Central African Republics
Central Africa covers a large physical area that can range from desert conditions to the north in Chad to tropical rain forests and mountains in the equatorial region of The Congo. The entire region is roughly the same size as the United States west of the Mississippi River. The countries included in the region vary with different organizations or geographic perspectives; in this textbook, the countries include Cameroon, Congo, Chad, the Central African Republic, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, the Congo (Zaire), Rwanda, and Burundi. Located off the west coast of Central Africa is the small twin island country of São Tomé and Príncipe.
Burundi and Rwanda are often included in the region of East Africa, but their connection to the Congo makes them more relevant to the Central African region for the purposes of this book.
The equator runs through the middle of Central Africa. Type A (tropical) climates are dominant in the region, complete with tropical rain forests and jungle environments. In the north is the African Transition Zone, which runs through Chad. In Chad, the arid region of the Sahara Desert transitions into the humid tropics.
The physical geography varies with each country in Central Africa. The most prominent physical landscape is the tropical rain forests of the equatorial region.
Highlands can be found in both the western and eastern regions of Central Africa. The Cameroon Highlands are a product of a geologic rift in tectonic plates that created São Tomé and Príncipe, the island portion of Equatorial Guinea, and the mountainous portions of the mainland on the border between Nigeria and Cameroon. There are a number of volcanoes in Cameroon. The only currently active volcano and the highest in elevation is Mt. Cameroon, at more than thirteen thousand feet. Mt. Cameroon emitted a cloud of carbon dioxide in 1986, killing more than 1,700 people. The volcano last erupted in 2000. In the crater of one of the volcanic peaks is Lake Nyos (Mount Cameroon).
Lake Chad in the north is a large, shallow body of water that lies on the border of Chad, Niger, Nigeria, and Cameroon.
The size of Lake Chad varies widely because it expands and contracts with the seasonal variations in precipitation.
Lake Chad provides water for local livestock and fishing for millions of people. Its location on the border of four countries has caused political infighting over local water rights, which are valuable commodities in such an arid climate. The average depth of Lake Chad ranges from five to thirty-five feet. Climatic conditions and diversion of the lake for human purposes have caused the water to recede. If these conditions continue, the lake might virtually disappear by the end of the twenty-first century, which would have disastrous effects on both the human population around the lake and the biodiversity. Waterfowl, crocodiles, fish, and a host of other creatures depend on Lake Chad for their survival, and its loss would create an environmental catastrophe.
On the eastern border of the Congo is a portion of the Great Rift Valley, which extends from Southern Africa in Mozambique to Lebanon in the Middle East. Lake Tanganyika and Lake Albert are two of the larger lakes in Central Africa along the western section of the Great Rift Valley.
Lake Tanganyika is more than 418 miles long and runs the entire length of the boundary between the Congo and Tanzania. These are deepwater lakes. Lake Tanganyika is the world’s second-deepest lake, with a depth of 4,800 feet. Because of its depth, it is also the world’s second-largest lake by volume after Lake Baikal in Russia, which has the record for both volume and depth.
Fish and fresh water from Lake Tanganyika support millions of people who make their living directly from the lake’s resources or who live in the surrounding area. The Great Rift Valley is bordered by high mountains such as the Rwenzori Range and its highlands, which include active volcanoes.
A number of volcanoes are located in the Congo, not far from the border with Rwanda. In 2002, Mt. Nyiragongo, a volcano with an elevation of 11,358 feet in the eastern highlands of the Congo, experienced a series of eruptions that killed a few dozen people, destroyed thousands of buildings, and caused the evacuation of as many as four hundred thousand people. Various volcanoes in this range have active lava lakes in their craters at their peaks.
At the heart of Central Africa are the massive Congo River and all its tributaries. It is the deepest river system in the world and has some stretches that run more than seven hundred feet deep, providing habitats for a wide range of organisms and fish species. The Congo River basin is second only to the size of the Amazon basin in South America.
Home to Africa’s largest tropical rain forest, this region is host to a massive variety of plant and animal species, which create an extensive environmental resource base. Human activity has been encroaching on this valuable environmental region filled with extensive biodiversity. Logging, slash-and-burn agriculture, and civil war have devastated large areas of the Congo basin, resulting in the loss of habitat for many tropical species.
Deforestation activities have been on the rise in Central Africa and the Congo basin. Endangered primates such as chimpanzees and gorillas, along with monkeys and game animals, have struggled to adjust to the shrinkage of their habitat and the decline of their population.
The endangered mountain gorillas in the northern region of the highlands have gained attention through the efforts of professional scientists such as Dian Fossey who have attempted to understand and preserve their ecosystems.
Mountain gorillas have been dwindling in numbers because of poaching, civil war, and hunting. It will take concerted preservation activities for gorillas to survive in their native habitat.
