Central African Republic is a state that does not even have a proper name. What began as Ubangi-Shari – for colonial cartographers at least – was simply an arbitrary slice carved out from the middle of the continent in France’s scrambling territorial rivalry with Belgium. Now, more than 50 years after receiving its characterless name and its political independence, the vacuum created by the withdrawal of French institutions blights the country still.
CAR’s history is the blood-stained epitome of post-colonial tragedy, a litany of violence and instability that has left the country with an average life expectancy of 48, a per-capita income of $800 and one of the worst infant mortality rates in the world. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by an apparently endless cycle of upheaval and civil war not helped by the spill-over from unstable neighbours such as Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo. Illegal weapons are everywhere, law and order is near non-existent and disease is rife.
Among the catalogue of horrors that have flourished amid turmoil and misrule, perhaps the most pernicious of all is armed groups’ exploitation of children. The effects are catastrophic. The youngsters themselves are left brutalised by being forced into horrific violence and/or sexual abuse. The prospects of peace are also weakened as new generations are inculcated into lives of hatred and inhumanity that they may struggle to escape.
With Unicef estimating that there are as many as 3,500 child soldiers in CAR, it will mean much to readers of The Independent that the £270,000 contributed to the charity through last year’s Christmas Appeal has made such a difference, helping to fund the rehabilitation that these damaged children need.
After yet another coup, however, the outlook for CAR is now worse than ever. Since Séléka rebels seized power in March, the country has plunged back into chaos. Looting, killing and rape are widespread; indeed, Amnesty International is warning of human rights violations on an “unprecedented scale”. Meanwhile, the World Food Programme says that more than a million people are at risk of going hungry. There is also a very real risk that a newly smouldering conflict between Christians and Muslims will flare into genocide. No wonder that CAR is being described by aid agencies as “the worst crisis that no one has ever heard of”.
There is, of course, a profound moral obligation to help. But there is also a self-interest here that is often overlooked in discussion of African countries. While the tumult in CAR may be a less immediate danger than that in, say, the Middle East, the trade opportunities of a more stable Africa, and the dangers of terrorism from an unstable one, should not be downplayed.
With its prosaic name and wearily painful history, Central African Republic barely registers in global public consciousness. Many do not even know the country exists. Yet the situation is now so bad that even CAR’s Prime Minister describes his country as “anarchy, a non-state”. Ultimately, the only solution is to build the civil institutions – so swiftly withdrawn by the French – that are society’s strongest bulwark against disorder. The first thing, though, is for the outside world simply to notice.