Tumult defines the Central African Republic. The landlocked nation in the heart of Africa is rich in natural resources such as diamonds, gold and uranium, but it remains one of the world’s poorest countries. It has suffered from decades of misrule and coups.
The latest uprising occurred last month, when a rebel alliance seized control of the country and ousted the president. What followed were days of violence and looting, leaving the country in shambles: gas stations without pumps, hospitals without equipment, the university without computers.
During the first commercial flight into the capital, Bangui, since rebels overthrew the president and seized control on March 24, the small, propeller-driven plane dove through the cloud cover. An orange morning sun shone over the brown water of the Ubangi, a gigantic river that meanders through miles of dark green forestland.
Daniel Konamyeran, a pastor, was on the flight Monday, after being stuck in neighboring Chad for a week. He said the coup was no surprise to him.
“We could hear every day in the news that they took town after town. When they finally took the key post Tagbara and then Boali, it was obvious that they would march into Bangui soon,” Konamyeran said. “No, it was no surprise to us.”
Heavily armed French soldiers protect the airport. Behind their wooden barricades and barbed wire fences begins the empire of the new rulers, the former Seleka rebels: young men wearing red berets and trendy sunglasses; a Kalashnikov rifle always at hand.
A taxi drives into traffic and navigates streets again crowded with people. Still, there are curfews after dusk and before dawn. On the way into the capital, the taxi passes the indoor sports stadium where Central Africa’s most prominent tyrant, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, crowned himself emperor in 1977 in a lavish ceremony attended by tens of thousands of impoverished people.
Behind the stadium are several small, dirty, yellow concrete buildings: the University of Bangui. In the violence that followed last month’s coup, the university was stripped of computers. Gas stations along the road lost their pumps and oil. Hotels, private homes, the presidential palace, U.N. offices and Bangui’s two most important hospitals were pillaged.
Kadidja Mamath, 19, who sells hot porridge made of rice, sugar and milk on the roadside, says she’s fed up. “The only thing we want is peace. But there are only problems in Central African Republic,” Mamath says. “We don’t want coups anymore. We have suffered enough. Coup d’etats, coup d’etats. We want to elect our own president who protects us.”
The new leadership, protected by hundreds of rebel fighters, moved to the best hotel in town, the Ledger Plaza Bangui. In front of the grand building, young men sign up for the new army.
Inside the cool lobby, the rebels’ spokesman, Col. Ajouma-Christian Narkoyo, has time for an interview. Narkoyo once worked for former President Ange-Felix Patasse. Behind Narkoyo, state officials in fine suits bustle around.
“Our new position in Bangui makes me very happy, Mr. Journalist,” Narkoyo says. “I’m telling you this as someone who was part of the presidential security of former President Patasse. We saw what happened back then in March 2003 when Bozize took over this city. After one week, the city was empty. I can guarantee you that no vehicle has left the city after we took over.”
Patasse was overthrown 10 years ago by Gen. Francois Bozize. Bozize was himself ousted in last month’s coup and fled to neighboring Cameroon.
Rebel leader Michel Djotodia has declared himself CAR’s new president and suspended the national assembly and the constitution. On Thursday, he said he would speed the transition to democracy. But it’s unclear that this landlocked nation’s future is going to be any more stable than its past, says Amy Martin, who is the local representative for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“They’re not showing any vision. They’re not communicating a plan to invest in the country, to invest in the people, to expand education, to expand social basic services to the countryside,” Martin says. “The structure of the government, the ministers, it’s the same pool of people they’re drawing from.”
African heads of state refuse to recognize Djotodia as the country’s legitimate leader. And the African Union has suspended the former French colony’s membership. The United States condemned the overthrow and warned that the country risks further international isolation if it doesn’t move quickly toward free and open presidential elections.