Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 3.5
Civil Liberties: 4
Political Rights: 3
Central African Republic's civil liberties rating changed from 5 to 4 due to a slight easing of repression in the country.
In December, parliamentary elections in the Central African Republic (CAR) produced a nearly even split between supporters and opponents of President Ange-Félix Patassé and appear unlikely to resolve a three-year political crisis that has repeatedly flared into serious violence. A 1250-member UN peacekeeping force from Canada, France, and seven African countries maintained a sometimes uneasy but effective truce in Bangui. The UN mission included the August launch of a local radio station that offers civic and voter information regarding the legislative polls and delayed presidential elections now scheduled for early 1999. Army mutinies and political infighting wracked the capital and destabilized the elected government in 1996 and 1997. Order was restored only through a vigorous French military intervention. While the foreign forces have kept the capital quiet, conditions in the countryside have become more difficult. Conflicts in neighboring countries mean that modern weapons are easily available in the CAR's hinterlands. France's withdrawal of its last remaining garrison after a 17-year army presence will leave a vacuum that the national army will be hard pressed to fill.
President Patassé has been unable to maintain a popular base since his 1993 election victory. His failure to implement reforms agreed at a 1996 national conference remains a source of criticism by soldiers and dissidents.
The CAR, a sparcely populated country with the approximate size of Texas, 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 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 André Kolingba in 1981. Kolingba accepted a transition to multipartyism that led to democratic elections in 1993. Even without a troop presence, Paris will continue to play a potentially powerful role in the country. There are fears that President Patassé's increasing reliance on his own ethnic group as a power base will revive and exacerbate traditional north-south regional and ethnic rivalries.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Presidential and legislative elections in 1993 under the 1986 constitution gave the CAR's people their first opportunity to choose their government in an open and democratic manner. The exercise failed to produce stability, however, as President Patassé's triumph was not matched by his party in national assembly elections. Legislative elections in December produced a one-seat opposition majority in the 109-member National Assembly, but, by year's end, there was no agreement on replacing the national unity government. A Mixed National Electoral Commission may help to allay opposition fears over electoral conduct.
Open public discussion is permitted, but constitutionally guaranteed freedom of assembly is not always honored by authorities. Public meetings must be registered 48 hours in advance. Several human rights and other nongovernmental organizations operate unhindered. Broad prohibitions against "fundamentalism" are widely considered to be aimed at Islamist tendencies and could provide scope for official restrictions on worship. Religious groups must register with the government, although religious freedom is respected in practice.
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. Police brutality is also a serious problem, and security forces act with impunity. Extrajudicial executions of criminal suspects are reported, and robbery and other abuses by various military factions have become a serious problem in the capital.
The new UN-sponsored "Radio Minurca" provides nonpartisan civic and voter educational programming, as well as rebroadcasts of international news. Other broadcast media are dominated by the state and offer little coverage of opposition activities. The only licensed private radio stations are music or religion-oriented. Private print media have suffered from little direct governmental interference, but several journalists have been sued for printing accusations of official malfeasance. Approximately one dozen newspapers are published with various regularity, but they have little impact beyond the capital. The non-state print media are often partisan and critical of various political groups, but have no sound financial base.
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. Female genital mutilation is still practiced, but is reportedly diminishing. Only three women hold seats in the 85-member National Assembly.
The CAR's largest single employer is its government, and government employee trade unions are especially active. Worker rights to form or join unions are legally protected, and five labor federations compete for union affiliates. Before unions may call strikes, a conciliation process is required. Wage guidelines are set by the government in consultation with employers and unions, but unions sometimes reach agreements with employers through collective bargaining. A broad privatization program is underway, but corruption and economic mismanagement have stifled growth. Most of the country's people are subsistence farmers.
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