A Discussion with Charles-Armel Doubane, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Central African Republic (CAR)
With: Charles-Armel Doubane
May 20, 2018
Background: Charles-Armel Doubane, as the Central African Republic’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, is deeply involved in the complex peacemaking efforts for his troubled country. He led the team that negotiated an agreement, signed at the Community of Sant’Egidio headquarters in Rome in June 2017, and has since worked to translate that agreement into reality. During a visit to Tokyo in May 2018 to participate in a meeting on Africa, he spoke with Katherine Marshall about his own career path. He speaks briefly about the complex tensions that afflict his country, and about the challenges that lie ahead. This exchange is translated and summarized from a conversation in French.
What do you see as the path to peace in your country?
The two absolute priorities are to build a functioning state where there is security and respect for the law, and education. Without these two, it is difficult to imagine a path to peace.
My country needs to wake up from the nightmare it is living now. We need to reestablish a state. We also need to work for a national identity for our citizens where you are a Central African more than you are a Christian or a Muslim or whatever. We need a state that protects, that is for everyone, that has the power to enforce the law. That means we need to train and equip the police. We need the everyday presence of an orderly state: schools, markets, water points, clinics, and so on. We need to take back power from the warlords. And the future depends on education: good schools that serve everyone.
How do you explain the deep and protracted conflict in your country?
The roots of the conflict go back to the colonial era and to divisions among different population groups that emerged during that period. These were linked to economic policies and to the weaknesses of infrastructure and government structures in a country that is vast in size. The legacies and the memories of legacies shape realities even today.
You state emphatically that the conflict in the CAR is NOT religious. Yet it is often described as the result of tensions between Christian and Muslim communities. How do you account for this gap in understanding? And what is the nature of religious roles in the conflicts?
Indeed the conflicts are not religious in their origins and nature. They are about political disputes and a situation where past violence has led to calls for revenge. For many years different communities, including Christians and Muslims, have lived together in peace. The different factions [Sélékas and Anti-Balakas] are not motivated by religious beliefs but above all by fear and the desire of the leaders for power.
But the religious history and demography of the country are important in shaping the conflicts that we are working to resolve. We need to understand them and act to address them.
There is a long history of Central African Islam and Muslim minorities are present in most prefectures. Two prefectures, bordering Sudan and Chad, are majority Muslim and historically were sultanates. Families have lived there for generations, even if some were ruled from Sultanates based in what is now Sudan. In my own community and my family, I have a role as a protector of Muslims, based on traditions of our culture. This is true in all parts of the country, that are so distant from the center.
Education was also a factor, exacerbated by the weaknesses of administration in areas that were even a short distance from Bangui. It was the religious orders that established schools that were Christian in approach. Many in the Muslim communities chose not to send their children to these schools, preferring the traditional Qu’ranic schools, which functioned everywhere. This was true when public schools came to the area. Further, the quality of these schools deteriorated and teachers were poorly paid and there were no supplies. Local people were recruited to teach though they lacked credentials. If Muslim children attended the public or Christian schools, they dropped out as soon as they had learned the basics of counting. That meant they were not qualified to join the administration and were left aside. So divisions grew among communities.
The Muslim communities tended to be herders and they were in commerce so they had money. Many were very wealthy. In practice that meant they could, by paying, do pretty much anything. They paid to have peace. And corruption grew to a point where you had to pay for every kind of service and basic life actions. Barriers and frustrations grew.
The Anti-Balaka [factions and militias seen as Christian] came later. There are many minor chiefs, and the groups are motivated by a desire to defend themselves and sometimes also for revenge against grievances or attacks. Each town organizes itself. There is a similarity to the resistance in World War II, where noble objectives can be exaggerated and where leadership is very decentralized. But the situation is dangerous, and can explode with the least incident. A result is that Muslims are often driven out. The Muslim community itself is divided and in some areas there are almost no Muslims remaining. It is a situation that must stop.
Why is the role of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force so difficult?
Part of the problem is the depth of tensions and the huge size of the country. It is not helped by the fact that many peacekeepers come from Muslim nations (Bangladesh, Egypt, Morocco), and tend to be seen as biased in favor of Muslims.
Let’s turn to your own path. How did you come to hold positions of high responsibility for your government?
