1:10 p.m. April 30, 2013

The War Nerd: Dead Center

If you drew a line across Africa at about ten degrees north of the Equator, you’d intersect most of the wars going on in the world. This is a very lively zone, a real demographic ring of fire. That line would clip the top of Sierra Leone, cross the Ivory Coast, drive through northern Nigeria (currently erupting bigtime) and mark almost exactly the new border between Sudan and South Sudan. It would pop out of Africa right at the Horn, and drop a blue line over little skiffs full of Somali pirates looking for business in the Gulf of Aden before heading east for calmer places.

Before your line left Africa, though, it would pass over a place so slow, buried so deep in obscurity, that it doesn’t even have the combustibility needed for war: the Central African Republic. The C.A.R. is the becalmed center of the Sahel storm, the Death Valley where old ideologies and costumes come to die.

Until 2013, the C. A. R., or “Car,” as other Africans like to call it, only made the news once. That was back in 1979, when Emperor Bokassa, an ex-NCO who’d crowned himself, Bonaparte-style (and given himself a coat of arms with Bonaparte’s eagle on it) let his famous temper get the better of him by having 180 schoolkids beaten to death, even lending a hand himself by smashing a few skulls with his ebony cane.

The way those kids died, and Bokassa’s whole career, gives you a good look at what went wrong with Africa during the senile decades of the 20thcentury. Bokassa started out in the mid-20th century, the last days of Empire, as a loyal French soldier, serving the French Empire wherever it sent him and killing whoever it told him to kill. He won medals for valor fighting the Viet Minh, and saw the whole world in French military terms, right down to the Imperial eagle. When he went home to the Central African Republic, he worked his way up in the army, waited for the head honcho, Dacko, to go on a little trip—classic coup technique—and proclaimed himself leader on New Year’s Day, 1966.

The people Bokassa overthrew were a bunch of smart-ass socialist intellectuals, who used to laugh at little Bokassa, who was short, an orphan, and a loudmouth hick. Suddenly they weren’t laughing. It was the triumph of the conservative hicks over the socialist smartypants, and it was something that was going to be repeated all over the world, in much bigger and more important places, as the century started to show its age. Bokassa got rid of all the communists and hugged tight on to France, sending diamonds to Giscard d’Estaing, the tall, snooty French PM who must have seemed like God Incarnate to Bokassa, the little short-assed orphan from nowhere.

The French liked Bokassa; he was funny, he was stupid, he was easy to play. But he was also seriously insane, which can be an asset when you’re a coup-mongering young officer but isn’t so great when you’re actually in charge of the country. Bokassa had two allies: France and Gaddafi’s Libya. Bokassa dealt with Gaddafi exactly the way other cash-strapped African dictators did, by sucking up to him when trying to borrow money, then dumping him when the check cleared. Bokassa wooed Gaddafi by converting to Islam, just like “Omar” Bongo of Gabon did, but unlike Bongo, Bokassa, flighty as ever, converted back to Catholicism. I suspect he just pined away in a religion that had so few Napoleonic overtones, and yearned for the smell of basilicas and coronations. Gaddafi probably put Bokassa on one of his kill lists for the betrayal, but by this time Gaddafi’s enemies lists were longer than a printout of unpaid NYC parking tickets.

Bokassa’s downfall came in 1979, a very important year. A lot was going on in that year, and as always, Bokassa was there to mimic the big players. Like most dictators, he had a big family to provide for—17 wives and at least 50 children. Of course he banned polygamy for the average Car-ian, but it went without saying that this law didn’t apply to the Emperor Himself. At least it went without saying if you had any sense, because Bokassa was known for his short fuse. In 1979, those two factors, the short fuse and the big family, intertwined to end the Emperor’s career.

