The Central African Republic: Patrimonialism as an Enabler of Violence

Catherine Samba-Panza, CAR's former president, essentially appointed by Chad's government.

Catherine Samba-Panza, CAR’s former president, essentially appointed by Chad’s government.

In March of 2013, Seleka, a coalition of marginalized Muslims, enacted a coup to overthrow the Central African Republic’s president, Francois Bozizé. Though an interim government was set up shortly thereafter, Seleka’s members proceeded to wreak violent havoc in the Bangui area, and a Christian opposition group called anti-balaka developed. Three years later, the conflict between Seleka and anti-balaka still rages. This violence does not illustrate the root of CAR’s problems, but it begs an important question: what kind of political culture exists where this is tolerated?

This is the kind of political culture that tolerates the following: in January 2014, President Idriss Deby of CAR’s neighbor, Chad, airlifted CAR’s interim president Michel Djotodia and the entirety of his senior government to meet in N’Djamena, strong-arming them into picking a new leader.

Though this seems unbelievable—imagine if Justin Trudeau summoned Obama and succeeded in turning his power over to Elizabeth Warren—CAR’s highest-ranking governmental position really did belonged to Djotodia’s replacement, Catherine Samba-Panza, for a whole two years.

Since French colonial rule, this artificially contrived nation has been seen by external actors—both private corporations and sovereign governments—as a resource ripe for the tapping. Even after independence, most industry within the country has been managed and distributed by these external actors, under the knowing oversight of the government. Rather than steeping the country’s bargaining power on the international stage in sovereignty, CAR’s leadership uses the allocation of goods and services as a means of retaining and gaining power. Within Lemarchand’s neo-patrimonial model, CAR has bred a two-way client/patron schema. The sitting government has grown to expect external actors to essentially run much of the country beyond the capital, while its members keep their titles. In this sense, the government plays the role of patron.

But because so many external actors have a stake in the nation’s stability (to the very lowest degree that will allow continued resource extraction), they appropriate the role of patron if and when they don’t like what they see on the ground. Even branches of government that might be in the public sphere in other neo-patrimonial state are privatized in the CAR, as rule of law falls into the hands of outsourced forces (such as the UN).

With this analysis, it becomes entirely unsurprising and even expected that Chad’s president would be able to so easily affect CAR’s power structure. In many ways, CAR does not act on the international stage as its own entity, but as a chess piece being pulled to all sides by the motley actors interested in what it has to offer. The citizens of CAR suffer, because their safety (beyond a minimum degree) is not a commodity that the patron can offer its clients. When organizations like Human Rights Watch and the UN condemn guerilla violence raging across this land-locked state, perhaps they should assess how their constant involvement prevents the sitting government from taking accountability for its own citizens. And when they respond that they wouldn’t be there if the violence hadn’t occurred in the first place, perhaps they should talk to the French, without whom the disparate peoples of the CAR would never have been forced to live under a series of governments that have never acted in their interests.


Pitcher, A, MH Moran, and M Johnston. 2009. “Rethinking Patrimonialism and Neopatrimonialism in Africa.” African Studies Review. 52(1). 125-156.

Taylor, Ian, & Paul D Williams. 2008. “Political culture, state elites and regional security in West Africa.Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 26(2), 137–149.

The Washington Post,

Global Edge, Michigan State University,

Cultural Anthropology (Louisa Lombard),

Human Rights Watch,


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