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New CAR Government Pledges Return to Democracy - 2003-04-02

The Central African Republic's new government, named this week following last month's military coup, pledges to return the country to democratic rule. Despite international condemnation of the March 15 coup, many Central Africans say they supported the use of force to bring about a change of government.

The transitional government headed by coup leader General Francois Bozize, says it will hold elections soon, although no specific timeline has been set.

A cabinet of 27 members was appointed Monday. It includes both civilians and soldiers, as well as members of the old government.

General Bozize, a former army chief, surprised many when his forces stormed into the capital, Bangui, on March 15 and swiftly took power. Now deposed President Ange-Felix Patasse, was out of the country attending a summit at the time and has since taken refuge in Togo.

The international community was swift to react, with the United Nations, the United States and the African Union among those issuing immediate condemnations of the coup. African Union Chairman, South African President Thabo Mbeki, said the action undermined Africa's efforts toward democratization.

But General Bozize's soldiers got a warm welcome from many Central Africans. Witnesses said some people even took off some of their clothes and laid them on the ground for the rebels to pass over them, in a gesture of welcome. In the days following the coup, thousands took to the streets in support of the general.

With government salaries unpaid for about three years, the country's economy is in shambles. The Central African Republic has vast mineral resources, yet it remains one of the world's poorest nations.

Analysts say it was evident that desperation among people in the country has weighed more heavily than any desire to adhere to democratic principles.

Central African lawyer Hermann Soignet-Ekomo, whose commentaries are published regularly in newspapers in the region, says he generally opposes coups d'etat, but he believes this one was justified.

Mr. Soignet-Ekomo says big democratic principles are supposed to benefit the people. But he says, if there is suffering and misery, how can one say that a leader should finish his term? He says he believes the general principles of democracy are valid when there is a situation where a democratic process exists in earnest. But he believes that in many African countries, not only do some leaders renege on their promises to their people, they also do whatever is necessary to remain in power.

Ousted leader Ange-Felix Patasse, survived several coup attempts since he was democratically elected in 1993.

General Bozize has suspended the constitution and declared himself head of state. He said the country will be governed through the National Transitional Council that he has appointed, and promises he will hold free and fair elections.

But with no date set and no specific timeline in place, diplomats say it remains to be seen whether the general will break the pattern of many other African leaders and allow democracy to be restored, as he has promised.