Bureaucrats in a conflict zone

December 6, 2013

Bangui, Central African Republic

By Joe Penney

On Thursday, the volatile Central African Republic was host to a bloodbath. Hours of fighting between the former “Seleka” rebels that took power in a March coup d’etat and local militia and fighters loyal to the deposed president, Francois Bozize, killed over a hundred. As the situation continues to deteriorate, France is set to take a bigger role in its former colony’s security, sending hundreds of troops in the coming days.

Yet while security is what is grabbing the headlines at the moment, CAR’s problems lie much deeper. Already an unstable state in the run-up to the coup, the Central African government is now in tatters and just going through the motions. During the coup, most ministry buildings were looted for cash, computers and anything hungry rebels could get their hands on. Little has since been replaced.

The Seleka rebels stole a computer from a state laboratory containing vital information on HIV patients’ medication. They even stole the minister of commerce’s car.

“We come to work with famine. We’re in debt. When we get our salaries they just go to pay our debt and then we go back to our lives of suffering – at this point there’s no longer a state,” said Flore Koyassambia-Nadege, a clerk at the national treasury.

Tensions between ex-Bozize cadres and the new Seleka guns in charge make for uneasy relations between government and military.

A delegation of government and army officials, including the armed forces chief, who served as armed forces deputy chief of staff under Bozize, visited the town of Bossangoa, the epicenter of the humanitarian crisis last week.

At the checkpoint at the entry to town, young fighters dressed in ragtag camouflage and carrying rocket launchers muttered aloud about whether the prefect, appointed under Bozize and coming to town as part of a convoy led by Congolese peacekeepers, was a spy.

A meeting between the Seleka general in charge of Bossangoa, General Yaya, and the armed forces chief, General Ferdinand Bombayeke, was strained because the Seleka general, a Chadian who only spoke Arabic, could not communicate with the man supposed to be his superior in either French or Sango, CAR’s two national languages. The delegation of ministers, fearing for their safety, slept on mattresses on the floor of the spartan African peacekeepers’ camp, with no running water, rather than in looted local government buildings.

With no ability to collect customs taxes, and unable to sell its diamonds because of an embargo, the state has no revenue coming in and is forced to borrow money from neighboring countries Congo Republic and Chad to survive.

On Friday, November 29th, civil servants were paid for the first time in four months. They were previously paid in August, when the last of a loan from Republic of the Congo ran out. An average salary amounts to roughly $80 per month, barely enough to get by even if paid on schedule.

All salaried workers have family members depending on them, and when they don’t receive their salaries, the family welfare system kicks in. “Even if I don’t have enough money to eat, my children do what they have to do to get food on the table” said Eloisy Gildas, head of cabinet at the ministry of higher education in Bangui.

Despite the hardships they face, Central African Republic’s civil servants show up to work every day, often dressing immaculately.

“We’re used to this type of system because we were treated like this by past regimes as well. We’re vaccinated against this type of thing – we work out of patriotism,” Gildas said.

CAR has had six coups in its 53-year history as a nation. During the 2003 coup which brought now-deposed president Francois Bozize to power, half of an administrative building housing the ministries of education and commerce was destroyed. It was never rebuilt, and stands as a haunting testament to the death of what the International Crisis Group describes as a “phantom state.”

With hundreds of French troops already in the country and hundreds more set to arrive in the coming days, Central Africans will likely be able to breath easier as security makes a slow comeback. But restoring order in the short term might be the easy part. Rebuilding a state from scratch is likely to be a bigger challenge.

“We live by the grace of God. I know God will save us,” Gildas said.

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