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From Barracuda to Sangaris

in the Central African Republic



Since 1979, France has intervened militarily on numerous occasions, in very different formats and for very different reasons, in the Central African Republic (CAR)1. These operations are part of a history spanning more than a century, first that of French colonial expansion, then its ebb and flow, then the transition to new relations, complex and sometimes ambiguous, with the former colonies now constituted as independent states.

A territory submitted by France during the conquest of Central Africa (Congo and Oubangui basins) in the 1880s2 , the Oubangui-Chari3 is a pivotal area within French Equatorial Africa created in 1910. It is indeed inserted in an area bordered by territories under British (Sudan), Belgian (Congo) and German (Cameroon, which came under French mandate on behalf of the League of Nations after 1919) domination. In addition to its strategic position at the heart of the African continent and its struggles for influence, this territory is also an economic asset due to the presence of minerals, diamonds, oil, uranium, the "green gold" of the equatorial forest, and the development of rubber production, a crucial resource for the Free French and the Allies during the Second World War, after the Japanese took control of South-East Asia4. This episode linked to the Free French explains the strong historical, cultural and diplomatic ties between certain Central African leaders, such as Jean-Bedel Bokassa5 , and some of the political staff of the Fifth Republic.

Like the other French colonies in Black Africa, to which the Republic had granted relative autonomy within the French Union (1946) and then the French Community (1958), the CAR, renamed in 1958, declared its independence on 13 August 1960 and began a difficult political transition. However, this independence did not cut it off from its former metropolis. A defence agreement was quickly signed, which guaranteed, in its relative annexes, France's access to a number of economic resources. The first President of the CAR was David Dacko, overthrown in 1965 by Jean-Bedel Bokassa, then Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces.

The latter remained in power until 1979 and, although he initially managed to improve the country's economic situation, he gradually brought it to an authoritarian regime, confiscating all powers, proclaiming himself President for life in 1972 and then Emperor in 1976. The Fifth Republic eventually supported his overthrow in a 1979 coup d'état in favour of David Dacko: this was the object of Operations Caban and Barracuda. For France, the stakes were twofold: firstly, strategic, since Jean-Bedel Bokassa had turned towards Muammar Gaddafi's Libya and the USSR, and there was a real risk of reducing French influence in the region and in securing supplies of natural resources; secondly, political and ethical, since the aim of these interventions was to ensure the security of French nationals present in the Central African Republic and to protect the local population by putting an end to an oppressive regime. Operation Barracuda, completed in 1981, was followed by EFAOs6 which were maintained in the country until 1998.

The departure of Jean-Bedel Bokassa was followed by some fifteen years of relative political stability. In 1993, Félix-Ange Patassé, regularly elected, succeeded General Kolingba who had taken power following David Dacko, who resigned in 1981 because he was politically weakened. The troubles resurfaced in 1996 in the form of mutinies within the FACA7 over unpaid salaries. Three waves of unrest took place, leading France to intervene again (Operations Almandin I, II and III) in 1996-1997. Following the signing of the Bangui agreements between the Central African government and the mutineers in 1997, an ad hoc force, MISAB8, ensured their implementation.

In 2003, a new coup d'état brought François Bozizé to power, with whom President Jacques Chirac signed an agreement that led to the setting up of Operation Boali in support of the FACA. The security situation deteriorated sharply at the end of the 2000s. The north-east of the country was the scene of sporadic fighting between the FACA and a rebellion led by the UFDR9 from 2006 onwards. The UFDR9 intervenes in the context of the expansion of the ongoing conflict in Darfur10 which contributes to the destabilisation of the Birao region. In 2007, the Army intervened in support of the FACA and Bangui temporarily regained control of the northern zone. At the end of 2012, a new movement, the Séléka (literally "coalition"11 or "alliance" in Sango12 ), which is Muslim-dominated, took control of many towns in the east. The agreement signed with the government in 2013 was not kept and the Seléka progressed towards the capital, which it invested in March 2013.

François Bozizé, overthrown, is on the run and the Seléka leader Michel Djotodia proclaims himself President13. Christian-dominated militias, the anti-Balakas, are organising themselves throughout the country to fight against the Séléka. Initially, Operation Boali detachments were given the task of protecting French nationals. Faced with the rapidly deteriorating situation and the risk of genocide, France decided to launch Operation Sangaris, which will end on 31 October 2016. In January 2015, Catherine Samba-Panza was appointed President by the National Transition Council. In May of the same year, a reconciliation forum was held in Bangui.

This condensed history of political-military relations between France and the Central African Republic illustrates the link between the two countries for reasons relating to colonial history, geopolitical and geo-economic considerations as well as humanitarian and democratic imperatives.

1 The name "the" or "the" Central African Republic is also used.
2 Thus, Bangui, the capital, was founded in 1889.
3 So named in 1903 when the region became a colony corresponding to the territory of the present CAR. This name is formed from those of two rivers: the Oubangui, a tributary of the Congo, in the south, and the Chari, which has its source in the north of the Central African Republic.
4 Which until then supplied a large part of the world's production.
5 Sergeant in the FFL, he took part in the Provence landings and the Battle of the Rhine.
6 French Operational Assistance Elements.
7 Central African Armed Forces.
8 Inter-African Mission for the Surveillance of the Bangui Agreements.
9 Union des Forces Démocratiques pour le Rassemblement. It is an agglomeration of armed groups led by Michel Djotodia's Groupe d'action patriotique pour la libération de la Centrafrique.
10 This region of Sudan has been in conflict with the central government in Khartoum since 2003. The crisis has resulted in an influx of refugees into neighbouring states, particularly the CAR.
11 The UFDR is one of them.
12 CAR's language of communication. French has also been retained as the country's official language.
13 It is not recognised by France.

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