I was born in Zemio in 1966, which is about 1050 kilometers east from the capital (Bangui), near the border with both South Sudan and Democratic Republic of the Congo. I am a descendant, on my mother’s side, of the sultan of the region and thus was and am considered a prince. My father had been a soldier in the French army. My mother was a housewife. She married very young; she was 14 years old at the time, and in school. My father had a wife but only daughters and so he took another wife. In one sense, the marriage worked because a son (me) was soon born, but in another it did not. My mother, young as she was, could not tolerate polygamy and nine months later she left, taking me with her. We lived in a different town with my maternal grandmother and my uncle, her brother, who was a teacher. Thus, I did not grow up in the traditional family setting during my early years. I returned to my father’s household only when I was five years old. He, as a former soldier, forced my return so that, as the oldest son in the family and a prince by direct descent, I would be raised under his supervision. He wanted to be assured that I would have a good education both in school and in the family and he took special pains with me as the oldest son. My mother married again and had other children. My father also had other children, with his first wife (my stepmother), including another son. He was very focused on my role as the first son and descendent of a prince. The family setting was not very supportive, however, and I looked for family among friends at school.
Where did you go to school?
I went to the public school in the village, during what was the Bokassa era [Jean-Bédel Bokassa was in power 1966 to 76]. The school was public but was effectively run by a religious order and that was influential in my early life. In 1962, the private Catholic schools were taken over by the state, thus nationalized, but the Church continued to play a large role in running the schools. My father and grandfather were animist, and my grandmother and stepmother were protestant. My mother, however, was Catholic. I was the only Catholic in the household and that was difficult, not appreciated. I began my catechism anyway, despite the opposition, and hid what I was doing.
My independence on the religious side was helped by the fact that I did very well in school. I was always the first in my class: there was competition as to who was second but the first position was always clear. As always, the priests and brothers are quick to identify brilliant students and I became their favorite, both at school and in the parish. I spent much of my time at school and in the parish. At the end of the primary school cycle, I took three exams: first for the military academy, second for secondary school, and third for the preseminary. I passed all three exams. My father, as a former soldier, clearly wanted me to go to the military academy, and I was likely to be forced to obey if my father insisted, though I did not want to. But a friend of my father, formerly of the army, persuaded him to allow me a choice and, at the last minute, he agreed. I chose to go to the pre-seminary. I planned then to become a priest. I did well, and, aside from the academics, was naturally selected as a leader in whatever I did. I did not seek it but it always came naturally. I carried many responsibilities in that context.
From an early age, I have detested injustice. It is something I cannot tolerate, in my heart. As I grew up, everything that was unjust bothered me and I felt obliged to act. Corruption, nepotism, everything that seemed unnatural was bothersome. I describe this in detail in my book.
How did you get involved in political affairs?
From the pre-seminary, I went to the university in Bangui. This was a period when the final throes of colonialism were playing out, and the Spiritans as a religious order were involved. I saw that their path would not address the injustice that I saw at the university and I wanted to know how things were going beyond the circles I knew. I began to become involved in political matters, both Catholic and among student led efforts. I was a militant on moral and economic issues and was very interested in how such efforts were unfolding elsewhere.
We came now, while I was a student at the university, to the period of the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin War. We called it the Vendetta at the time. There was an astonishing heightening of activism and interest on the campus, wide ranging. It included demonstrations but also organization of political parties and some who were more militant and opposed to the government. I participated in various efforts focused on social justice and, in time, was part of the creation of two political parties. Everyone wanted to have me on their side. But I was also passionate about my studies and, above all, about ideas.
I found that I could not devote myself totally to any one individual or one party, yet. Such total loyalty was often what they sought. I was even critical of my professors, which was not popular at the time. I could spend many hours in debate but always kept a reserve my relationships. I was militant and passionate about ideas, spending many hours in debate, but I kept some distance. My loyalty and my faithfulness were to humanity, not to any single individual, much as I might admire them. I was ready to help always but not to pledge myself totally. Even among student movements I was never violent. I was always someone who tried to round the sharp edges. I am always looking for a good door towards a solution. From that point on I have been preaching tolerance, from many directions. That’s where my idea of a diplomat was born. I don’t like to humiliate people. I also confess to an occasional bit of narcissism and egotism. I was indeed the oldest son I was raised to be. I had half brothers and sisters but in many ways I was rather solitary from my earliest upbringing.
