Central Africa, Barometer of Multipolarity

President François Bozizé Yangouvonda of the Central African Republic shakes hands with Chinese vice premier Li Keqiang in Yinchuan, September 12, 2012

President François Bozizé Yangouvonda of the Central African Republic shakes hands with Chinese vice premier Li Keqiang in Yinchuan, September 12, 2012 (Xinhua/Yao Dawei)

There are a number of phenomena which currently define African politics and must be understood before commenting on the geopolitical evolution of today’s central Africa.

One is that of “extraversion.” Jean-François Bayart, a French professor in African politics, coined the phrase to describe the endemic and domestic subversion of the state apparatus in sub-Saharan Africa.

Inherited from the Europeans, the African state system is not adapted to the reality on the ground. Moreover, it exists within artificial borders. Therefore local elites quickly pervert the functions of the state with clientelistic behaviors and policies so as to protect first and foremost the interests of their respective clan, tribe, ethnic or religious group. Government agencies fall under the aegis of a specific group with the chief purpose of redistributing tax revenues among the most important political stakeholders in a certain territory. Liberal democratic values such as term of office, rule of law and public service rest in the minds of a few liberal and educated elites who rarely happen to lead a specific political faction. The direct consequence is an invariable degradation of democracy as well as a race for power. Ubiquitous corruption and civil strife follow.

In the best cases, like Ghana and Senegal, a remnant of colonial administration manages to preserve technocratic rule. In the worst, like Congo, the entire polity becomes a kleptocracy.

Another phenomenon that matters bearing in mind is geopolitics. Economically peripheral states dwindle while central ones thrive. Thus states neighboring or harboring deserts, mountains or tropical forests have the worst luck and those by the sea and close to important natural resources have the best.

Another factor is work mentality and in the case of Africa the more individualistic mentalities can be found the farthest away from the equator, in the north and south.

Combining these trends, one can conclude that state dissolution will be the worst felt in central Africa. Unfortunately, much like the city states that divided Italy and Germany for much of European history, in Africa too more interests intersect at the center than in the extremes of the continent. This has evolved to produce an axis of instability and weak central government rule, one that spans from Libya through Chad and the Central African Republic to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Instability is endemic in these countries which are also where population flows are the strongest.

During the Cold War, domestic conflicts in Africa followed bipolar lines of superpower client state dependency. Today such lines are more opaque. However, Stathis Kalyvas’ logic of violence in civil war (PDF) still applies: elites are the ones to mobilize to war according to their interests, not according to their ideals. The only difference today is the absence of ideals in a multipolar world.

Some have equated the current conflict in the Central African Republic to Mali or Libya but it actually bears more resemblance to Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria in that the struggle is strictly political rather than religious or ideological. A particular faction is eager to preserve power in the face of upcoming elections and finds no support for a repression of rival factions by its sponsors — usually European powers. The next step is to switch allegiances and in Africa this usually means foregoing Paris or London for Washington or Beijing and Moscow. This process can go wrong since the Atlantic seaboard is almost exclusively a Western backyard — as Côte d’Ivoire’s president Laurent Gbagbo discovered — and emerging powers like Brazil, India and South Africa are not yet capable of projecting power there.

That said, central Africa matters because unlike the pro-Western situation of the previous two decades, more and more African factions and elites seem willing to question the consensus in an ideological way. Whereas before all the movements were “revolutionary” and “democratic,” to appeal exclusively to a Western audience, they now have become “antiterrorist” — as in Somalia and Uganda — or “anti-Wahhabi” — in the Central African Republic and Mali — which appeals to the West as well as to the BRICS. The next step will be to explore the ideological divide between the different powers and the only question remaining is how long the transition will take.

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