2004, with a referendum on the new constitution set for December and the start of voter registration for parliamentary and presidential polls that are scheduled for January 2005. The current leader of the CAR, General Francois Bozize, who seized power in a March 2003 coup, has said repeatedly that he has no plans to enter the presidential race, although supporters have been organizing rallies around the country urging him to run.
The CAR, a sparsely populated country, gained independence from France in 1960 after a period of particularly brutal colonial exploitation. Colonel Jean-Bedel Bokassa seized power in 1967 and, as self-declared emperor, imposed an increasingly bizarre personal dictatorship on the CAR, which he renamed Central African Empire. After Bokassa began to murder schoolchildren, French forces finally ousted him in 1979. A French-installed successor was deposed by General Andre Kolingba in 1981, who assumed the presidency in a bloodless coup.
Kolingba accepted a transition to a multiparty system that led to democratic presidential elections in 1993 and 1999, both of which were won by Ange-Felix Patasse, leader of the Movement for the Liberation of the Central African People. Although international observers judged the 1999 vote to be free, there were reports of irregularities such as ballot shortages in some areas with a strong opposition following, and Kolingba and other candidates claimed fraud. Until the elections, members of Kolingba's Yakoma ethnic group had occupied a disproportionate number of positions in the government, security forces, and state-owned businesses. The 1998 National Assembly elections produced a nearly even split between supporters of Patasse and those of his opponents.
UN peacekeepers withdrew in February 2000 following the elections and were replaced by a peace-building office. In May 2001, a failed coup attempt led by Kolingba left at least 250 people dead in the capital, Bangui, and forced 50,000 others to flee their homes.
In the country's fourth coup since independence, Patasse was deposed in March 2003 after six months of fighting between government troops and renegade soldiers loyal to General Bozize. Patasse, who had ruled the CAR for 10 years, fled to exile in Togo, and the new government has sought his arrest on corruption charges. Following the coup, Bozize created a National Transitional Council with delegates from the country's 16 provinces, as well as from all political, social, religious, and professional associations. Bozize lifted a 2002 death sentence imposed in absentia upon Kolingba (who had fled to Uganda) and issued a general amnesty for the participants in the 2001 failed coup.
Once the referendum on the proposed constitution is completed in December 2004, the country's new electoral commission plans to authorize the start of political campaigning. Several parties have declared candidates, including a coalition led by Kolingba, of the Rassemblement Democratique Centrafricain party. Election day is set for January 30, 2005, with a second round of voting scheduled for February 27. UN-backed voter registration efforts are ongoing.
Bozize reshuffled the government in September following the resignation of Finance Minister Jean-Pierre Lebouder, who had accused the general of corruption. Although the cabinet was reduced from 28 to 24 posts, most key portfolios were unchanged.
Following clashes in the capital that left seven people dead, the CAR agreed to pay off former Chadian rebels who had fought for Bozize but were never integrated into the national army. The former fighters have been accused of abuses against the civilian population that caused many to flee their homes, which compounded the existing refugee crisis created by years of political instability.
After freezing all assistance following the coup that installed Bozize, the IMF and World Bank restored ties with the CAR in July 2004, approving $8.5 million in post-conflict emergency aid. More than one-third of the money will be used to pay government debts, including months of back salaries for civil servants.
The CAR signed an agreement in September to repatriate some 10,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, marking a thaw in relations. The two countries are in talks to completely reopen their common border, which Bozize ordered closed after a Congolese rebel group crossed into the CAR in 2002 to assist Patasse in putting down the insurrection that eventually led to Bozize's seizure of power. It has since been opened only intermittently.
Most of the CAR's people are subsistence farmers, while diamonds and forestry are the government's main source of foreign exchange. In 2003, the CAR joined the Kimberley Process, a global initiative aimed at ending trade in so-called blood diamonds by establishing that exported gems have not come from conflict areas.
Citizens of the Central African Republic cannot change their government democratically. Presidential and legislative elections held in 1993, in line with the 1986 constitution - now suspended by General Francois Bozize - gave the CAR's people their first opportunity to choose their leaders in an open and democratic manner. A military coup in March 2003 ousted the civilian president, Ange-Felix Patasse, and suspended the National Assembly. An independent electoral commission, funded chiefly by France, Germany, Japan, and the United States, was appointed in May 2004 to oversee elections set for early 2005. The commission consists of 10 representatives of political parties, 10 from civil society, and 10 from the administration.
Bozize has pledged to root out the rampant corruption that prevailed under Patasse, and has targeted reforms at the country's lucrative mining sector. The Central African Republic is the world's fifth-largest producer of diamonds, but its actual exports of the precious gem are nearly double the official number reported. The Central African Republic was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Broadcast media are dominated by the state, but there are several independent newspapers. The only licensed private radio stations are music- or religion-oriented, although some carry programming on human rights and peace-building issues. Legislation enacted in 1998 rescinded the government's authority to censor the press, but authorities have occasionally been restrictive and have used draconian criminal libel laws to prosecute journalists. Several journalists fled the country following the May 2001 coup attempt; some journalists were tortured. The government does not restrict Internet access.
Despite promises by Bozize to respect press freedom and decriminalize media laws, several journalists were jailed in 2004 for slander. In March, a court sentenced Jude Zosse, publisher of the privately owned newspaper L'Hirondelle, to six months in prison for slandering Bozize by calling him a "state tax-collector." Zosse was released under a presidential pardon after serving two months of his sentence. On July 8, Maka Gbossokotto, publisher of the daily newspaper Le Citoyen, was arrested after Jean-Serge Wanfio, a relative of Bozize's and head of the state-owned electricity company, filed a court complaint. After more than a month of pretrial detention, Gbossokotto received a one-year suspended sentence and $1,000 fine for "publicly insulting" the official in an article that alleged misappropriation of funds.
Religious freedom is generally respected, but the government occasionally infringes on this right. University faculty and students generally belong to many political parties and are able to express their views without fear of reprisal. Open public discussion is permitted.
Some 200 human rights and other nongovernmental organizations operate unhindered, although the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of assembly is not always honored by the authorities. The CAR's largest single employer is the government, and government employee trade unions are especially active. Worker rights to form or join unions are legally protected. The law does not provide for collective bargaining specifically, but workers are protected from employer interference.
Corruption, political interference, and lack of training hinder the efficiency and impartiality of judicial institutions. Limitations on searches and detention are often ignored. Conditions for prisoners, including many long-term pretrial detainees, are extremely difficult and sometimes life threatening. Juveniles are not separated from adults. Police brutality is also a serious problem, and security forces act with impunity.
Discrimination against indigenous Pygmies exists, although the government has taken steps to legalize their status by issuing birth certificates to Pygmy children.
Societal discrimination in many areas relegates women to second-class citizenship, especially in rural areas, and constitutional guarantees for women's rights are generally not enforced. However, women have made some gains in the political sphere. Female genital mutilation is still practiced, but it was made illegal in 1996 and is reportedly diminishing. Human rights groups said more than 100 women were raped during the October 2002 military uprising.