Your book goes deeply into how your political activities affected your personal life.
Indeed, my path and my nature translated into my personal life. I was married late and separated after ten years. Separations were part of the reason but I was also rather solitary. I had large responsibilities for my large family that included my own children. I always, however, make sure all are well cared for. My focus has been on my work. I like work well done and I take a personal responsibility to make sure it is done to a high standard.
My father took great pains to be sure that I was educated with strong traditional values. That included a sense of responsibility. He was truly the dominant male. We were not friends though there was an affection that was veiled. He never showed it. I was always the oldest and thus the focus. My younger brother was spoiled by him but I never was. Before he died (died of a heart attack), while he was ill, we had deep conversations. It was there that I understood his deeply held values and his own spirituality as he called many fundamental issues into question. We spoke about the Bible and about the traditions of our culture.
You speak of traditional values in your upbringing. Apart from the focus on family responsibility, what form did that take?
One theme in my upbringing was that my father always wanted me to go to the fields with him. His argument was that if all else failed I would need to depend on the land. At the time, I was not at all interested and refused to go. I even saved my pocket money and offered to pay the daily rate to my father instead. He refused, emphasizing that he wanted me to accompany him. I should know about agriculture because it would stand me in good stead if all else failed. I was still stubborn and refused. But as I have grown older I find that I am attracted to farming and indeed see it as something that I may wish to do in the future. It is deeply part of my culture and psyche. At the end of all this, that is where I will go.
But for now I have two forces that drive me: my hatred of injustice and my faith. I am deeply committed to the rule of law. It is something that I learned from an early age, in my household – the notion of justice and the penalties for breaking rules and the law. Liberty is the essence of law and I seek it always. And I am deeply a Christian in spirit. I find that even my critics recognize my integrity, sometimes citing it as a fault! I have not been touched by the “perfume of scandal”, the corruption that seems to be all around. This integrity is something that has hurt me sometimes but for me the law is essential and I cannot change. Otherwise, what happens is that dignity is for sale.
You have published a book about your life and early career. What is the book that you are working on now?
It is about the last two years, which have seen so many changes in my country, and especially what has happened since the 2016 presidential elections (where I was a candidate). It is a painful period, full of misunderstandings, and a worsening political situation in my country, despite our efforts to bring about peace. I have come close to resigning [as Minister of Foreign Affairs], but on reflection and consultation (including with the Cardinal), I am determined to continue. But there have been many struggles.
What are your priorities for the country?
Despite our efforts to assure security, the situation has got worse. Peace and security are the priorities. We need to restore a situation where everyday life is secure – schools, markets, roads, and playgrounds. There was a time after the visit of Pope Francis [November 2015] when there was a spirit of optimism, when things got better. But the demons are here and violence is on the rise. Restoring peace will be a long term effort.
You describe tensions in your own role in the government.
I find that my training as a diplomat has many roots and I have been able both to bring my own expertise and experience (for example as Minister of Education) and to assemble an excellent team. I have strong links to the Catholic Church which is a support, spiritual and practical, for my work. I have generally been happy with what was accomplished during these two years. But the situation of the government is very fragile and the lines where compromise is necessary and possible for me are difficult. In May 2017, I had a long personal discussion with the President [Faustin-Archange Touadéra]. I ran against him in 2016 but had known him for many years. He invited me to come to Jerusalem then, and we visited Holy Sites together and discussed areas where we agreed and where we disagreed, where we do and do not share a vision. We had a meeting of minds but since then the situation has become more difficult.
Among the issues where there have been tensions since then are the growing corruption and questions about the significance and application of human rights. The role of the United Nations peacekeeping mission is an issue as are the roles of China and Russia. I have much respect for what they do but cannot close my eyes to violations and do not share the overall vision. My own orientation is one of the center, not left or right.
And for your future?
God and the future are in charge! The next elections will be in 2021 (five years after the 2016 elections). I am reflecting a lot about the role I want to play. It is complex and I want to be sure to be free of the taint of money (I financed my campaign for the presidency before from my own savings). I have decided!