The variety in climate, vegetation, and population density in Central Africa is enormous, but some of the main features of policymaking and informal rules of politics—at first sight at least—appear quite similar between N’Djaména and Kinshasa, between Libreville and Bangui, in a vast territory bigger than the European Union: clientelism, personalization of power, politicized ethnicity, the impact of external intervention, and a legacy of repeated political violence establish some constant features. On the other hand, the variable size of countries (from island states in the Gulf of Guinea to large territorial states) has also come with various challenges. Also, Central Africa features land-locked countries such as Chad and Central African Republic, which negatively impacts economic development, in contrast to countries located at the Gulf of Guinea with an easy access to maritime trade routes. At closer inspection all of the eight countries have a specific history, but this overview article rather stresses the commonalities. Featuring in this contribution are the countries of Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Equatorial-Guinea, Gabon, and São Tomé and Príncipe. The limited achievements of pro-democracy movements in Central Africa in the 1990s have enduring consequences on politics in Africa. Authoritarian regimes have consolidated their grip on power after surviving severe crises in most Central African states. Big man politics continue to prevail, only few opposition parties have upheld their initial strength and lack internal democracy. Enduring violent conflicts in DRC and CAR (and arguably to a somewhat lesser extent in Chad), have undermined conviviality between groups and state capacities in providing public goods with dramatic consequences on effectiveness and legitimacy of the state and its representatives. Prospects for a future allowing for more participation, truly competitive elections, and a peaceful change of government are therefore also grim. However, both violent and peaceful forms of contestation since about 2015 are also signs of renewed mobilization of citizens for political causes across Central Africa. New topics, including consumer defense and ecological issues, plus now-ubiquitous social media, may all be drivers for a new episode of engagement after two decades of frustration. The limited achievements of regional integration and the lack of dynamism of subregional organizations means that Central Africa is still a much less consolidated subregion compared to, for example, West Africa.
Since independence from France in 1960, the Central African Republic (CAR) has experienced numerous military coups both successful and unsuccessful, mutinies by disgruntled soldiers and civil wars that have had terrible impacts on civilians. Three career military officers took power by force and led the country for a total of 36 years: Bokassa (1965–1979), Kolingba (1981–1993), and Bozize (2003–2013). From the 1960s to 1990s, both military and civilian rulers politicized, regionalized, and weakened the CAR military by packing it with supporters from their home areas and ethnic groups, and establishing alternative security structures and bringing in foreign troops to secure their regimes. In this period, the CAR military became a Praetorian force obsessed with the country’s internal political power struggles. In the 1990s, in the context of the post-Cold War political liberalization of Africa, the CAR’s transition to democracy was undermined by a succession of army mutinies over lack of pay and other grievances that fatally weakened an already fragile state. A series of civil wars in the 2000s and 2010s resulted in the near dissolution of the CAR military and the partition of the country into a network of fiefdoms dominated by antagonistic local armed factions separated from each other by beleaguered UN peacekeepers.