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CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
(former Ubangi-Shari)

 
 
           
 

 
 
Flag of the Central African Republic

When the Central African Republic was a colony of France, the country flew the blue-white-red tricolor. At the time of independence in 1958, it added the pan-African colors (red, yellow, green) to make its new flag. The star symbolizes a guide to progress.

The Central African Republic (C.A.R.), formerly the Central African Empire (1976-79) and prior to 1960 a French colony, is close to the geographic center of Africa. It is bordered by Chad on the north, Sudan on the east, the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo-Kinshasa; formerly Zaire) and Congo-Brazzaville on the south, and Cameroon on the west.

LAND

Most of the C.A.R. is composed of plains between 600 and 900 m (2,000 and 3,000 ft) in elevation, although reaching about 1,400 m (4,500 ft) in the north. Mount Kayagangire, the highest point in the country, rises to 1,420 m (4,659 ft). The Ubangi River forms the border with Congo (Kinshasa). The climate is tropical, with a rainy season from April to October. Annual precipitation averages 137 cm (54 in) and temperatures range from about 25° C (76° F) during the rainy season to 30° C (85° F) during the dry season. Most of the vegetation is tropical savanna grassland, but there are rain forests in the southwest and dry savanna grasslands in the extreme northeast.

PEOPLE

While the C.A.R. is a land of many peoples, there are four major ethnic groups: the Baya-Mandja in the west, the Banda in the east, and the Nzakara and Azande in the south. Each group has its own language, but most people also speak Sango, a Ubangi language that spread throughout the country during the colonial era and became an official language in 1991. Most people still adhere to classical African religions, and the arts remain closely tied to this traditional milieu. Large areas in the east remain virtually uninhabited, and most of the population is concentrated in the western half of the country. Bangui, the capital, is the largest city. Although eight years of schooling is officially compulsory, less than 60% of school-age children attend school.

ECONOMIC ACTIVITY

The C.A.R. is one of Africa's poorest and most isolated nations. Economic development is slowed by its landlocked location and an inadequate transportation network. The country receives substantial economic aid from France.

The bulk of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture, and production generally meets domestic food needs. Since independence, however, the government has encouraged the production of cash crops, primarily coffee and cotton. Forestry activities will become increasingly important as transportation facilities are improved.

Diamonds, found in the west, provide nearly 50% of export revenues. Gold is also mined, and the country has reserves of uranium, iron ore, copper, and manganese. Industry is limited to food processing and light manufacturing.

The C.A.R.'s principal trade route is the river and rail route along the Ubangi and Congo rivers to Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo and then by rail to the Congolese port of Pointe-Noire. A road from the western border of C.A.R. to Yaoundé, Cameroon, opened in 1984; this road lessens dependence on Congo-Kinshasa and Congo-Brazzaville by giving access to the Cameroon port of Douala. The principal imports are foodstuffs, petroleum products, machinery, and motor vehicles. The principal exports are diamonds, coffee, timber, and cotton.

 
 

HISTORY AND GOVERNMENT

Great stone formations near Bouar suggest the existence of an ancient civilization in the northwest, and stone tools found in the east indicate that people lived in this region several thousand years ago. But most of the country's present-day inhabitants are refugees from Muslim slave-raiders in adjacent parts of Africa in the 19th century. The raiders' relentless pursuit resulted in the depopulation of vast regions of the C.A.R. between the 1880s and 1915. About the same time French military expeditions reached the area, and in the 1890s the region was annexed to the colony of the French Congo; subsequently it became a separate colony in French Equatorial Africa. Internal self-government was granted by the French in 1958. In 1960 the country became independent.

David Dacko became the first president after independence. Dacko was ousted by the military in 1965 and replaced by Jean Bedel Bokassa, who proclaimed the state an empire in 1976 and crowned himself emperor in a lavish ceremony in 1977. In 1979 he was ousted in a bloodless coup backed by France and led by Dacko, who reestablished the republic and again became president. Dacko was in turn overthrown in a 1981 military coup led by Gen. André Kolingba. A new constitution approved in a 1986 referendum made the C.A.R. a one-party state with an elected legislature; Kolingba was elected to a further 6-year term as president. Bokassa voluntarily returned to the C.A.R. in 1986. Sentenced to death on several counts of murder, he was released in 1993 and died in 1996. Multipartyism was legalized in 1991. Kolingba lost the 1993 presidential election to Ange Félix Patassé. A new constitution adopted in 1994 allows the president to serve two terms; the prime minister implements presidential policies.

Uprisings by soldiers demanding the resignation of the president in 1996 and 1997 led to widespread looting, despite the presence of French troops. In 1997, Patassé named a new national unity government, but continued unrest led the United Nations to approve the sending of a peace-keeping mission composed of African soldiers to replace the French forces when they departed in April 1998. In new general elections held late in 1998 under terms of a reconciliation pact signed earlier that year, neither Patassé's party nor the opposition won a legislative majority, leading to a new political crisis that was exacerbated when fighting in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo spilled over into the C.A.R. The fighting caused an influx of Congolese refugees into the country's capital, Bangui. In February 1999 the UN Security Council extended the mandate of the UN peace-keeping mission in the C.A.R. until November 1999. That same month France formally ended its military role in the country.

After two postponements, new presidential elections were held in September 1999; Patassé won 51.6% of the disputed vote and declared himself the winner. Popular discontent with Patassé mounted as the economy worsened, and amid widespread strikes and demonstrations in early 2001, the opposition continued to call for his resignation. Martin Ziguélé replaced Anicet Dologuele as prime minister in April of that year. In May, after intense fighting in the capital city in which hundreds of people died, the government, aided by Libyan troops, put down an attempted coup by renegade soldiers loyal to Kolingba. Libyan troops again entered the capital in November to put down another revolt by dissident elements of the armed forces, and unrest continued despite international efforts to end the conflict peacefully. Kolingba was believed to have fled the country after the May coup failed, and a government ban on his party imposed in June 2001 was finally lifted in April 2002.


Dennis D. Cordell, Assistant Professor of History, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Tex.
Source: 2001 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, ©2000 Grolier Interactive Inc. — All Rights Reserved.
Bibliography: Pierre Kalck, Historical Dictionary of the Central African Republic, trans. by Thomas O'Toole (1980); Anthony Kirk-Greene and Daniel Bach, eds., State and Society in Francophone Africa since Independence (1995); D. E. Needham, From Iron Age to Independence: A History of Central Africa (1974; repr. 1984); Thomas O'Toole, Central African Republic (1985).

 
 

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