Paris faces unpleasant choices over African Crackdown
Douala, Cameroon — Multiparty democracies, rare at the best of times in black Africa, appear to be in shorter supply following the imposition of martial law and the suppression of opposition groups in the Central African Republic.
And there are serious implications for the new Socialist government in France as well.
With tensions continuing and opposition to French troop presence in the Central African Republic apparently widening, French President Francois Mitterrand may be forced to choose among three unpleasant alternatives:
* Condoning political repression.
* Intervening again in Africa.
* Or withdrawing French troops from the only base within striking distance of Libyan positions in neighboring Chad.
The Mitterrand government has had more than enough to worry about in Africa, and not just the continuing concern over Libyans in Chad.
Although things are improving now, there were several tense weeks of strained relations between Cameroon and Gabon, two of France's most important African allies. A border dispute between Cameroon and Nigeria, which threatened to erupt into hostilities, is also quieting down.
But in Central Africa, the situation has deteriorated steadily since multiparty elections returned President David Dacko to office in April, amid charges of fraud and French interference.
At that time, President Dacko was forced to declarea "state of seige," granting the Army authorization to use force to suppress rioting students who backed his main rival, Ange Patasse. Though order was restored, opposition to Dacko became more vocal.
The catalyst for the July crackdown on political parties and the reimposition of the "state of seige" was the bombing of a movie house in Bangui, the capital, on July 14 that left four dead and 32 injured. Unexploded bombs were found soon after in the local power station and the headquarters of the mining concern providing Central Africa with most of its foreign exchange earnings.
The Central African Movement for National Liberation (MCLN), a radical group with headquarters in Tripoli, Libya, claimed responsibility for the bombing, and called for the overthrow of the Dacko government, and the withdrawal of the 1, 300 French paratroopers in the country.
The President responded by suspending the Constitution and giving the military sweeping power to maintain order. A week after the bombing, he outlawed the MCLN and issued orders to arrest its leader, Rodolphe Idi Lalla, then in Lagos, Nigeria.
If Dacko had banned the MCLN alone, he may have weathered the storm, for Lalla has little popular support in the country and other political groups disapproved of the bombing.
(The Movement for the Liberation of the Central African People and the Ubangi Partriotic Front, which together drew 40 percent of the vote in the contested elections in March -- denounced the bombings.)
But the President suspended MLPC activity and outlawed the FPO. At the same time, an arrest warrant was issued for Abel Guene- Goumba, leader of the FPO, and Ange Patasse of the MLPC, Dacko's principal rival, was put under house arrest.
The heavy-handled measures against opposition groups and the suspension of civil liberties angered the Socialists in Paris, whose patience with Dacko is limited anyway. He assumed power in 1979, after a coup engineered by former French President Giscard d'Estaing deposed Jean-Bedel Bokassa.
CAR Prime Minister Simon-Narcisse Bozanga struck back at the Socialist Party, accusing France of "interventionism."
Dacko, in a bid to placate the French, then said in an interview with the French news agency in Bangui that the "process of democratization" that had begun with his ascension to power in 1979 would continue. But he warned that withdrawal of support could push the country to look for other friends.
"If our own friends who contributed to the downfall of Bokassa can do nothing more for us, I don't see why we wouldn't offer our hand to the devil," he said, referring to the East bloc.
Despite the promise of multiparty democracy, however, Dacko has maintained the state of seige. According to recent visitors, Army troops patrol the streets and airport, searching residents and expatriates at will.
The deteriorating political situation has put the Mitterrand government on the spot. French troops, originally sent by Mitterrand's predecessor to oust Bokassa (who had become something of an embarrassment to Paris), remain, ostensibly as a buffer against Libyan troops in Chad.
But the opposition is viewing the troops as dacko's praetorian guard. "I got a very strong feeling that the people in general are opposed to the French," said a British businessman recently back from Bangui.
However, Mitterrand, who ran against Giscard-type inter-vention in Africa, appears to have concluded, however reluctantly, that the troops must stay as a deterrent to further Libyan pushes in central or west Africa.
Whether Mitterrand can maintain the troops, distance his government from Dacko's political repression, and pressure him to restore multiparty democracy all at the same time, would appear to be a formidable first test of the Socialists' African policy.