- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2003

BANGUI, Central African Republic Gen. Francois Bozize, who proclaimed himself president after seizing power in a coup March 15, is trying to win legitimacy and national unity by enlisting reputable politicians to take part in a consensus government.
On Sunday, he entrusted the formation of a government acceptable to international lenders to respected elder politician Abel Goumba, who at 76 is considered by many in Bangui as "Mr. Clean" after four decades of untainted experience.
Mr. Goumba, head of a broad opposition coalition under the previous regime, has sought to absolve the new leader for ousting President Ange-Felix Patasse, who was first elected in 1993 in an election marred by charges of fraud, then re-elected to a six-year term in September 1999. Gen. Bozize had tried at least twice to overthrow Mr. Patasse.
What Gen. Bozize, a former armed forces chief, did was "not a coup d'etat, but a revolution, a liberation," said Mr. Goumba, who announced on Tuesday that he hopes to be able to announce a broad-based Cabinet early next week, after celebrations this weekend.
Gen. Bozize, who suspended the political institutions of the mineral-rich Central African Republic after the coup and two days of violence and looting that claimed more than a dozen lives, has said he wants "honest ministers, hard-working with a sense of responsibility to the state."
He promised in a speech to the impoverished, landlocked country the day after seizing power that the break with democracy was temporary.
Observers of Central African affairs are quick to point to the corruption that has plagued the political and intellectual elite for decades, likening many of its members to crocodiles hungry for power and stipends.
The gangrene of endemic graft has gnawed away at the body of state at every level, including the ministries, the judiciary, semi-governmental corporations, the bureaucracy, customs service and the tax system.
International donors, including former colonial power France, have been put off not only by the corruption, but also by a succession of military crises that have plunged the country into poverty and its people into the kind of desperation that led to widespread looting after this month's coup.
During the intensive consultations aides say he is undertaking, Mr. Goumba is counting on finding a government among members of the opposition to Mr. Patasse's Movement for the Liberation of the Central African People (MLPC).
The coalition Mr. Goumba heads includes a dozen small parties led by an equal number of men with presidential aspirations, such as members of parliament Paul Bellet and Charles Massi, and former Premier Jean-Paul Ngoupande.
Mr. Goumba is also turning to the main opposition Centrafrican Democratic Rally, which backed the military ruler replaced by Mr. Patasse, Andre Kolingba.
For a consensus, Mr. Goumba will also have to call on the public and on moderate parties that were allies of the ousted regime, such as the Movement for Democracy and Development headed by ex-President David Dacko.
Others to be consulted include aides to Gen. Bozize, such as his spokesman, Capt. Parfait Mbaye, and the representative of the political wing of his military movement, Karim Meckassoua.
All these people know one another well and have sometimes clashed in the past, diplomatic sources say. Many cherish ambitions that will only grow fiercer as the transition period draws to an end and elections loom.
Should Gen. Bozize be tempted to seek to legitimize the power he seized at gunpoint, he may be inclined to draw closer to the MLPC, some observers predicted. As a soldier, he was never much involved in politics, though he was long close to Mr. Patasse before the president sacked him in a purge late in 2001.
While Mr. Patasse's party seems consigned to the wilderness after the coup, it remains the best-structured party with the only electoral machine in the country.
"Bozize needs to watch out. Because the people are fickle," the independent weekly Le Citoyen said, with a glance at recent events in once-stable Ivory Coast, another former African colony of France six countries to the west of the Central African Republic.
"The same people who once yelled 'Long live Houphouet' then cried 'Houphouet the thief,'" the paper said of the West African country's founding president, Felix Houphouet Boigny.
"Then it was 'Long live Bedie' to be followed by 'Down with Bedie,'" it said, referring to Henri Konan Bedie, who succeeded Mr. Houphouet Boigny and was overthrown in a December 1999 military coup.
[Today, formerly prosperous Ivory Coast remains embroiled in a 6-month-old civil war, with President Laurent Gbagbo's forces threatened by ethnic militias and Liberian rebels fighting alongside them.]
Earlier this week, about 100 people from the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, holed up in former U.N. offices in Bangui since the coup, called on the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to help them return home across the southern border.
"We've been looted. Some of us have been attacked," one of the Congolese representatives told AFP, asking not to be named.
"The UNHCR asked us to leave in 48 hours for Molongo, but we want to go to Kinshasa or another country." Molongo is 60 miles from Bangui, yet still in the Central African Republic.
Bangui residents attacked people from Congo because of atrocities carried out in the city by Congolese rebels who helped Mr. Patasse put down a coup attempt by Gen. Bozize last year.
The United States called on Gen. Bozize and Mr. Goumba on Monday to quickly reveal their plans for restoring democracy to the country.
"We have urged the authorities to take steps toward national reconciliation that would lead to a democratic government taking office," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.
The United States had condemned the coup and said it was reviewing the imposition of coup-related sanctions, including a suspension of nonhumanitarian aid. But Mr. Boucher said Monday that no decisions had been made on sanctions.
"We'll be watching very carefully how that process unfolds," he said.

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