Africa’s Failed states: Central African Republic

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Karl Musser, used under a Creative Commons BA-SA 3.0 license.

In Africa, there are some countries that are relatively successful. But, in earlier posts, I have argued that at least some of Africa’s current failed states make no sense and can never work. There is much talk nowadays about an African ‘boom’ – and with some justification – but not in these countries.

A prime example is the Central African Republic – but it is not the only one. The boundaries of these countries have been drawn over a century ago by the then colonial powers in utter disrespect of existing African cultural, ethnic and linguistic traditions. If the local people would have been able to exercise their right of self-determination at the time, these countries would never have come into being. The only way of sustaining these countries is by massive foreign intervention, military and otherwise.

But those interventions do little to improve the lot of the peoples – they seem to be aimed more at safeguarding the interests of the international commodity trade. More than half a century of post-colonial history shows decades of failure, corruption and suffering with no hope of improvement in sight. It is high time to call a spade a spade: as long as these artificial countries stay, the unfortunate peoples living in them will have little chance of ever getting a better life.

However, posing the problem, though important in itself, is easier than finding a solution. Because where could one look to find clues for more logical countries? Of course, the most important starting point would be the manifest will of the peoples themselves. Biafra probably made sense. Azawad probably makes sense. South Sudan seemed to make sense, but shows how complex these things are.

Another logical starting point for thinking about possible new countries is looking at common cultural and linguistic identity. But there are some problems with this as well.

One problem is that is that in many areas, urban but rural as well, people do not live in nice, homogeneous groups. Ethnic groups mingle and mix and in many areas, there simply is no clear majority.

Another problem, at a different level, is posed by the way in which zealous ethnologists have classified and divided languages. The stress has been on finding out about the differences between languages – rather than trying to find out about the commonalities. I believe the drive behind classifying languages has its historical roots, in part, with American Protestant Christian Missionary groups. These were interested in bringing the Gospel to all the peoples of the world in their own ‘tongue’ – and therefore, they wanted to know about all those languages. The result is a marvelous site like that of the Ethnologue, that tries to map and classify all the languages of the world.

In itself, differences are a source of richness. But there are drawbacks to this kind of division as well and it can lead to fairly absurd results. One example: in my country, the Netherlands, twelve different languages are supposedly spoken. The Dutch will find this strange – they know of two (Dutch and Frisian) and a number of dialects that are perhaps not totally mutually intelligible, but that nevertheless do not make communication impossible. In order to deal with this classification problem, in the past, the concept of ‘macro languages’ was introduced. One such macro language is for example Arabic, which encompasses no less than 30 official Arab languages. But for the Netherlands, no macro language has been defined – so we are left with a country that is divided into twelve linguistic areas, even though the people of the Netherlands do not think of themselves, at least not nowadays, as being divided into twelve different ethnic groups.

Where does this lead us if we bring these insights to bear on Africa? For example, on the Central African Republic?

According to the Ethnologue, there are 72 languages spoken in this country of 5 million inhabitants. Clearly, if you wanted to redraw the borders of the CAR, splitting it up into 72 countries, one for each language, would be idiotic (even though – Switzerland, with eight million people and eight languages, is split up into 26 semi-autonomous cantons).

But there is hope. In fact, most of the languages spoken in the CAR belong to the Ubangi family. The resourceful people of the CAR have found a solution for their communications problems by developing the Sango language. According to the Ethnologue, this language is a creole, so a language that started as a secondary language but then became the mother tongue for a number of people. The language is said to be derived from one of the Ubangian languages, Ngbandi – although officially, Ngbandi itself, according to the Ethnologue, is not spoken in the CAR.

What this suggests is that it might make sense to redraw the borders of the CAR to include all or most of the Ubangi languages in one country. Doing that would mean that the current borders would be redrawn, so that basically the northern part of the territory would no longer be part of the country, but to the South, it would be extended with part of what is now DR Congo. This would make sense also for the people involved in Congo, because their languages are now a small minority in the vast nation of Congo, but they would be important in the new country. The people now in Congo DR would then share a nation with other peoples that speak a similar language. The official language of the new country could be Sango, a language fairly easy to learn for all the peoples living in the new country.

This way of looking at what is similar and unifying between officially separate languages is more productive than focusing on the differences alone. But it is not altogether easy. What to do with the Gbaya languages? These are spoken in large parts of Southeast Congo. Include those territories in the new country – or not? Then there are the Zande languages. Zande seems to be a bit apart from the other Ubangi languages. It is spoken in Northern Congo, in the CAR and in South Sudan. It might be sensible to include this area in the new country – but ultimately, it should be up to the people living there to decide.

I talk about a ‘new country’ – and that is for a reason: the reason is that the name ‘Central African Republic’ is, of course, a terrible one. It is typically a name given to an artificial country by Europeans staring at a map – not one that the people living there would ever choose for themselves. Perhaps Ubangi, after the Ubangi river that runs through the area, would be a better name, reflecting both the geographic and in part the historic unity of this river basin.

Defined more narrowly, the new Ubangi country would roughly have the same limits as the Ubangi river basin as seen on the map. Defined more broadly, it could include larger areas of Congo DR, Congo and South Sudan.

In the same vein – why not redraw the borders of Chad (130 languages)? Of Congo DR (212 languages)? Of some of the other failed states? I do recognize and would want to stress again that primarily, the peoples living there should decide – but let me at least start a by planting a thought… There is one certainty: continuing with the present approaches has failed in the past – and will fail again in future.

Bert is a Dutchman who was trained as a social scientist. He has been active in the environment and development movement in the Netherlands and elsewhere, starting his ‘career’ in the Anti-Apartheid movement. Bert has lived in Kenya for four years and is passionate about anything related to culture and intercultural communications. He is a world citizen with a particular interest in Africa, loved for its diversity and richness.

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