Conflicts and Unrest in Central Africa
The two landlocked countries of Chad and the Central African Republic have endured unstable conditions in their transitions to independent, stable democratic states.
Chad had been in dispute with Libya over the Aozou Strip bordering their two countries, an area deemed rich in minerals and uranium, but in 1994, Chad was awarded sovereignty over the Aozou Strip by the United Nations (UN) International Court of Justice.
Chad is a temporary home of more than 250,000 refugees from the ethnic cleansing campaign in the Darfur region of the Sudan. Thousands more from the Central African Republic have sought refuge in Chad. Meanwhile, Chad’s government has been plagued with corruption and mismanagement, a state of affairs that has hampered its efforts to offer humanitarian aid to its refugees. Similarly, the Central African Republic is troubled by a history of unstable and short-lived democratic governments.
Military coups and transitional governments are frequent. Civil unrest erupts into chaos. Rebel groups control large parts of the countryside. It is difficult for the people to access reliable public services such as health care, education, and transportation systems when the government is not functioning adequately.
Cameroon and Gabon have more stable governments than Chad or the Central African Republic. Still, they are not without political issues. Cameroon was a German colony as a result of the Berlin Conference of 1884 where the colonial European countries divided up Africa. It remained so until after World War I, when it was divided between the British and the French. Finally, in 1961, the two sides were merged into one country under one government.
The two hundred or so different ethnic groups place pressure on the government to address social concerns. Even though the government has become stable more recently, social pressures between traditional groups and groups with a European colonial background have erupted into social unrest. The European Anglo factions have gone so far as to threaten to separate the once-British portion and secede from Cameroon.
Formerly a French colony, Gabon has transitioned to independence successfully.
The country’s small population of about 2.2 million people, along with adequate natural resources, has facilitated Gabon’s development into a country with a relatively stable democratic government and a higher standard of living. Gabon is geared toward attracting more foreign investments.
Equatorial Guinea and the island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe are small countries on the west coast of Central Africa. Serious violence erupted in the former Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea after it gained independence in 1968.
The first elected president governed through authoritarian rule, and after a few years in office, he unleashed a reign of terror that resulted in the death of more than one-third of the population and totally neglected the country’s public service sector and infrastructure. He was overthrown and executed by his successor, who then implemented authoritarian measures to make sure he would remain in power and continue to control all the revenues from the extensive oil activity in the offshore waters around his country. The billions in oil revenues have remained in the hands of the president and his family-controlled cabinet. Equatorial Guinea is Subsaharan Africa’s third-largest oil exporter; however, most of the country’s citizens have benefited little from the vast wealth of the lucrative oil industry. Equatorial Guinea’s government is authoritarian and has one of the worst human rights records in the world, consistently ranking among the “worst of the worst” in Freedom House’s annual survey of political and civil rights. Less than half the population has access to clean drinking water and 20% of children die before the age of five. Women and children are subjected to forced labor and human trafficking.
The former Portuguese colony of São Tomé and Príncipe consists of two small islands off the coast of Gabon. The islands received their independence in 1975, but that’s when their problems in establishing a stable government began.
Political turmoil delayed the arrival of democratic reforms for a decade. Elections for leadership were not held until 1991, and after the elections, leadership changed repeatedly because of political infighting. In 1995 and 2003, two coups were attempted without success. The democratic process has been complicated by offshore oil discovery, which has brought an influx of outside workers and media attention to the country. Multinational oil companies have begun to invest heavily in the development of oil production in the region.
Rwanda has been severely affected by the difficulties typically associated with the transition between colony and independent nation.
Ethnic divisions manipulated by the colonial masters erupted to challenge the country’s stability and future. The division between the Tutsis and the Hutus has deep historic roots.
In 1994, the centuries-old conflict between the two ethnic groups erupted into violence of unprecedented proportions and resulted in the senseless killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. The Hutus amassed large militias and took revenge on the Tutsis for years of oppression. Hutu militias rounded up and killed all Tutsis, moderates, and anyone not supporting the Hutu cause. The killing of hundreds of thousands of people continued from city to city throughout the countryside. Within a few months, the genocide is estimated to have caused the death of as many as a million people.
The atrocities of the Rwandan genocide extended across the population. Men, women, and children were encouraged to kill their neighbors by hacking them to death with machetes. If they refused to comply, they themselves were threatened with death. Victims were herded into schools and churches, where they were massacred and the buildings would be burned to the ground. As people fled the region, the number of Tutsi refugees entering neighboring countries ballooned to more than a million.
