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Student group hosts discussion on Central African Republic crisis

December 5, 2013

Discussion group

The Central African Republic, a landlocked nation near the western coast of Africa, is considered one of the most unstable regions in the world by the U.N. After the Seleka, or “alliance,” rebels led a coup and established their own government in late March, citizens have faced arson, rape and death. The United Nations, while concerned about the instability, has been unable to send peacekeeping troops.
Model UNFrance, concerned that a genocide may take place, promised on Nov. 26 to send 1,000 troops to help end the massacres and bring order to the region. It has led the effort to aid the former French colony, leaving many nations wondering how they should approach the crisis. The Jackson School Student Association hosted an event where participants can learn more about the issue and brainstorm different ways for the international community to help the distressed nation.
But the country’s problems are not new. “One shouldn’t think of what’s going on there as something that just happened recently,” said Jackson School Professor Daniel Chirot. “This is an area that has been suffering for well over a century.”

Chirot spoke at a discussion Nov. 26 hosted by the Jackson School Student Association. Chirot’s research background includes comparative sociology, social psychology of ethnic conflicts and historical sociology.

Chirot outlined the French empire’s role in Africa from the late 19th century to 1960. Like much of Europe, France initially entered Africa for economic reasons, Chirot said. Oubangui-Chari, the French colony now known as the Central African Republic, was rich in rubber. France encouraged companies to enslave the population to extract the multipurpose resource and the region was quickly exploited. French colonization led to widespread disease, decreasing the region’s population.

France, like many colonial powers, believed that they were helping these primitive people live better lives, Chirot said. Those who spoke against French action in Africa, like the poet Andre Gide who wrote about his travels in the region, were quickly denounced. Chirot said the democratic French government did everything in its power to hide its slavery-like actions in Africa.

After World War II, human rights became the new focus in Europe, Chirot said. German occupation made France reconsider its brutalization of Africa. French leaders told African elites that they would be accepted as Frenchmen if they got a higher education. But it was a false promise. While forced labor was abolished, racism was still rampant.

The French sent to monitor the colonies had racist and despicable attitudes, said Chirot, recounting his time with the Peace Corps in Niger. The educated African elites began to see the mistreatment they suffered and became the main advocates for the anti-colonial movements.

Oubangui-Chari gained independence in 1960 and became the Central African Republic – but the French made deals to maintain a significant amount of control in the region. They supported and financed numerous heads of state including Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who ravaged the country during his reign. The resource-rich region was left with a non-functioning economy. Children were picked up as soldiers and quickly became desensitized to the horrors of war.

Chirot ended with what he saw as “the irony of ironies.” While France enabled the destruction of this region, only France can fix the situation. French is widely spoken among the elites in the Central African Republic, and France knows the region well enough to help. And recently, it has been helping the region, Chirot said, pointing out the thousands of troops France has sent to Ivory Coast and Mali to quell conflicts there. “The French government has felt some sense of responsibility,” he said.

Following Chirot’s presentation, Julian Hannush, Athen Nguyen and Alvin Loong, all students representing the UW Model United Nations, explained some of the barriers that prevent the U.N. from helping the Central African Republic. Nguyen said that they wanted to explain the policy and structure that goes into a U.N. decision. The group noted the numerous coups, which have made it difficult to respect national sovereignty, and some of the options that the U.N. has, such as elevating the troops in the area to peacekeepers, rather than merely defending from attacks.

After the two presentations, participants broke into three groups; they reflected on the lecture and brainstormed about what the international community could do to help the unstable Central African Republic.

Alexis Chouery, JSSA president, said the event was planned to coincide with the upcoming winter quarter’s Task Force classes, a team-based simulation class offered to JSIS majors as a capstone. She said the discussion was meant to give non-seniors a way to see what Task Force looks like, and the topic was selected so that people who have already been studying the issue can add their opinions.

“We hope that the people that do come find it useful, interesting, engaging and learn something,” Chouery said. “Our overall goal of JSSA is to create a community.”

The discussions highlighted the numerous obstacles that the international community faces to help the Central African Republic. Groups tackled what the United States’ stance should be on the topic, especially given that France is in the best position to assist the region. The participants in the JSSA event could not come to a unified, satisfactory response to the situation, much like what one might expect to happen in the real world.

“It’s not easy to fix,” Chirot said. “And the question is, how do you fix a divided, thoroughly demoralized society that has corrupt and incompetent leaders?”

By Daniel Jeon