Friday, 4 May 2012

No vision but a vicious circle of poverty, corruption and lack of investment

Six weeks ago two people I got to know in Bangui, one of them quite well, were imprisoned without charge after discovering a suspected Lord’s Resistance Army massacre in the area where they operate a safari business. Although I heard about this at a very early stage it is only now that Swedish and British press have paid some attention to these unfortunate events.
In brief, David, who works for the safari company found a number of mutilated dead bodies while working in the area. He contacted his boss, Erik, and got in touch with the authorities who came to investigate the crime scene. Unfortunately there was not much of an investigation but the soldiers who were meant to conduct the investigation seemed scared and just took some pictures of the bodies with their mobile phones. Both Erik and David voluntarily went to Bangui to answer some questions but were instead imprisoned without charges together with ten of their Central African employees

That was six weeks ago and still no charges have been presented.
They are both alright and treated well, but obviously the situation is quite frustrationg, for them and their families. For some more information in Swedish have a look at these three websites and for some first-hand information have a look at Erik’s wife’s blog 
There are also some articles in English and in French
According to Central African law, a person cannot be kept in custody this long without charges. It is unclear why these men are locked up. One possible explanation is greed, as poorly paid employees are in urgent need for additional cash, civil servants at all levels within the administration are tempted to do “additional business” due to the bad economic situation of the country.
The economy of the CAR is at a terrible state, the country is dependent on foreign aid and is ranked the second last business friendly country in the world (2011), according to the World bank Group. The lower the ranking on the “ease of doing business index” means the less conducive is the regulatory environment to the starting and operation of a local firm. Only Chad is ranked lower.
In Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index which score countries on how corrupt their public sectors are perceived the CAR scores 2.2 together with Congo-Brazzaville, Guinea-Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Laos, Nepal, Papua New Guinea and Paraguay. The less corrupt country New Zealand scores 9.5 out of 10 and in the bottom of the list you find Somalia and North Korea with score 1. These indexes obviously must be red with some caution but they do say a fair bit about the situation in the country when it comes to corruption and the prospects for investment (both foreign and domestic).
My experience from the CAR is that yes, it is very corrupt indeed and yes, it seems to be a real hustle to open a business and operate it, but some people do which is the only way to create jobs and get the economy going. The problem is that corruption is an integral part of the system. It is a way for people to survive and get through due to extremely low salaries and months of salary arrears, at the same time it is the wide spread corruption that has created such conditions in the first place which gives those in power an opportunity to benefit from their positions. The CAR is a country with fertile land and good conditions for developing the agricultural sector; it is not cursed by draughts as many countries in the Sahel region for example. Furthermore there are diamonds, timber, gold and uranium and other minerals. Although the CAR has been ravaged by violent conflict for a long time it is not a war torn state like many others; there was never a state there to start with, not even when it was a part of French Equatorial Africa before independence. However, the potentials for the CAR are great, it could be an African Switzerland but there is very little to build on.

Not many foreigners are tempted to invest in a country with such high levels of corruption, bad infrastructure and weak rule of law. Furthermore the whole region is politically unstable with huge security problems. In addition some foreign companies are only interested in profiting from the resources in the country without actually contributing to the economic development. I had some interesting encounters with foreign investors during my stay in Bangui. In an earlier post I wrote about when I had drinks at the president’s sister's house , who is also a depute in the general assembly. As you can read in the post a foreign company wanted to invest in the energy sector. They were willing to do so despite the unstable political situation but eventually there was no deal due to all the complications with starting a business in the country. Important to remember is that the company already was operating in Uganda, Cameroon and some other places but they eventually considered the business climate in the CAR too difficult.
On the positive side despite all the problems in the country the press is relatively free. The CAR comes just after Italy on the press freedom index by Reporters without borders and is ranked higher than many other European countries  My personal experience is that the press is relatively critical towards the government and many journalists freely speak their mind. In 2005 the media law decriminalised media offences, nevertheless journalists are imprisoned now and then. On 26 January a court in Bangui gave Ferdinand Samba, the editor of the daily Le Démocrate, a 10-month jail sentence. Mr Samba also had to pay a 1500 euro fine and the newspaper was closed down. Mr Samba was charged with defaming and insulting the finance minister and “inciting hatred” against him  After 3 months of imprisonment the President Francois Bozizé, who is related to the finance minister, granted Mr Samba a pardon on the 3 of May , on the World Press Freedom Day (!). 
This shows that there are obviously constraints on the freedom of the press in the CAR but I believe that the main problem is that people don’t have access to the journals, that they cannot read or can’t afford a radio. Only half of the country’s population over 15 can read and write.  The CAR was ranked a low human development country in 2011 , and was among the bottom ten countries on the list
So what has all this to do with the illegal imprisonment of a Swedish and a British national (and several Central Africans with them)? Well, as the Central African on-line newspaper writes; the safari company employs some 250 central Africans and generates large incomes for the state and the government in forms of taxes, fees and rents for the land they use. The journalist writes that the main question for the CAR at this point in time is about development, for this domestic and foreign investment is needed. To imprison the owner and employees of a serious business that contributes to the treasury of the state can only be counterproductive and by forcing the Central African Wildlife Adventures to close down its business for no good reason what so ever, is to “fermer son premier robinet” i.e. to cut off the main source of income as this may scare away other possible investors and have a negative impact on the development partners willingness to provide aid.
This is a vicious circle of poverty and instability that generates corruption which in turn scare off investors and possible partners which then increases poverty and instability. The question of rule of law is not only about legislation but how to actually implement it and apply it, as the case with both Mr Samba and the imprisonment of Erik and David shows; the mere existance of a law does not protect you. There are some indications that Erik and David were arrested because some people saw the opportunity to get some money out of them. It is highly likely. Obviously it is very short sighted as it might diminish the income for everybody in the long term. However, it is not that strange that people try to get the most out of every opportunity when the future is so uncertain, tragically this only increase the prospect for an uncertain future, another vicious circle.
So what to do?  I believe that the most important thing is to break these vicious circles. This is a challenging task, everyone who once has been caught up in a vicious circle knows how hard it is to break the pattern. You have to want it, but you also have to have the capacity to do it. Perhaps outsiders can provide and support when it comes to capacity but no one can force someone else to want to do something. However, my experience from the CAR is that many people in Bangui were deeply unsatisfied with the current situation, some of them didn’t have the capacity to do something about it, some of them lacked the will, but I got the feeling that in most cases it was actually about something else; a feeling of despair, of being forgotten and a disbelief in the possibilities of change. Many people I spoke to said that there is no vision for the future of the country, no strong political movement that can unite people. Everyone just thinks about him/herself.
The Central African Republic needs a vision for the future.

1 comment:

  1. It is sad. Countries are different, similar problems