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Power grabs in Central African Republic: A French tradition

GIN — The rise of self-appointed president Michal Djotodia in a rebel victory against sitting President Francois Bozize recalls the nation’s tragic history of coups engineered largely by France, writes journalist Howard French in a published piece.

After independence in 1960, French authorities picked Jean-Bedel Bokassa to overthrow the nation’s first president. Mr. Bokassa, an anti-communist and devoted to France, assumed the titles of president, prime minister, commander in chief of the army and leader of the sole political party.

Paris congratulated Mr. Bokassa when he decided to upgrade his republic to an empire, and the French government helped finance some of the estimated $30 million cost of Mr. Bokassa’s lavish coronation in 1977, patterned after Napoleon.

Eventually, Mr. Bokassa wore out their patience with his frequent bids for independence in foreign affairs and his outsized extravagance at home.

In September 1979, citing the repressiveness of his rule and unconfirmed reports of cannibalism, 700 French paratroopers took control of Bangui while Mr. Bokassa was in Libya.

David Dacko, sacked earlier by Bokassa at the request of France, was picked by the colonial power to replace Bokassa when he was finally removed.

Now, 35 years later, the U.S. State Department is in similar crisis management mode, having lost an ally it long supported despite similar bad marks as a president who came to power by force. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell declined to call the rebels’ overthrow of President Francois Bozize a “coup” since that would make it impossible for the U.S. to provide military or economic support for the government. In any case, Washington only planned to provide $300,000 in security assistance to the country this year. That’s down from $156.9 million, mostly humanitarian aid, in 2009.

“In terms of whether this is a coup or not, that’s something that we’re reviewing,” Ventrell said. “There’s always a legal review before the U.S. makes that determination, and we’ll continue to look at it. But we do condemn the actions over the weekend.”

Political instability in the CAR may also affect the hunt for warlord Joseph Kony. Bozize was a strong supporter of U.S. efforts to dismantle Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.

Some 3,350 African troops are currently deployed against the Lord’s Resistance Army in South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

The U.S. has about 70 to 80 anti-Kony military advisers in the Central African Republic, Ventrell said.

“There are some American trainers in the eastern part of the country, way over in the corner, much closer to the Congo and South Sudan,” he said. “Our understanding is that they’re very far away from what’s happening in Bangui and they continue to be there.”

 

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