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Tuesday, 12 June, 2001, 16:50 GMT 17:50 UK
UN steps into CAR ethnic tension
General Toure
General Toure will have to tread carefully
The United Nations has begun its efforts to rebuild peace in the Central African Republic, two weeks after a foiled coup attempt led to heavy fighting in the capital Bangui.

Is the Patasse-Kolingba duel definitively over?

CAR newspaper
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's special envoy to CAR arrived in Bangui on Tuesday, and went straight from the airport to meet President Ange-Felix Patasse at his downtown residence, where he presented him with a letter from Mr Annan.

"General Toure will meet with leading figures in an attempt to secure the fragile peace which has held in the capital since last week," said a UN source.

But General Toure will have to contend with heightened ethnic tensions in the country.

President Patasse
Patasse: Does not have total control of the army
Following the attack on President Patasse's residence by renegade soldiers led by former military ruler General Andre Kolingba, southerners loyal to the general have been pitted against northerners loyal to the president.

Mr Patasse is from the Kaba subdivision of the Sara ethnic group, located in the north.

Ethnic promotion

Mr Kolingba, who ruled the CAR from 1981 until 1993, is from the Yakoma group, which is part of the Ngbandi ethnic group found on the banks of the Obangui river in the south.

Mr Patasse and Mr Kolingba have been long time foes. The demoted general was behind the series of army-led mutinies in 1996 and 1997.

General  Andre Kolingba, ruler of the CAR until 1993
General Andre Kolingba: Backed by the Yakoma people from the south
At a 40th anniversary rally of the CAR army in March, President Patasse accused General Kolingba of plotting a coup.

In December, Mr Kolingba's supporters staged a rally in which they accused President Patasse of corruption and mismanagement of the country.

"Is the Patasse-Kolingba duel definitively over?" asked "Le Citoyen", a private newspaper published in Bangui on Monday.

Mr Patasse and Mr Kolingba head political parties. The president leads the Mouvement pour la libération du peuple centrafricain (MLPC), which is the largest party in the parliament, while the former army leader heads the prominent Rassemblement démocratique centrafricain (RDC) faction.

"However, there is also a tribal dimension to the rivalry between Patasse and Kolingba," said one Bangui-based diplomat.

Mr Kolingba's Yakoma people, traditionally traders, had the first contact with French colonisers.

Demonstrators in Bangui
Bangui has seen a series of demonstrations in recent months
As a result they were the first to gain an education, use money and have positions in government. Their language, Sango, was adopted as the national language.

"This gave them a superiority complex. Even to this day few Yakoma marry outside their tribe," said an academic at Bangui University.

During General Kolingba's 12-year rule, the Yakoma who number 100,000, were given government positions. They were also appointed to posts requiring technical training, which made them difficult to replace when Patasse came to power.

The 72,000-strong Sara-Kaba people are predominantly farmers.

Those who sowed the seeds of the division would like it to be an ethnic or tribal affair

President Patasse
The army is one key area still dominated by the people from the southern tribes. As a result, President Patasse's position has never been fully secure.

Amid widespread reports of reprisal killings of Yakoma people by government soldiers, many Yakoma civilians fled to the forests where they slept on makeshift beds woven from palm tree leaves and lived off bananas.

"The soldiers were going from house to house searching for rebels. If they found a man they killed him, whether he was from the Yakoma [Mr Kolingba's tribe] or not," said Robert Garba, a guard.

Many of Bangui's displaced residents, whom the government say number 80,000, are returning home. Across the city, men can be seen repairing bullet-riddled kiosks, bars and houses.

Food shortage

"The soldiers took everything There's no food on sale here at the moment. People are hungry.

"They're too scared to go into the centre of town to buy food. The soldiers are still stopping Yakoma people," said Mathias Kwachi, a Yakoma kiosk owner.

"Just because Kolingba wanted to be president again, the Yakoma people suffered," he added.

The government rejects reports of revenge attacks on members of Mr Kolingba's southern Yakoma tribe. "I affirm that what has happened is not a conflict between the northerners, the southerners, the people of the savannah, the forest people or river people.

"Those who sowed the seeds of the division would like it to be an ethnic or tribal affair," said the president in a television address.

Nine ethnic groups - the Mbum, Sara, Banda, Gbaya, Bantu, Pygmies, Oubanguiens, Ngbandi, Nzakara Zande - inhabit this country of 2.3 million people.

The Gbaya in the east and Banda in the west control the largest land mass, although since independence in 1960 until Patasse gained power, the country been controlled by the southern Oubanguiens and Ngbandi.

The capital is also divided according to ethnicity. The Ngbandi's Yakoma group live in the south of this city of 700,000, where as the Sara live in the north.

Tribal identity continues to play a far more important part in the central Africans than ideas of nationhood.

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See also:

03 Jun 01 | Africa
Army occupy CAR general's house
28 May 01 | Africa
CAR 'coup attempt' fails
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