The Central African Republic: Implications of Africa's "Phantom State"

As a failed state, the Central African Republic (CAR) is today more a plot of territory than a functional nation. Last month's coup served to reemphasize its history of instability and political violence, and has ushered in a new era of uncertainty. The country's impoverished people are victims of geography, the "natural resource curse", and regional politics. Given the CAR's geostrategic and economic value to the region, it is likely that foreign governments and non-state actors will continue to exploit its vast natural resource wealth. This does not bode well for the country, as the forces at play undermine prospects for stability, democratization, and human development.

For the rebels (Séléka) who now rule the CAR, the greatest challenge will be to fill the vacuum created by their victory and maintain a semblance of law and order. Seleka's internal divisions, the significant flow of weapons into the country, and the absence of regional acceptance of the new government provide little reason to expect it to graduate from failed state status any time in the near future. The CAR's new president, Michel Djotodia, has vowed to govern until the next election - not set until 2016. And while Séléka military commanders hold power, they have not put forward a political agenda. It is therefore unlikely that Séléka will obtain any form of democratic legitimacy for at least the medium term.

The blood spilled in the immediate aftermath of former President Bozizé's ouster may only foreshadow further violence awaiting the CAR and its neighbors, whose own political conflicts are deeply connected with the CAR. What happens in Bangui could have significant regional implications, as is already evident by the nearly 40,000 Central Africans who fled to neighboring countries since violence broke out last December. Given the high level of instability in the country, it can be presumed that other African states will use their leverage to attempt to craft a political arrangement that caters to their own national interests. This has clearly been on the mind of President Zuma in South Africa, who has attempted to influence the political dialogue.

Uganda certainly has much at stake in the CAR. Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) have been at war with the Ugandan military for a quarter century. In recent years their war has spilled into the CAR. While Bozizé cooperated with Kampala's efforts to capture Kony, Séléka has refused to support Uganda's hunt for Kony inside the CAR. Séléka has waged attacks against Ugandan troops in the CAR, much of the territory within the CAR remains outside of Bangui's control, prompting analysts to conclude that Bozizé's ouster will change the dynamic at play; Bangui cannot be expected to aid Kampala and Washington's military campaign in the CAR. The LRA may therefore be expected to acquire a greater safe haven in CAR.

A Séléka-run CAR may bode favorably for the Sudanese regime's interests vis-à-vis the Darfur rebels. Khartoum has repeatedly accused Bozizé's ally and neighbor, Chad, of sponsoring Darfur militants (including allegations that N'Djamena has incorporated the National Redemption Front into the Chadian army). In turn, Bozizé accused Sudan of aiding Séléka. Relations between Bangui and Khartoum may improve, assuming Séléka rewards states that supported it while Bozizé was in power. That said, Séléka's lack of financial resources will undermine its capacity to regulate the CAR/Sudan border, and rebels from Darfur may well continue to effectively utilize Central African territory to oppose Khartoum. Depending on the CAR's future role in the Sudanese conflict, it may earn a reputation either for aggravating a difficult neighboring environment, or for easing tension in the region, should it choose not to support Darfur militants.

While the AU has harshly condemned the coup, the West's CAR policy has been more subtle. When Séléka rebels took over the capitol last month, the CAR's previous colonial power, France, only used its military to defend French interests and nationals in the country. Paris did not aid Bozizé in efforts to fight Séléka, unlike previous episodes in which the French joined Bozizé in military operations that targeted rebel groups. France undoubtedly recognized which way the winds were blowing and did not want to become engaged in a protracted conflict it was likely to lose.

Paris and Washington's acceptance of the coup must be analyzed within the context of a greater "game" in Africa, in which the West and China compete for influence and control much of Africa's natural resources. Wikileaks published a U.S. diplomatic cable entitled "Growing Chinese Influence in CAR Evident" that underscores Washington's concerns that Beijing's footprint in the CAR has grown in recent years at the West's expense. The facts corroborate the report's concerns, as the CAR exports more than twice as much raw material to China than to France, which still trades considerably more with CAR than the U.S. The report also noted that several dozen CAR military officers were receiving training in China, while only a few were doing so in the U.S.

If Séléka continues Bozizé's embrace of greater Chinese influence in the CAR at the expense of the West, Washington and Paris may consider bold moves to counter Beijing's growing influence. Once Western leaders understood that Bozizé's presidency was ending, they assumed that leaving the door open to friendly relations with the new government would be essential to attempt to reduce China's influence. As the U.S. learned in Cuba and Iran, propping up a failed dictatorship bodes poorly for Washington's relationship with the new political leadership. Had Paris and/or Washington armed Bozizé with the advanced weaponry that could have ended the Séléka insurgency, a post-Bozizé CAR would have been more likely to pursue deeper ties China -- at the West's expense.

The future of the CAR is naturally uncertain. For the country to become capable of controlling its destiny and asserting its sovereignty by preventing armed militias from entering its land, Séléka must avoid the mistakes of its predecessor. This will require the ruling body to channel the country's resource wealth into development programs that benefit the tribes Bangui marginalized under Bozizé. While Séléka won much sympathy from the marginalized Central Africans who viewed Bozizé as corrupt and ruthless, if it fails to govern with greater transparency and a real orientation toward human development, it may suffer the same fate. The deepening humanitarian crisis in the CAR implies that Séléka will ultimately fail to 'democratize' the country or win significant political support from the population. Given the neighborhood and the CAR's history, Séléka's chances of success are not good. We should dampen our expectations, and expect a continued rocky road for the CAR.

*Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk advisory firm, and author of the book "Managing Country Risk". Giorgio Cafiero is a research analyst with CRS based in Washington.