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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Central African Republic : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date June 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Central African Republic : Overview, June 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4954ce4723.html [accessed 28 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Updated June 2008


Environment

The Central African Republic borders Chad in the north, Sudan in the east, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Republic of Congo in the south, and Cameroon in the West. The south has a tropical climate and vegetation, while the north is savannah prone to drought and desertification. The CAR is an exporter of diamonds, uranium, gold, and timber, and is suspected to have significant oil reserves.

The population of the Central African Republic is 4.37 million (CIA World Factbook 2007).


Peoples

Main languages: Sango (official and lingua franca), French (official)

Main religions: Christianity (50%), indigenous beliefs (35%), Islam (15%)

Minority groups include: Mboum 306,000 (7%, CIA Factbook 2006), Yakoma 170,000 (4%, CIA World Factbook 2007), Mbororo (Fulbé) 156,000 (est. 3.6%, Ethnologue 1996), and Hausa 20,000 (0.5%, Ethnologue 2006)

BaAka 8,000-20,000 (0.2-0.5%) (April 2005 report of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights Working Group of Experts on Indigenous Populations/Communities)

A sparsely populated land, the Central African Republic (CAR) contains peoples of great cultural diversity. Minorities face disadvantages, but their relations with others are not marked by the gross violence seen in neighbouring countries. More serious is the country's endemic material poverty and food insecurity; on several indices, it is among the poorest of Africa's poor countries.

The minorities in the CAR are best understood against a background of other, less marginalized groupings. The first policemen and clerks, and later the bureaucratic bourgeoisie, were recruited from among the riverine Ubangi-speaking people first exposed to French schools – Banziri, Sango, Yakoma and Mbaka (or Ngbaka), who together constitute about 5 per cent of the population. Three major linguistically related groups based in the middle and west of the country together make up the majority: Banda, Gbaya and Manja peoples. Linguistically distinct, but also Sahelian farmers, are Sara peoples, with about 10 per cent of the population; they live chiefly along the northern border with Chad. Azande peoples, accounting for perhaps 1 per cent of the population, inhabit the far south-east.

There are various groups of 'pygmy' peoples in the CAR, the largest of which are the BaAka, who number an estimated 8,000-20,000 and speak a Bantu language. BaAka people live largely nomadic lives in the forested areas of the south-west, gaining livelihoods through hunting and gathering; local residents and traders regularly buy meat and other produce from them. In some zones, BaAka men sell their labour to local residents and to forest industries. Socially subordinated, they are paid less than others for the same work. BaAka social bonds are disintegrating; health problems, including alcoholism, malaria, HIV/AIDS and diseases of the respiratory tract, are increasing.

Literacy levels, low throughout the country, are negligible. Formal schooling offers no means to learn their history and culture. Their cultural survival is severely threatened. As with similar peoples elsewhere in Central Africa, outsiders have tried to turn BaAka to settled farming. The government has left 'integration' efforts to Catholic missionaries, who have established 'pilot villages'. Other mission efforts, such as in schooling, have failed to retain pupils, as BaAka families keep moving in the forests. For most, defence is a matter of always being able to move away from difficulties. Their future as a distinct cultural group depends greatly on the vulnerable forest ecology. Here as in Congo and Gabon, those forests are under great pressure from rapacious and mainly illegal logging. In deals made between the timber companies and government agents, BaAka people have no voice.

There are an estimated 3,000 Bofi 'pygmies' (April 2005 report of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights Working Group of Experts on Indigenous Populations/Communities), who speak an Ubangian language and about whom less is known. A third group, the Bayaka or Biaka (also known by the derogatory term 'Babinga'), are estimated to number 15,000 (Ethnologue 1996). Many among these 'pygmy' peoples still practice a hunter-gathering lifestyle, while others have become agriculturalists. All face rampant official and everyday discrimination. Mboum exist on the margins of society, being described as very poor refugees. Mboum fled to present-day Central African Republic from highlands in Cameroon to escape Mboro (Fulbé) raids that had persisted into the twentieth century.


History

The history of the Central African Republic has been marked by long episodes of predation and conflict. The Atlantic slave trade gave rise to a network of riverine peoples in the south who raided peoples further north. Demand for slaves and ivory via Egypt and Sudan led merchants based in Muslim emirates of the savannah to carry out raids from the north. Besides helping to depopulate vast areas, these traumas left residues of hostility in the historical memory of several groups.

