Things are just what they seem in the Central African Republic.
A charming tic of Central Africans is a tendency to label things as literally as possible, including their own country, a republic in Central Africa that calls itself the "Central African Republic." For a few dollars, street vendors in the capital city of Bangui sell framed collages of butterfly wings as souvenirs of Central Africa; they are emblazoned with the helpful slogan, "SOUVENIR OF CENTRAL AFRICA." The only Chinese restaurant in town is called "Chinese Restaurant."
So it was a surprise and a disappointment to be warned that for World Food Day, the one thing I could not depend on finding was something to eat. François Bozizé, the Central African general who declared himself president in 2003, had chosen to celebrate the U.N.-sponsored holiday last December in Obo, the country's worst-off region. Obo suffers from the triple whammy of extreme remoteness, proximity to perennial basket cases Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and -- worst of all -- constant raids by the Lord's Resistance Army, the Ugandan terrorist group that is the African answer to the Manson Family, only less predictable and with better musical taste. Bozizé brought his own food, while the people of Obo prepared to survive on their usual diet of manioc, a crop easy to grow but about as nutritious as sawdust.
The Central African Republic is a black hole of governance at the center of the continent. Since declaring independence from France in 1960 it has served up a veritable tasting menu of African despotisms: military dictatorships, civilian kleptocracies, and even an "empire," complete with an emperor on a golden throne. None lasted much more than a decade before the chef brought out an equally unpalatable new course. Bozizé has fared no better than his predecessors, ruling a territory the size of Texas with a GDP significantly smaller than that of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. As it has for the last two decades, the CAR under Bozizé gets by only through massive quantities of foreign aid, which has familiar corrosive effects on government. As one traveler has written, "Foreign aid is to the CAR what cocaine is to Colombia."
But that aid has helped Bozizé, now 63, establish a firm if thieving grip on the country. A general of the George Custer variety -- last in his class at the officers' academy in Libreville, Gabon, yet canny enough to rise through the ranks -- Bozizé first found a patron in the late 1970s in Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who promoted him after witnessing Bozizé beat an insolent soldier. After Bozizé rose to army chief of staff in the 1990s, Chadian President Idriss Déby -- a neighborhood power broker and enemy of Bozizé's predecessor -- eventually smiled upon him, and Bozizé took power almost unopposed in 2003. He continues to have a Chadian praetorian guard, along with a surprising reputation as an improvement on his predecessors, at least when it comes to consolidating corruption inside the state. What Rudyard Kipling once wrote of police in colonial India could apply to him: He may be a thief and extortionist, but at least he does not suffer any rivals outside his own circle.
But aid money -- and the power that flows with it -- extends only so far in the CAR. And the republic under Bozizé is now rotting at the edges. Bozizé took power through force, and a thousand revolts have blossomed following his example. His procedure to deal with them is now routine: Rebels seize a prefectural capital for a day or two, scaring off ill-equipped government forces. Bozizé sends in his own soldiers with French support to take back the town. The rebels negotiate, and eventually they come to the capital as Bozizé supporters, their leader reincarnated as a trusted presidential advisor and each of his lieutenants upgraded to colonel. Like doomed planets, the rebel movements are pulled into Bozizé's black hole and then eliminated by being bought off. The cycle continues, and paradoxically it is almost sustainable: Having mini-rebellions on every border means no single one gathers enough force to threaten the capital. The best one can say about this equilibrium of anarchy is that the CAR is modestly better off than its neighbors, which are saddled with a malevolent strongman in Chad, the permanent menace of civil war in Sudan, and the wholesale discontinuation of government in the Congo.
At least that appears to be the cause for celebration when I follow Bozizé to the farthest edge of his domain in Obo, which lies near the border of the plagues in Sudan and the Congo. The authorities had been determined to make an occasion of the visit. Bozizé ordered the road cleared so his entourage could drive there in five days, when before if they had tried the journey, they would have arrived sometime between a week later and never. He also sent a generator, and in the days before the World Food Day party, Obo had the unbelievable luxury of whole nights of power. When Bozizé arrives, those lined up to meet him include vendors of illegal elephant ivory, kindergarteners, and a group of pratfall artists who clown around the presidential dais in whiteface, pretending to hunt monkeys.
When the strongman addresses the crowd, he promises more attention from the government, but the people of Obo seem unsure what to think of this, given that power around there is associated with banditry and they might actually prefer their government to stay far away. Bozizé resolves their ambivalence: "Applaud!" he commands, and they do.
Bozizé really has two constituencies: the Central Africans, whom he addresses in the Sango language, and the U.N. and diplomatic delegations, whom he addresses in French. The messages diverge brazenly, with paternalism for the citizens ("amolenge," he calls them, or "children") and pious talk of responsibility and development for the international donors on the dais next to him. French Ambassador Jean-Pierre Vidon is resplendent in an all-white suit, like Tom Wolfe just back from the dry cleaner. U.S. Ambassador Frederick Cook, who at $12 million per year represents CAR's single largest humanitarian donor, recently quarreled with Bozizé about dispersal of funds to build roads (Bozizé wanted to spend the money to rent his government's grader; Cook wanted to pay manual laborers directly). Today he is not present.
In Sango, Bozizé ends with the best-received promise of the afternoon, which is to step up security enough to allow the World Food Program to cart in its troughs of aid. The state has so withered outside the capital, however, that the only guarantee of security Bozizé can offer comes from the Ugandan military forces that prowl the forests outside Obo in search of the Lord's Resistance Army. It's a reminder of just how little the government has to offer; Bozizé can promise nothing but benign neglect and protection provided by a foreign state with only its own terrorist-hunting expedition in mind.
The president has brought food, but for Obo's people, it is strictly look-but-don't-touch, smell-but-don't-taste. Bozizé (wearing an orange shirt emblazoned with his party's logo and no fewer than six photographic likenesses of himself) convenes his cabinet and foreign dignitaries around a specially built concrete platform in an open area of the town. The catering is lavish: cold beer and French wine; cold cuts; and a buffet with potatoes, bread, couscous, and a Nile perch as thick as my thigh. Soldiers keep back the rest of Obo -- thousands of people -- about 20 yards from the tables, close enough for the rich grainy smell of the couscous to romance their nostrils. If I were not among the dignitaries, shamelessly profiting from my pale skin, I would probably be seriously annoyed at the arrangement. But the people of Obo think somewhat differently. The only Central African leader whose rule they claim to remember more fondly is Emperor Bokassa, who spent $22 million, or about 5 percent of the country's GDP, on a ceremony to have himself installed on a golden throne, Napoleon-style.
When Bozizé leaves Obo the next day, his entourage stays behind to finish the wine, even licking the bottlenecks clean. The generator that Bozizé sent in stops running that night (Where would it get fuel? No one seemed to know), and the buffet stands abandoned, like circus grounds after the elephants and big tops have been crated up and moved out. To the east in the darkness is Sudan, to the south the madness of Congo. North and west, Ugandan soldiers and rebels are shooting at each other. So how can hungry Obo complain?
PHOTO BY JUAN VRIJDAG