Statebuilding Upon Colonial Exit: Eritrea and the Central African Republic

Eritrea is highly unique in its story as a modern-nation state in Africa: it remained a colony for far longer than many of its neighbors, but also experienced intermittent fits of success and progress at a more frequent rate throughout the 20th century. The nation’s three major colonial periods—under Italy, Britain, and Ethiopia, —synthesized to create a combination of gains (the very articulation of an Eritrean nation and developed physical infrastructure) and consequences (the collapse of stable government). Conversely, the Central African Republic (C.A.R) is the prototype of a French colony in Africa, characterized by largely artificial borders, amalgam ethnic groups, and a lack of institutional structure during the colonial period. Today, it is the image of a “failed state”, making headlines with tragedies from an inability to contain a cholera epidemic (still raging, as I write) to the proliferation of blood diamond companies throughout its dense, Southern forests. Though, today, both the C.A.R and Eritrea are poor, reliant on foreign aid and rife with human rights infractions, the colonial and pre-colonial groundwork that lead to each country’s current status are highly distinct.

Before French colonization of what is now the C.A.R in the late 19th century, the region was a zone of refuge: disparate ethnic groups (primarily the Baya-Mandja, the Banda, the Nzakara and the Azande) fleeing slave trade from surrounding central African territories settled in the arid landscape. The people within modern-day Eritrea, on the other hand, have a long, collective geographic history. The strip of land was a sub-province of the early kingdom of Ethiopia and, when the Turkish Empire conquered Ethiopia, Eritrea retained its distinct regional, indigenous character. Though the concept of nationhood didn’t take hold in either C.A.R or Eritrea until it was grafted, anti-colonially, from the European model, the lack of historical connection between the people of the C.A.R is a major contributor to the country’s strife today. The C.A.R’s 56 years of independence are marred by conflicts divided by regional origin religious affiliation, with a civil war of the Seleka rebels against the sitting Christian government still in the process of complete resolution.

While the C.A.R’s cycles of conflict can be attributed to three classical byproducts of French colonization (drawn borders, no history of shared society between citizenry, and an abrupt withdrawal without investment or reparations), Eritrea’s fatal experience is harder to pinpoint. The Italians built major infrastructure, and though the British stole much of it for the crown’s other colonies, the independent Eritrea of 1993 looked to be economically sound after many years of semi-autonomy under Ethiopia.

And yet, the subtext of the above sentence is telling: Eritrea’s experience as “a unit federated under the Ethiopian Crown” dictated a limbo character—responsible for its own economic thriving, but void of agency over running the state. The next thirty years of struggle for full independence never included a real reckoning with how the country would run itself once free of Ethiopian (and Soviet, and British, and Italian) rule. It is no surprise that a nation that knew no existence other than defining its nationality by being against an occupying power fell into the trap of full-fledged conflict at the slightest skirmish with Ethiopia in 1998. Eritrea’s enigmatic colonial experience, particularly the drawn-out Ethiopian relationship, created its particular struggle with full-fledged independence: an inability to govern despite having the resources and shared-history that lead to post-colonial success in other former colonies. C.A.R, on the other hand, was doomed from France’s exit, having had none of the variables necessary for independent state building.

Michela Wrong, I Didn’t Do It For You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation.
The BBC (
Reuters (
DW Academie (
Discover France (

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