Tutsi rebels finally gained strength, defeated the Hutu militias, and ended the slaughter. Fearing retribution for the more than one million Tutsis who had been massacred, more than a million defeated Hutus fled as refugees across the borders into Uganda, Burundi, the Congo, Uganda, and Tanzania. Refugee camps housing thousands of people each were hastily constructed without proper sanitation or supplies of drinking water. Diseases such as cholera and dysentery swept through the camps and killed thousands of refugees. The country of Rwanda was left divided and devastated.
A period of reconciliation and justice began, and the conditions in Rwanda improved. Rwanda now has low corruption rates and was ranked as the 5th cleanest out of 47 Sub-Saharan African countries.
Rwanda is one of only two countries in which mountain gorillas can be visited safely, and visitors pay high prices for gorilla tracking permits.
The entire Central African region was devastated by the massive shifts of refugees and the brutal killing of so many people. The competition for the control of resources and the increase in military arms along the Zairian border became a major component of the civil war that plagued the Congo (Zaire) during the same period. Up to five million people died in the Congo because of warfare, disease, and starvation. The wars in the Congo involved military actions by the Tutsis from the Rwandan and Ugandan governments and Hutu militias.
The small country of Burundi also has been caught up in the conflicts in Rwanda and the Congo.
Germany claimed the region of Burundi as a colony in the European scramble for Africa’s resources. After World War I, they handed Burundi over to Belgium. Burundi and Rwanda were both part of Belgium’s African colonial empire and were together called Ruanda-Urundi. The two countries were later separated. Burundi achieved independence in 1962. Unfortunately, the ethnic conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis that tore apart Rwanda in the genocidal war in 1994 had also plagued Burundi. In 1965, the military was controlled by Tutsi leadership. When the Hutus revolted, they were repressed. The entire government came under Tutsi control. Hutu attacks in 1972 resulted in a systematic retaliation by the Tutsis that killed approximately 200,000 Hutus and forced another 150,000 to flee the country. Burundians were rated as the world’s least happy in 2018.
The names of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (a former Belgian colony) and the Republic of the Congo (a former French colony) are confusing.
At one point after they had become independent, both countries chose the name Republic of Congo. To keep them straight, they were commonly referred to by their respective capital cities—that is, Congo-Leopoldville (the larger eastern country, also known as Zaire) and Congo-Brazzaville (the smaller western country). The larger former Belgian colony has since become simply The Congo or is referred to unofficially as the Belgian Congo, and the smaller former French colony has become Congo. In 1966, Joseph Mobutu, the political leader of the Congo, officially changed the nation’s name to Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1971, the name was changed to the Republic of Zaire. In 1997, after a bitter civil war and the overthrow of Mobutu, the new president, Laurent Kabila, changed Zaire back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, often referred to as the Congo. To keep the two names separate, many refer to the Congo as Congo-Zaire.
The Congo has a violent past. It’s much less confusing to just watch the following videos to understand the conflict in the area:
People in the Congo are still dying because of the devastation of the war. Those not killed in actual warfare are dying of hunger and disease where food, medicine, and health care are not available. The death rate in 2008 was estimated to be as high as forty-five thousand people per month in the eastern and central regions—many of them children. Survivors of the bloody civil war report horrendous terrorist campaigns conducted by various militias that used mass rape, mutilation, and torture as a means of control and social pressure. The UN had more than eighteen thousand troops in the Congo as of 2007 to help curb the civil unrest and militant activities.
Understanding that most wars are fought over the control of resources is a major step in comprehending the conflicts in Central Africa. The conflicts in the Congo are likely to continue because of vast caches of mineral wealth in the country that have yet to be extracted. Economic pressure to control the extraction activities of saleable raw materials is often the driving force behind rebel groups in places such as the Congo. Local factions usually sell the raw materials for prices well below market value.
The sale of precious minerals such as cobalt, coltan, gold, and diamonds has helped fund the wars in the Congo. The country produces more cobalt ore than any other country in the world. Cobalt is a valued metal used in aircraft engines, medical implants, and high-performance batteries. The major mining operations for cobalt ore are located in the southeastern Katanga state, where there are also large reserves of copper.
Coltan is a mineral that tantalum comes from, which is highly prized for its use in capacitors for electronic circuits. Tantalum is found in most modern electronic devices in high demand worldwide, from video game systems to cell phones. Most of the coltan in the world comes from mines in the Congo in the eastern Kiva regions. The eastern region is also home to a high percentage of the world’s industrial diamond reserves. Other minerals and ores are also found in abundance in the region. The sale of precious gems and rare minerals can bring huge profits, but the wealth seldom reaches the hands of those that labor in the mines in the extraction process.
