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Published: Wednesday, 3/30/2005

Eye on elections in the Central African Republic

A NORMAL person can be excused when his reaction to the words, "Central African Republic elections," is comparable to that of a non-baseball fan to discussion of the likely starting rotation of the 2005 Mud Hens.

But for a true connoisseur of Africana, with knowledge laced by a solid dose of the lore of this tragic yet fascinating country, the idea of elections there is pure elixir. For someone - namely me - who spent three years of his life trying to coax the Central Africans into having meaningful democratic elections, those which took place this month are fascinating, even filled as they were with the usual mix of generals, ghosts, and hopes.

The Central African Republic means a lot to me. It was my first ambassadorship. I was 50. The place had a bad enough reputation that my then-wife, upon learning that we had been assigned there, responded with a quiet, "I'm not going," a position she did not swerve from.

The history of the C.A.R. is filled with odd characters with interesting stories. The father of the country, Barthelemy Boganda, was killed in a plane crash just before independence. Many Central Africans think the French, who played a major role in the direction of the diamond-rich country, perpetrated the crash, knocking off Mr. Boganda because he was too popular and would thus have been too independent for their taste. Having visited the site of the crash and experienced the quality of bush-piloting in the C.A.R., I never did believe that theory.

Another striking character to swagger across the Central African stage was Colonel, then President-for-Life, then Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Mr. Bokassa took power in a coup d'etat. He was erratic and cruel; he also blew an estimated $25 million of the country's money on a Napoleonic self-coronation. The Central Africans missed him when he was gone because life was more fun with him around. He nearly ruined French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing with a gift of diamonds that became public; he also reportedly fed Mr. Giscard human flesh.

By the time I got there in 1990, the president was Andre Kolingba, a general who had come to power in a coup d'etat. The State Department at that point had decided that Africa should be democratized. The Cold War was over; the continent was staggering under the rule of dictators; it was doctrine on the Potomac then that salvation for Africa could come through a combination of democracy and liberal economies.

The concept was similar to current Bush Administration cant, although we were spared terms like "axis of evil" and "outposts of tyranny," and wars. Acknowledging freely that the C.A.R. was a corrupt, economically stagnant mess, I was certainly quite content to become the advocate of the C.A.R.'s first-ever free democratic elections.

I conned the president into agreeing to have elections by assuring him that I believed he would win. I might even have believed that myself. On election day the Central Africans poured out of the farms and the bush in the thousands to line up to vote, standing in the hot sun under the eyes of a few United Nations observers and my own vigilant embassy staff. I loved that because everyone had said that the Central Africans would be indifferent to elections.

Mr. Kolingba received 6 percent of the vote. He promptly annulled the elections.

I finished my three-year tour of duty and left, my new wife and I seen off at the airport by a cheering mob of labor union leaders, students, and other opposition figures who had figured out the game. The world insisted on a rerun of the elections the next year. Mr. Kolingba doubled his vote, getting 12 percent and stepped down. The next president, Ange-Felix Patasse, a civilian, was elected twice, then deposed by another general, Francois Bozize, two years ago.

General Bozize ran against Mr. Kolingba and 10 other candidates in this year's elections. The general is currently ahead, but there may have to be a second round to achieve a 50-percent-plus-one majority.

The C.A.R. was good to me. I was married in City Hall in Bangui, the capital, by Acting Mayor Jean-Baptiste Greboutou. Our marriage certificate registers faithfully that when asked, I opted for monogamy. The C.A.R. also permits polygamy; my wife didn't.

Wrestling with trying to get the Central Africans to have free democratic elections was a fine lesson for me in the limits to what an American diplomat can do in someone else's country.

I became a believer in the power of vigorous labor unions in the absence of strong opposition political parties. Watching the electoral failure of Andre Kolingba's ruling political party also taught me the danger in imagining that people love you when you have not given them a chance to express their point of view at the ballot box.

General Bozize will likely win this year's elections, for a combination of good and bad reasons, probably without having actually cheated much. On the other hand, the history of this tormented country is one of coups d'etat overturning governments.

The people of the C.A.R. are poor, in spite of the country's ample capacity to provide them a good life, a reflection of the poor quality of leadership that its successive presidents, military and civilian, have provided. It remains my hope that one day they will have a president who will use their resources to govern them well. It doesn't seem as if it should be so hard.

Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.



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