Three times last year several units of the Central African Republic's armed forces mutinied and called for the resignation of President Ange-Flix Patasse. In each case France intervened to support the elected president and to facilitate negotiations, but all efforts to end the last of these mutinies, which began on Nov. 15, have so far failed.
A one-month truce was signed on Dec. 22, but public anger at the failure to end this mutiny is threatening to explode in the capital, Bangui. Prospects for a negotiated settlement appear dim because the rebels' first condition is that the president step down while the government has made it clear that Mr. Patasse's resignation is not negotiable.
What Patasse could do is call for an election to be held as soon as possible. He would be likely to win such an election, and if he did, the rebels' claim that the president no longer has the support of the people would be undermined.
Despite widespread disillusionment with Patasse's leadership, he still appears to have more supporters than any other Central African politician. This support is based in part upon an unusual combination of ethnic, residential, and marital ties. Patasse's father was a Suma, one of many ethnic groups who speak similar dialects and are classified as Gbaya-speakers.
The backbone of the president's support comes from the numerous Gbaya-speaking groups who predominate in the more populous western half of the country.
A diverse political base
Patasse is also a favorite of the Kaba people who live in the far north, near the border with Chad. The president's father worked as a French administrative assistant among the Kaba during the colonial era and so Patasse lived in Kabaland as a child and is considered a native of that region. He is in fact often mistakingly identified as belonging to the Kaba ethnic group.
The president's mother was from still another ethnic group in the north, whose members regard the president as their "in-law." Patasse therefore has a strong base of support among many ethnic groups.
In addition, the president has widespread support among other northerners who resent southerners' domination of Central African politics since independence. Between 1960 and 1993, when Patasse was elected, every president of the republic was from the south. Yet southerners comprise only 15 to 20 percent of the population.
Southern domination began during the colonial era when the French penetrated the region from the south and hired most of their first local assistants, often mercenaries, there. Many of these early collaborators were riverine peoples such as the Yakoma, who lived along the Ubangi River.
It was a Yakoma general, Andre Kolingba, whom Patasse defeated at the polls in 1993. During General Kolingba's 12-year rule, Yakoma soldiers came to have increasingly prominent positions in the armed forces. Many key leaders of the mutiny are Yakoma, as are many of the troops in the units they command.
When Patasse won 52 percent of the vote and came to power, he had to face the hostility of many southerners in the military who had close ties with the French. Despite the advice of hard-liners within his own party that he needed to act decisively to weaken southern domination of many units in the Army, Patass did not effectively do so, partly to avoid provoking a revolt.
These hard-liners and many of his other supporters are currently very upset with Patasse because they feel he has not been tough enough in dealing with his opponents, particularly the rebels. But these disgruntled supporters would almost certainly vote for Patass if an election were held because they would want to stand united against the rebels and their sympathizers.
As many as nine opposition political parties are reported to have been formed, and some have joined the rebels in calling for Patass to step down. But this is only more evidence that those who oppose Patass have not been able to unite behind an alternative candidate.
Elections the best option
What other good choice does the president have but to call for immediate elections? If he attempts to crush the rebels, who have retained control of one section of the capital, it would not only cost many lives but would sow more seeds of hate.
It might also lead to pitched battles between the angry supporters of each side in neighborhoods throughout the capital.
Since the rebels must be aware that most Central Africans are extremely angry at them and want to see firm measures taken to prevent further mutinies, they are likely to claim that fair elections could not be held at this time. If so, Patasse could invite an African task force composed of troops and organizers from Burkina Faso, Chad, Gabon, and Mali, for example, to guard voting booths in the capital.
This would be necessary in Bangui in particular, because sending government representatives into neighborhoods known to be supportive of the rebels could provoke violence, as could the presence of rebel supporters in districts hostile to the mutineers.
Since French observers or guards around voting booths in the capital would also be provocative, it would seem best to call on African countries for help. Their presidents have already played a constructive role in helping to negotiate a cease-fire between the two sides.
The French would like nothing better than to get out of this mess. They have everything to gain by putting pressure on Patasse and the rebels to agree to an election and accept its results.
If the rebels refuse the election option, they would lose credibility at home and abroad and Patasse's negotiating position would greatly improve. Even if most of his opponents managed to unite behind a strong candidate who defeated Patasse, the president would then step down for the right reason, not because a group of soldiers demanded that he do so.
* Richard Bradshaw teaches African history at Centre College in Kentucky. He lived in the Central African Republic for six years.