The Other Side of Life in Central Africa
A great variety of cultural traditions spring from the thousands of ethnic groups, distinct languages, and different religious beliefs found in Africa. Cuisine and drink vary as widely as the people’s traditions and are important elements of any celebration or festivity. Every country has its own unique way of promoting and celebrating its cultural diversity. Even poor countries such as Chad possess a rich cultural heritage. Rwanda, with its civil wars and ethnic divisions, still honors its holidays with ceremonies and celebrations. The people of Central Africa find time and energy to celebrate life.
Food and drink differ with location, but most African countries brew some type of beer or alcoholic beverage. Ginger and honey beers are commonly brewed. In Burundi, when close friends gather, they may drink beer from a large container, each with his or her own straw, as a symbol of unity.
Meats can be scarce, so fish and other sources of protein are eaten including peanuts and insects such as cicadas, grasshoppers, crickets, and termites.
Coffee is grown in the tropics, a climate prevalent in many of the countries in Subsaharan Africa. Coffee or tea is a major export product of almost all the Central African countries. In many areas, tea was introduced through colonial diffusion and has become not only a preferred beverage but an export product. Coffee has been the number one export product of Rwanda and Burundi for many years. Neighboring Uganda is the third-largest coffee producer in Africa after Ethiopia and Ivory Coast; all three are among the top dozen coffee producers in the world.
The cuisines of Central Africa can be as diverse as each local population, but they have retained much of their local tastes and flavors based on available ingredients. The slave trade introduced items that are now quite common, such as chili peppers, peanuts, and cassavas. Plantains and cassavas are mainstays often served with spicy sauces and grilled meat. Cassava is the third-largest source of food carbohydrates in the tropics, after rice and maize. It is one of the most drought-tolerant crops, capable of growing on marginal soils. Cassava has to be properly prepared or it can cause cyanide poisoning, partial paralysis, or even death.
Tomatoes, onions, and spinach are common ingredients. Root crops of yams, sweet potatoes, and maniocs are widely served. Fruits and vegetables are popular. Specialty stews are choice entrees that may contain ginger, okra, chicken, and various spices.
Bambara is a favorite sugary porridge with peanuts and rice that is common in Central Africa. Traditional meats of chicken, goat, or beef are universal, but wild game such as antelope, monkey, crocodile, or whatever is available is widespread. Fish is a main protein source served with other spicy dishes or dried to be eaten later.
One of the marriage traditions that exists in regions of Central Africa is polygamy, which is the practice of a man or a woman having more than one spouse. In Africa, as in most places in the world, it is far more likely for a man to have more than one spouse than for a woman to have more than one spouse. Polygamy is practiced in areas where traditional beliefs allow it. Approximately 30 to 40 percent of women in the Central African Republic are in polygamous unions. The law sanctions polygamy as long as spouses are aware of the arrangement and agree to it before they marry. In Cameroon, both monogamous and polygamous marriages are practiced. The average family is large and extended. Monogamous relationships are the standard in Christian areas such as Burundi and in more contemporary urban societies.
Even if the legal code of the country does not discriminate against women, traditional practices and the social status of men often keep women from making socioeconomic strides. Many societies are male-dominated, and violence against women is still common and even accepted in Central Africa.
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Additional information and image credits:
Central Africa Updated from map courtesy of University of Texas Libraries.
Congo resources Updated from map courtesy of Andreas 06.
Sao Tome and Principe By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32650065
Menchum Falls By Nick Annejohn & Family – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=546786
Lake Chad Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=804910
Lake Chad By Sani Ahmad Usman – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?
Rwenzori Mountains By Dylan Walters – DSC_0615, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6959644
Lava lake By Cai Tjeenk Willink (Caitjeenk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15896832
Mountain gorilla By https://www.flickr.com/photos/deepphoto/ d_proffer – https://vk.com/photo416117648_456241556/$, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9432437
Central African Republic map By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34011074
Chad map By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32650095
Aouzou strip By Mohammedbas – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27795135
Cameroon map By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31591849
Gabon map By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32294409
Gabon beach By Manuel Dohmen – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8687899
Equatorial Guinea By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32295452
Malabo By Ipisking, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1891931
Houses Sao Tome By Ji-Elle – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76387529
Rwanda By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34826078
Rwanda lake By RwandaVolcanoAndLake.jpg: CIATderivative work: Amakuru (talk) – RwandaVolcanoAndLake.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15769249
Hutu children By Julien Harneis from Conakry, Guinea – Kids and the wildernessUploaded by Edward, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13323339
Tutsi cows By Rwanda Library – Rwanda Library, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31245775
Burundi map By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31591028
Women in Burundi By J. Bariyanga – USAID, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1532670
DRC Map By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32235473
Congo map By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32235476By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32235476
Manioc By Selengoumadavid – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44119485
Coffee Uganda By Sal Roux – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64324192
Okra By Bill Tarpenning – USDA (http://www.usda.gov/oc/photo/96cs2488.htm), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=129645