You’ve got all these cousins asking you, the Emperor, for money, and you get sick of it. Instead of handing them a fish, day after day, you try to teach them how to become fishers of men in their own right, the lousy parasites. Bonaparte himself, Bokassa’s idol and mentor from the grave, had the same problem, which landed him in a few scrapes, i.e. Spain. And like always, Bokassa in tiny, puppet-show form, imitated the big actors in a small but bloody way. One of his 17 wives had a clothing store, specializing in kids’ school uniforms, in Bangui, so Bokassa leveraged his position as Emperor to make a new rule that all schoolkids in Bangui had to wear a special uniform with the image of Bokassa on it. These uniforms were obtainable only at the boutique owned by Mme Bokassa, where you could buy one at a special (high) price. Nice neat operation, keeping it all in the family. Well, naturally these malcontent kids complained, on account of they had no money to buy the new uniforms and so they wouldn’t be able to go to school. They even threw rocks at the Emperor’s Rolls Royce. It’s one of the hazards of being Emperor. Napoleon (the pre-Emperor version) faced the same disrespect in 1795 from the mob, and taught them a lesson with 40 cannon.

Bokassa didn’t have cannon on hand, so he had the army round up these kids and shoved 180 of them in a tiny cell, where some were suffocated. He may or may not have beaten some of them to death with his cane, just like he may or may not have eaten human flesh, or carved up a dissident minister with the same knife he used to stir his coffee. Opinions differ, but there is a general consensus, like us wonks say, that the latter stages of Bokassa’s imperium were marked by a certain instability.

The French were embarrassed, and sent the paratroopers in September 1979. Bokassa was whisked out of the palace with no trouble at all, and Dacko, the man he deposed, was back in place. Bokassa was put through a bullshit “trial” for murder and cannibalism and treason. He was acquitted on the cannibalism charges—it was only a misdemeanor charge, anyway—but convicted on the others. He cried when he heard the verdict. He always was an emotional type, doing his painful best to be Bonaparte. After all, it was trying to be Bonaparte that made Raskolnikov hack those two women to death with a hatchet; it was trying to be Bonaparte that made Julien Sorel climb through that married lady’s window; it was trying to be Bonaparte that made Rastignac whore himself out to the first countess with an inheritance who’d take him. Trying to be Bonaparte is just naturally a high-risk, high-return prospect, and not just for the wanna-B. in question but for anyone who happens to be in the vicinity. Just ask the 500,000 French, Poles, Italians and assorted allies that failed to come back from Moscow, and they’ll tell you that even if you’re in the vicinity of the actual Bonaparte himself, the Dinger-in-itself, you’re likely to be one of the casualties of some protagonist in a self-designed uniform having big dreams.

What made Bokassa such a laboratory-perfect specimen to replicate the Bonaparte sequence in miniature is that his base, the Central African Republic, is the dead, dead center of Africa. This was never a crucial place to anybody, never had a great era of its own. Most current Hellholes can claim some golden age—whether it actually happened or not is another story. Not the C.A.R. It’s always been a sink, a Death Valley, Africa’s Sargasso Sea where the winds don’t blow.

Unlike most of the Sahel, the C.A.R. doesn’t have that fatal, lively 50/50 Christian/Muslim split. The C.A.R. is 50% Christian, 35% local religions, and only 15% Muslim. That’s made for some action in the northern part of the country, where Janjaweed who’ve been defeated by the Darfuri “rebels” have fled south in a classic Sahel billiard ricochet. But with less than a fifth of the population, Islam can’t drive a serious rebellion.

Even the Christians are split, half Protestant and half Catholic. And unlike most Sahel countries, there’s no majority ethnic group to push change along. There are 90 distinct groups. The two biggest, the Gbaya and Banda, both speak Sango, which is becoming a national language for the C.A.R. The amazing thing about this language is that, like Bahasa Indonesia, it didn’t really exist as anybody’s first language. It was just one of those trade languages like Chinook, used by traders on the Ubangi River, the big route running through what later became the C.A.R. When the population zoomed in the mid-20th century, from about a million to 4.4 million, Sango became the national tongue and started sprouting wings, mainly bureaucratic wings, with a few literary stubs here and there.

