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Emira Woods: CAR’s post-colonial history is riddled with French business interest collaborating with corrupt despots

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

The Central African Republic may be a country that hasn’t been on your radar, but the political situation is getting more hostile. So here at The Real News, we thought we should bring you the story.

The African country gained independence from France in 1960. It has been torn by rebel groups, coups, and violence since then. For example, in 2003, François Bozizé took power in a military coup, but then was ousted last March by Michel Djotodia. Now Djotodia is out, and a new, female interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, is in.

Joining us now to unpack all of this is Emira Woods. She’s the codirector of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Thanks for joining us, Emira.

EMIRA WOODS, CODIRECTOR, FOREIGN POLICY IN FOCUS, IPS: It’s a joy to be with you. Happy new year.

DESVARIEUX: Happy new year to you as well.

So let’s get right into this. So, in the second part of the interview, we’ll get into more of the history of the conflict, but in this part of the interview I really want to discuss the development that the European Union has sent 1,000 troops into the Central African Republic. And we also have France, as well as the African Union, that has troops on the ground.

Can you break down what these groups’ motivations are for intervening? Let’s start with the E.U. for example.

WOODS: Well, I think for all it’s kind of a simple motivation, right? There is in this Central African Republic tremendous natural wealth. It comes down to that. You have in particular gold. You have uranium. You have also now, you know, these new discoveries of oil in the region. So you have a lot of folks who are interested, because of the natural resources, primarily.

But what has happened is essentially a complete breakdown of the governing system in a very short order. You have had now ongoing, almost now over six months of ongoing violence, an estimated 1,000 people killed in a very short period of time, hundreds of thousands of people now internally displaced and also refugees. So there is a very real crisis on the ground in Central African Republic.

And I think what is at stake for the African Union is a sense of bringing stability to this country that has these vital resources but has not necessarily met the needs of its own people, and trying to figure out, really, how to get to the root of the crisis in order to stem what is becoming characterized as a sectarian conflict, when really at its root is control and access of resources.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let’s break that down further, because the mass media really does portray this conflict as being between Christians versus Muslim, but you’re saying otherwise, Emira. Can you elaborate further?

WOODS: Well, I think Central African Republic is one of the places that has been the most, really, at ease with different religions in the country and people living for centuries together within communities, within families, right, you know, some family members being Christian, the others Muslim. This is the history there in Central African Republic.

But what you have had is a real fight for control and access of natural resources that has led to a breakdown of the governing institutions in the country. And really–you know, so what you have had is a series, since independence, of attempts to establish governance that have not really been fully rooted in communities and institutions on the ground. So you have, unfortunately, a situation where, you know, the military has been strengthened and there have been coups and counter-coups. And it really escalated over this past year, to the point where you had these, again, forces that were trying to control primarily resource-rich areas called the Séléka. You know, they came out to access and control resources, as well as political power. And then you had an opposition force on the other end, so, you know, the Séléka being, yes, from the north and primarily Muslim communities, and then you had, you know, the anti-balaka forces of, basically, primarily Christian coming forth to try to stem violence that was occurring in the north. And so what was escalating as a sectarian crisis was really a crisis over political legitimacy, as well as a crisis over control and access of vital resources in the country.

And I think at the root of quelling this conflict is being able to address that control of resources in a way that it meets the needs of people on the ground. I think that’s ultimately the problem here.

DESVARIEUX: I’m so happy you brought that up about how to quell this conflict, because if policy were truly in the interests of the people of Central African Republic, what would you propose as some concrete actions that the international community could take?

WOODS: Well, I think you have had some real activists on the ground, peace activists, faith-based leaders across faiths that have come together, that have called for a cessation of violence on all sides, that have called for humanitarian assistance to those in need, that have called for a political process that will lead to a free and fair election in 2015. So there is this sort of road map that, you know, again, these extraordinary leaders, who are trying to build a firm path to peace on the ground, that they have been clamoring for.

And so I think, you know, the international community, the African Union, and all who are really concerned about Central African Republic now need to focus less attention on how many peacekeepers and when will they come and how many troops, and really get at these kind of root causes of how to deal with inequality in a resource-rich area, how to handle this complete breakdown of basic services, where people are not able to have, you know, the most menial efforts of sending their children to school, you know, and having access to health care. Those basic, essential blocks of healthy societies have really been missing and have been severely, you know, marginalized over this past year. So I think what is needed is for the international community to support those efforts on the ground to try to rebuild a society that once again respects human dignity, that once again allows those essential services to be made available to all throughout the country.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Emira, don’t go too far.

In part two of our conversation, we’ll be discussing with Emira the historical context for all of this: how did we get here?

Emira Woods, thank you again for joining us.

WOODS: A pleasure. Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Emira Woods is a co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Ms. Woods is chair of the Board of Africa Action and serves on the Board of the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars. She is also a member of the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative Africa Council.