[Faustin Archange Touadera, then President-Elect, with a French official on a visit to Paris in early 2016.]
The Central African Republic sits firmly in the milieu of La Francafrique. As one of the most conflict-ridden and poor countries in the world, no global superpower has taken much of an active interest in pursuing a mutually-beneficial, bilateral relationship with the C.A.R. This has enabled France to retain its role as primary influencer, whereas both China and the United States have extremely limited contact with the C.A.R, and the contact that does occur is almost entirely centered around retroactive violence suppression and resource extraction. Conversely, the C.A.R’s closest neighbors have a much more direct impact on the C.A.R’s domestic happenings.
France’s continued importance to the Central African Republic and its progress (or lack thereof) is best illustrated by the fact that the C.A.R’s currency is the CFA Franc, which is pegged to the Euro and used across former-French colonies. While the CFA Franc’s fix to a stable currency helps the C.A.R avoid inflation and depreciation (which would exacerbate economic hardship caused by political and religious conflict), the economic procedure used to maintain the fixed exchange rate creates extreme dependency on Europe and keeps domestic prices high.
On top of the entanglement that comes with the CFA Franc, France is still the largest importer of goods to the C.A.R, with US $66 million worth in 2014, while it only receive a measly $4 million dollars of exports from the C.A.R a year. That $4 million is approximately the same percentage of total C.A.R exports as the $66 million is percentage of imports: 20%. This highlights an important tend: the relationship of influence between the C.A.R and France does not flow in both directions. Where France sends forces intervene in the C.A.R at times of high duress, like the peak of the current Seleka/anti-Balaka conflict in 2013, no recent French government has pursued meaningful economic or political initiatives in the way that the Chinese have in Nigeria or Ghana. Thus, while France is surely the largest Western foreign influence in the C.A.R, the nature of that influence does not seem to have majorly transformed from that of the colonial period.
C.A.R’s most important reciprocal partners are those geographically closest: Chad, the Congo, Sudan, the DRC, and Cameroon. Perhaps the most productive point of connection between the C.A.R and foreign countries is through membership to multilateral organizations, like ECCAS (the Economic Community of African States) and OHADA (a French acronym for the Harmonization of African Business Law). Membership in these multilaterals is a support system of economic solidarity for the C.A.R to counter the dependence in its more far-reaching foreign partnerships. Beyond economic camaraderie, many challenges in Central Africa are not cut off by officially-recognized borders. This creates a sense of fluidity in the region and a necessity for governments to work together to address conflicts that cross borders. Some examples: a Chadian rebel cohort used the fluid borders of the C.A.R to cross into Chad from their base in Darfur in 2006, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo intervened in stifle a coup in C.A.R early 2001, and borders with Cameroon are kept lax to ensure ease in transporting goods from its ports into the landlocked C.A.R. All of this is to say: the countries that have the most direct impact on the C.A.R’s are those geographically closest.
Though neither China nor the United States are currently actively engaged in partnership with the Central African Republic, it is not unreasonable to guess that their interest will rise if and when intensity of conflict and poverty diminish. When democratization looked promising in early 2016 with the election of Faustin Archange Touadera, Zhang Jianlong, administrator of State Forestry Administration of China, attended the inauguration celebration in March. This seemingly inconsequential act is indicative of the strategy that China has used across the African continent. As Ian Taylor explains in The Growth of China in Africa, Beijing symbolically…accords Africa equal diplomatic status with the dominant powers”, a trend that very much breaks from the French neo-colonialism described above. Though China is neither a major investor in nor trade-partner with the C.A.R as of now, perhaps its diplomatic actions indicate the coming of policies mirroring those it has already undertaken in more politically stable African countries. The central question that begs is whether or not this new, different kind of foreign relation between China and the C.A.R will actually break from the practice of a superpower acting primarily in its own interests, or if Chinese private and national companies will find a way to promote fruitful development for the C.A.R itself.
For the time being, while China’s interest is speculative and French engagement is one-sided, the foreign countries with the most impact on the C.A.R are those that share a continent, along with similar social, economic, religious and ethnic challenges.