It is a sad comment on international concern for Africa that Boris Becker’s recent attempts to escape bankruptcy by claiming to be a diplomat for the Central African Republic (CAR) seemed to attract more global media attention than the country’s dire humanitarian and military situation.

CAR is close to becoming a failed state with one of the world’s biggest refugee and IDP crises and a plethora of armed factions fighting for control of rich mineral resources, territory and trade. The government has little power outside the capital Bangui.

Yet the German former tennis star’s unorthodox effort last month to claim immunity from bankruptcy proceedings in London because he was CAR’s sports and culture envoy to the European Union was no doubt the first time many international readers had even heard of the place. 

CAR officials have issued conflicting statements on whether his claim was valid.

Western, especially U.S ignorance of Africa, which has worsened under President Donald Trump and his notorious dismissal of “shithole countries”, is commonplace. But even by African standards, CAR has long been a hidden calamity.

Samantha Power, Barack Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, called CAR “the worst crisis most people have never heard of” after the latest bloodshed began in 2013 when the Seleka alliance of mostly Muslim rebels overthrew President Francois Bozize.

But at that time, the violence did at least arouse international concern, led by former colonial power France and Washington. Power visited CAR while Obama offered financial and military support to African and French troops trying to restore peace.

Democratic elections failed to stop conflict

Seleka was disbanded in late 2013. Mathematics professor Faustin Touadera was elected president in 2016 after democratic elections and the conflict subsided somewhat for a while.

But the violence has since mushroomed and international interest, particularly in the U.S. has sharply declined.

The original conflict between southern Christians and Muslims from the north has been superseded by ethnic divisions as the main driver of violence, although faith-based attacks have continued.

 At least 26 people were killed in the capital on May 1 when gunmen attacked a church on the edge of a Muslim neighbourhood that had already been targeted earlier in the conflict.

The attack may have been at least partly in retaliation for the death of 28 people in April in clashes between U.N peacekeepers and local security forces and armed groups in the enclave.

French army withdraws

A 2,000-strong French force officially ended its mission in 2016 after allegations of sexual violence and abuse against civilians. The U.N.’s MINUSCA peacekeeping force of around 10,000 soldiers and 2,000 police is too thinly stretched in a country bigger than France as violence spreads to more remote areas.

Massacres, rapes and atrocities abound on all sides. Up to 6,000 people are estimated to have been killed since the conflict began in 2013 and human rights groups say crimes against humanity have been committed. 

A special war crimes court has been agreed in CAR although with the government’s control currently not extending beyond Bangui it is hard to see how culprits will be arrested.

Humanitarian workers have become a target of rebel groups, with at least 14 killed last year and more than 60 attacks on them in 2018. Humanitarian organisations recently suspended their efforts in the north and east because of attacks on staff.

More than 1.2 million people, or a quarter of the population, have fled their homes, with around half that number crossing to neighbouring countries, especially Cameroon. Around two million people, from a population of 4.6 million, need humanitarian assistance after the fighting disrupted agricultural production.

World looks the other way

Yet the international community has largely looked away. A $515 million humanitarian plan for CAR this year was only 16 percent funded by early June.

Neither violence, nor chaos, nor humanitarian crises are new to CAR, a country which like neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has had a disastrous history from colonial exploitation to almost constant turmoil, including five coups since independence from France in 1960.

For decades, it has been a byword for instability, misgovernment and corruption that have kept it one of the world’s poorest countries despite mineral riches including diamonds, gold and uranium.

Its notoriety began soon after independence when army commander Jean-Bedel Bokassa seized power in 1965 and 12 brutal years later crowned himself emperor in a lavish ceremony costing $20 million that nearly bankrupted the impoverished nation.

Those living outside Bangui have long felt themselves marginalised from economic development through decades of neglect and corruption by elites based in the capital. This alienation has fuelled recruitment to rebel movements, especially in the neglected north. 

CAR is situated in a very rough neighbourhood with four countries on its borders - DRC, Sudan, South Sudan and Chad - hit in the recent past by civil wars that destabilised the region, as does CAR’s own conflict. Sudanese and Chadian mercenaries are involved in the fighting.

But with international attention elsewhere, prospects of an end to the suffering look bleak.

More than a dozen militias have largely ignored the president’s attempt to initiate disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration efforts and he has little leverage with no power outside Bangui.

Perhaps it is a tragic irony that Boris Becker, whose personal life and financial affairs often look like a train wreck, chose one of Africa’s most benighted countries for his strange foray into diplomacy.

-  Agency (ANA/N-D)

* Barry Moody was Africa Editor for Reuters for 10 years and Middle East editor for seven, during which time he led coverage of the 2003 Iraq war. He worked on every continent as one of the agency’s most experienced foreign correspondents and editors. His postings included Italy, Asia, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Australasia and the United States. He ran editorial operations in Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal at the height of the EU debt crisis.