The Central African Republic (CAR) is one of the poorest and most inaccessible countries in the world. It's the size of France, but it only has four and a half million people. It is a serious contender for the title of Worst Governed Country in Africa, and it is now teetering on the brink of a genocide. Something has to be done, and only France was able and willing to do it.
France moves fast. There are already 600 French troops in the capital, Bangui, and another thousand will be moving out into country areas by the end of the week. (There are already 2,500 African peacekeeping troops in the CAR, but they lack transport and don't have orders to shoot.) It has all happened so fast that France hasn't even decided yet if it supports the man who currently claims to be the president of the CAR.
Asked last Saturday if Michel Djotodia, who seized power last March, should stay as "interim president," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said: "I don't think we need (to create) more difficulties by adding the departure of the president."
On Sunday, however, President Francois Hollande said exactly the opposite: "We cannot leave in place a president who was not able to do anything, or even worse, has let (some very bad) things happen." Fabius and Hollande may simply not have had time yet to talk to each other about Djotodia's future — and besides, it doesn't much matter: he controls virtually nothing.
The CAR has had eight coups since it got its independence from France in 1960, and got eight bad leaders out of it. The worst was Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who proclaimed himself emperor of the "Central African Empire" and used his "Imperial Guard" to murder people, including schoolchildren, who defied his rule, but even he had little impact on life outside Bangui, the capital.
The vast majority of people in the CAR are herdsmen or subsistence farmers who have little or no contact with the institutions of the state: the coup leaders and "presidents" came and went almost unnoticed. Until this time, because Michel Djotodia is the first Muslim president in a mostly Christian country — and he was brought to power by Muslim fighters, many of whom don't even come from the CAR.
Djotodia has been trying to seize the presidency for eight years. Coming from the Muslim northeast of the country, he recruited some fighters from that area — but up to 80 per cent of the soldiers in his Seleka (alliance) militia were Muslim mercenaries whom he hired from Chad and Sudan.
Except that he didn't actually have the money to pay them; he just tacitly offered them the chance to loot if they won. So when he ordered Seleka to disband last March, having fought his way into power in Bangui, they did nothing of the sort. They hadn't come all this way just to steal a few things and go home again.