By Andrew Gray
BANGUI (Reuters) – Jean-Bertrand Aristide is keeping a low profile inside the boxy white presidential palace of the Central African Republic, but people in the impoverished former French colony still have plenty to say about him.
In the capital Bangui, the ground sticky with mud after a tropical rainstorm, some welcomed the ousted Haitian leader’s arrival, some said he should leave quickly and others hoped his presence would draw attention to their own country’s problems.
“He never knew the Central African Republic. We don’t need Jean-Bertrand Aristide in our country — he should leave our country in peace,” declared Neoto Ghislain, selling plastic shoes and brightly colored flip-flops in the rundown city.
“He’d never set foot in our country, he never visited it,” complained 23-year-old Ghislain, a shopkeeper.
His business is in KM Cinq — translatable from the French as “Kilometer Five” — the poor neighborhood where Aristide has found refuge, five km (three miles) from the city center.
But Christian preacher Francois Mamokosse, 39, said the country of some four million people had done the right thing in taking in Aristide. He arrived on Monday after fleeing a rebellion that swept across his Caribbean nation in the year that it celebrates the bicentenary of independence from France.
“We have nothing to criticize him for,” Mamokosse said in the thronging streets of KM Cinq, where battered yellow taxis honk their horns every few seconds and hundreds of small stalls with roofs of rusty corrugated iron are crammed side by side.
“Here, we are open to friends who have gone through a rough time.”
FROM ONE IMPOVERISHED STATE TO ANOTHER
In fleeing from Haiti to this landlocked state the size of Texas, Aristide has moved from the poorest country in the Americas to one of the poorest in Africa — with a recent history of instability to rival that of his homeland.
The country has been the scene of four coups d’etat — and several more failed attempts — since gaining independence from Paris in 1960 and became notorious for the brutal dictatorship of Jean-Bedel Bokassa in the 1960s and 1970s.
The current ruler, General Francois Bozize, took power in a coup in March last year.
The Central African Republic’s economy has declined steadily for years, despite substantial reserves of valuable minerals including diamonds. Life expectancy is 44 years, and state employees often do not receive salaries for months on end.
In a telephone interview with CNN and in calls to backers in the United States soon after he left Haiti, Aristide accused Washington of forcing him from office. The United States says its troops helped him leave only after he decided to quit.
Little has been heard since then from Aristide, a former priest once hailed as champion of democracy in Haiti but latterly accused of using thuggish tactics to stay in power.
He has made no public appearances since arriving in Bangui and is widely reported to be hoping to go to South Africa. Central Africans hope as long as he says here, the influx of journalists he has triggered will also notice their own plight.
“We’re far away here. We’ve been abandoned by the Europeans,” said Camille Marangueu, a 44-year-old paintshop worker. “If Aristide comes here, the entire world takes notice of the people of the Central African Republic.”