France's armed conquest in the 1880s and colonial domination from 1894 were a decisive factor. Inspired by Belgian King Leopold II's lucrative looting of the Congo Free State (today's Democratic Republic of Congo) to the south, France granted large concessions to private companies in the area they now called Ubangi-Chari. The companies committed numerous atrocities against the indigenous population and made wide use of forced, unpaid labour. Missionaries and administrators sought to distinguish African ethnic groups, and then to arrange them in hierarchies. Ubangi-Chari became part of the Federation of French Equatorial Africa in 1910. Until they had their power stripped from them in the following decade, African elites in business with the colony and its companies received modern weaponry with which they accelerated the local slave trade and depopulated much of the eastern part of the territory.

In the late 1920s, in reaction to continuing brutality and forced labour, African peoples launched a protracted rebellion against the concessionary companies. An independence movement took shape in the 1940s, and in 1946 the Ubangi-Chari was allowed to elect territorial representatives and have representation in the French parliament. In 1958 the territory became an autonomous unit within French Equatorial Africa and changed its name to Central African Republic (CAR).

In 1959 Prime Minister Barthelemy Boganda died in a plane accident, and his nephew David Dacko came to power with French backing, becoming CAR's first president at independence in August 1960. Dacko ruled a one-party state until his ouster in a military coup led by Jean-Bedel Bokassa in 1966. Bokassa abolished the constitution and ruled by decree. In 1976 he declared himself emperor of the 'Central African Empire'. Despite his erratic dictatorship, commission of widespread human rights abuses and disastrous economic stewardship, Bokassa maintained good relationships with France and the United States until the late 1970s when he became close to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. In 1979 French forces aided a coup that restored former dictator David Dacko to power.

A bloodless coup toppled Dacko in 1981, and army General André Kolingba took the presidency, installing many of his ethnic group, the southerner Yakoma people, in positions of power. Although cronyism and economic mismanagement continued, international financial institutions lent large sums to CAR, driving it deep into debt. Kolingba maintained good relations with France. He ruled as a military dictator until 1986, when a new constitution and staged elections transformed him into a civilian dictator. With rising internal dissent and the end of the Cold War, Kolingba allowed a national commission to write a new constitution in 1991 and submitted to authentic elections in 1992, in which he garnered a mere ten per cent of the vote. He cancelled the result, but under international pressure, CAR held elections again in 1993 and he lost to Ange-Félix Patassé, a northerner from CAR's largest ethnic group, the Gbaya.

The politicization north-south ethnic divide begun under Kolingba continued under the Patassé government, as he moved to appoint northerners to positions of patronage in place of southerners. His favouritism of northerners in the military ranks set the stage for three army mutinies in 1996-1997, which were put down with military assistance from France and several Francophone African states. United Nations peacekeepers arrived in 1998, replacing a small African peacekeeping force. Patassé won 1999 elections that were largely free despite some irregularities. His rival, Kolingba, rejected the result and attempted a coup in May 2001, which was again rebuffed with the aid of Libyan forces. In May 2002, Patassé signed a 99-year concession for Libya granting rights to CAR's gold, diamonds and suspected oil reserves. In October 2002 Libya and the leader of the Mouvement pour la Liberation du Congo (MLC), Jean-Pierre Bemba (who became DRC vice president in 2006) came to the aid of Patassé to put down a coup attempt of erstwhile Patassé loyalist General François Bozizé.


Governance

Bozizé succeeded with another coup attempt in 2003 after six months of fighting with Patassé loyalists who were again backed by Libya and Bemba's MLC. A former Patassé loyalist, Bozizé is also a Gbaya northerner. But Bozizé temporarily broke with the politics of regionalism and convened a National Transitional Council with delegates from all parts of the country to draft a new constitution, which was adopted with 77 per cent of the vote in a December 2004 referendum. Inclusive elections held under the purview of an independent election commission were held in March 2005, in which Patassé's candidacy was banned but not that of his party. Bozizé defeated the candidate of Patassé's party, his last prime minister, in a run-off in May 2005.

Although the human rights situation improved in CAR in 2004 and 2005, tensions remained high, and Bozizé continued to stock government and military ranks with northerners despite his calls for national unity. In January 2006 the National Assembly granted President Bozizé the authority to rule by decree for three months, a measure the government said was necessary to overhaul the corrupt civil service.

In 2006, CAR referred charges against Patassé and Bemba to the International Criminal Court (ICC), alleging that they were responsible for numerous murders and rapes during the suppression of President Bozizé's failed 2002 coup attempt. In May 2008, Bemba was arrested in Belgium on a warrant from the ICC and sent to The Hague for trial. He faces four counts of war crimes and two counts of crimes against humanity for an alleged campaign of mass rape and looting between October 2002 and March 2003.


Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

The impact of the inter-locking wars and rebellions in the Central African region, are being felt in CAR. Rebels from Chad and Darfur continue to operate in Northern CAR while, the government of General François Bozizé has accused Sudan of sponsoring the rebel alliance in the North-West, the UFDR, which it was said, has been attacking from bases in Sudan's Darfur region. In an attempt to contain the spreading effects of the Darfur war, the UN approved the deployment of a 3,700 strong peace-keeping force mainly to Chad, but also to Central African Republic in September 2007. The troops are to be drawn from EU nations – and the goal is to protect civilians from cross-border attacks. However by late 2007, the EU force had run into difficulties – in particular due to the reluctance of states to contribute vital military hardware, such as helicopters to the mission.

Attention also focused in 2007 on the home-grown rebellions within the CAR. In the past few years, two revolts have been underway in the North: one in the North-East and one in the North-West. An estimated 200,000 civilians have fled their homes during this time – with some 50,000 seeking sanctuary in Cameroon and Chad. Government forces confronting the rebellions have been accused of widespread human rights abuses, including summary executions. While the insurgencies have different dynamics, overall the political and economic marginalisation of the north are the dominant factors. In the remote and under-developed North-East, the rebellion centres on the Gula ethnic group. In a 2007 report, HRW describes their grievances as, variously, discrimination against the Gula, and alleged embezzlements of community payments by government officials. After an offensive where the rebel Gula-dominated UFDR seized key towns, the Government security forces supported by the French military, struck back. According to HRW, most of the Gula population fled for fear of retaliation by the government forces. Refugees International reported from the field that in March 2007 government forces had systematically burned the homes of civilians in the north-west as retaliation for the local rebel presence. However, a peace deal signed in April 2007 between the UFDR and the government has stabilised the situation. In December 2007, the UN noted that while the situation remained 'fragile', it had been sufficiently good for some displaced civilians to return home.

The difficulties in the North-West, are driven by partly political rivalries, between followers of the former president Ange-Félix Patassé (who hails from this region), and who feel excluded from political patronage of the Bozizé regime. It is also driven partly by sheer lawlessness, embodied by bandits known as zaraguinas, leading local communities to seek protection from militias, as well as fuelling discontent with the central government's inability to curb the criminal attacks. Cow-herding nomadic tribes, the Mbororo have particularly suffered in this prevailing atmosphere of lawlessness and rebellion across the North. Targeted for their wealth and livestock, many have fled to camps in Southern Chad. In April 2007, UNHCR announced it was opening a new refugee camp in Cameroon, following the flight of some 25,000 Mbororo from CAR. In a statement UNCHR said the Mbororo had been singled out 'relentlessly' by both bandits and rebels, and that "small number of those who managed to save some of their livestock continue to graze cattle inside Cameroon. But the others, having lost everything, are in an extremely precarious situation." In November 2007, Amnesty International reported (War Against Children in the Wild North) on the pervasive practise of child abduction from Mbororo communities, in exchange for ransom. Some children have abducted by zaraguinas more than 10 times. Girls are especially vulnerable, as they may be held for months, and raped. Ransoms can be up to $10,000. AI says the State security forces of fail to intervene, even when they are in a position to do so.

In June 2008, the government entered into a peace agreement with the UFDR rebels, as well as the pro- Patassé rebel group, the Armée populaire pour la restauration de la démocratie (APRD). The agreement, brokered by the president of Gabon, provided amnesty to all combatants and foresaw the participation of rebel leaders in government.

In the South of the country, the cultural survival of the forest-dwelling peoples of the CAR – the biggest group of which is the BaAka – continues to be in question. UNESCO which has recognised the unique polyphonic musical traditions of the BaAka, warns that "the scarcity of game resulting from deforestation, the rural exodus and the folklorization of their heritage for the tourist industry are the principal factors contributing to the gradual disappearance of many of their traditional customs, rituals and skills." Illegal logging presents a huge problem for the BaAka: even when logging is supposed to be State-controlled, and conservation measures are in place, there are difficulties. In a November 2007 report, the Forest Peoples Programme reports that in the Dzanga Protected Area Complex, where the Aka have some limited rights to hunt and pursue a traditional life-style, that the younger generation is losing its forest knowledge, as development opportunities increase, and the trend towards sendentary ways of life takes hold. In all walks of life, the BaAka still face deep-seated discrimination from other communities in the Central African Republic.

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