All this meant that the C.A.R. was messed up even by the fairly lax standards of the Sahel in the early 21st century. That made it natural prey, just as it had been to the French a century earlier. But it was also useful just as a dumping ground or holding area for radioactive assets you might need to use again sometime. That’s why the very creepy officers who run the Sudan are keeping Joseph Kony—remember him, our LRA friend of recent movie fame?—on ice in Kafia Kingi a corner of SW Sudan claimed by Sudan and South Sudan. It also happens to be right up against the C.A.R., which means that if anyone tries to grab Kony before the Sudan junta decides whether to use him in Uganda again or quietly liquidate his diehard cult, his Sudanese minders can take him over to C.A.R. territory for a while until things cool off. That’s the magic power of the C.A.R.: it’s a stasis field like the ones Haldeman invented in The Forever War, a place where you can make history slow way down, If not stop completely.

Six countries share a border with the C.A.R., which is like six different houses backing on the same vacant lot: Everybody has some old fridge or interstate-felon relative they want to store in there. The C.A.R. even shares a border with the DRC, the one African state that can legitimately claim to be even more fractured, and like you’d expect, the DRC exported one of its most corrupt politician/generals, Jean-Pierre Bemba, to the CAR, where he propped up the Bozize regime until he was invited to await trial on human-rights grounds by the ICC.

The only thing that’s changed in the CAR is that the biggest players now aren’t all white and non-African. The biggest player in the CAR right now, aside from France, is the new, shiny, Mandela-ized South Africa. Nobody but a few specialists knew how deep South Africa was getting into CAR factional wars until March 25, 2013, when the tiny, 1500-man army of Seleka, an umbrella group for a handful of dissident CAR factions, marched into Bangui and got into a very hot firefight with South African troops who were there to protect Bozize, the leader who had signed a huge mineral-export deal with DIG OIL, a corporation that happens to be largely owned by relatives of Jacob Zuma, leader of the ANC and leader of that new, shiny South Africa I mentioned.

Before that firefight ended, at least 13 South African soldiers were dead. I say “at least” because there are reports insisting that at least 50 of them died in the fight, and frankly, Jacob Zuma’s sworn testimony that there were only 13 dead ain’t worth shit. Zuma is the ANC’s only link to the Zulus, who are capable of causing no end of Hell if alienated from the ANC, so South Africa has to hug him close, pig though he is beyond any doubt whatsoever.

Zuma got his troops out in a hurry after the firefight. He’s a pig but not a fool, and that sort of old-timey imperial shit is just not what it takes these days. He and his kin haven’t given up on the CAR; there’s too much money at stake. The CAR has diamonds, gold, timber, water, and even uranium, in case Zuma or some other bright spark in the ANC decides that they need a nuke to give that new rainbow flag some heft.

Like any good, smart imperial power, South Africa pulls its troops back to send its bagmen in. In a slow-motion world like the CAR, there’s always time to tinker after a temporary setback. Of course the people on the ground there are having a miserable time, if they’re still alive at all, while the new Seleka “troops”—meaning thieves with heavy machine guns—sniff around the streets looking for something to steal or somebody to rape. But that’s never really been much of a consideration for any of this vacant lot’s neighbors.

Imagine your neighbors were Sudan, South Sudan, the DRC, Congo-Brazzaville, Cameroon (OK, this is the nice neighbor, the Ned Flanders of the neighborhood) and Chad. That would be bad enough. Now imagine that every one of those nightmare neighbors has it together better than you do. That’s what it is to be the CAR. In a situation like that, you’re just a lab rat for the tinkerers in every ambitious imperial power in the world. And at the moment, the busiest Dr. Frankenstein at work there is shiny, rainbow-y South Africa, eager to show that fellow Africans, fellow black folks, can roll a comatose neighbor just as efficiently as any European ever did. Better, even.