A headline from the Associated Press on October 4th, 2016 reads, “Head of Central African Republic armed forces assassinated.” Though some major sources covered the story, this breaking news was curiously missing from the top of the news cycle. This implies that the United States has little connection with CAR, either diplomatically or financially. After all, our main recipients of aid and assistance are in heavy rotation in the news cycle—think Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and even places with relatively low levels of “hot” conflict, like Nigeria. And yet: in 2016, the U.S government committed to $31,228,000 in planned funding for CAR, and the current administration has provided on the ground troops in CAR to assist in fighting the regional insurgent group, the LRA. What kind of relationship is one in which our government is moderately involved in their state of affairs but most of our citizens don’t even know that their country exists?
A highly complex one that cannot be categorized as either disengaged or heavily engaged, it seems. Because of CAR’s level of perpetual conflict across ethnic and religious lines—yielding a ranking of 185 out of 187 on the United Nations Human Development Index—American foreign policy has been unable to turn a blind eye. Our international relations have (at least in rhetoric) rested heavily on intervention in the face of human rights violations since the close of the Second World War, and fully cutting off ties with CAR would be an affront to our state department’s reputed character. But the same level of constant violence that has compelled continued American aid to CAR has simultaneously strained relations and prevented further engagement. In 2012, the coup by Seleka and the ensuing conflict in Bangui and beyond prompted the American embassy to shut down and send all personnel stateside for the third time in thirty years. Though the embassy reopened in 2014, the United States has maintained an at-arms-length relationship.
This strained nature of American-CAR relations is perhaps most visible in our bilateral trade relationship. CAR is not eligible for preferential trade benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), passed in 2000 and renewed until 2025 to promote extra-attention paid to our trade relationship with developing African nations. CAR has been deemed ineligible for AGOA since 2004 as it has failed to meet many of the necessary stated criterion, including “development of political pluralism and the rule of law; efforts to combat corruption; policies to reduce poverty, increase availability of health care and educational opportunities; protection of human rights and worker rights.”
AGOA fits perfectly into the narrative of “Africa Rising”, and CAR’s ineligibility illuminates the dissonance between that fantasy and the reality on the ground for many African nations. Though United States does maintain a low level of bilateral trade with CAR, it is not enough to undo the picture that the rest of this exploration of American-CAR relations paints, one of United States intervention if and when it is beneficial to both our image and our economic gains. A place like CAR, with comparatively few resources (and a particular lack of mineral reserve) but constant disorder and violence, does not fit the trend of our nation’s priorities in foreign affairs. It’s no wonder that it took an archival search to find less than a page of coverage from the New York Times on Marcel Mombaka’s death.