While the world focuses on George Bush and Saddam Hussein, virtually no attention has been paid to a military coup d'etat last weekend that unfortunately brings to an end a decade of democracy in the Central African Republic.
One more violent change of government in the former French colony must be seen against a background of 33 years of undemocratic rule. The Central African Republic is about the size of Texas with a population of nearly 4 million, landlocked, and includes the geographic center of the African continent. It has considerable agricultural potential, plus diamonds and gold, which could provide a good life for its population.
Unfortunately, it also has had some of the worst leaders to have popped up on the African continent since independence in 1960. The best known was the notorious Jean-Bedel Bokassa, a former French Army sergeant who crowned himself Emperor in 1976. Bokassa ran a very cruel, corrupt operation and is credibly believed to have practiced cannibalism.
The Americans, supported by the French with their fingers crossed behind their backs, finally insisted on democratic elections in the early 1990s. After a false start, elections finally produced a democratically chosen president, Ange Felix Patasse. Mr. Patasse was re-elected in 1999, but, because of his corrupt, sometimes erratic approach to government and resulting poverty and disorder in the country, his government was constantly threatened with overthrow. His bacon was saved several times by combinations of French, other African countries' and United Nations intervention, sometimes with military force.
The period of democratic rule apparently ended when, with Mr. Patasse out of the country, rebels under the leadership of former Army Chief of Staff Francois Bozize, seized the capital, Bangui, and power. That was the country's fourth successful military coup d'etat since 1960.
General Bozize suspended the constitution but promises eventual elections. (There's a Toledo connection to all of this: Blade Associate Editor Dan Simpson was U.S. Ambassador to the country from 1990 to 1992.)
The coincidence of the Central African Republic coup and imminent war with Iraq probably means that neither the United Nations nor the French are likely to intervene to restore democratic government. It isn't even clear that they should. Mr. Patasse was democratically elected. At the same time, he ruled the country very badly.
He wasn't quite as bad as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who has not only damaged his own country severely but has also used his military forces to interfere in the affairs of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, looting that country's wealth.
At the very least, the United States should join with France in urging the new African Union to press General Bozize strenuously for early, democratic elections, in which Mr. Patasse can be a candidate. The Central African Republic can be a model or an eyesore in Africa. For the most part, so far it has been the latter. It can and should be a model, given its economic and political potential.
It is an inconsistency in U.S. foreign policy to promise freedom to the Iraqis while turning a blind eye to a problem area such as the Central African Republic in Africa. The lesson of Rwanda reminds us of the price of indifference.