CAR’s Largest Factory Back In Business, Refining Sugar

Written by Dana Sanchez

About 150 employees are back at work at a sugar refinery in Ngakobo — the largest factory in the embattled Central African Republic — after it was recaptured from former rebels who occupied it for more than a year, News24 reports.

While the former rebels still control the area around the factory, the plant itself was recaptured in an operation known as MISCA involving 30 African peacekeepers. Sixty private guards have been hired for security.

It’s a shot at trying to eke order out of utter chaos and a rare boost to the impoverished country’s battered economy, the report said.

The workers had fled to the capital Bangui amid sectarian violence sparked by a March 2013 coup led by the mainly Muslim Seleka movement.

“We had no more work, no more money. We were bored, so we are happy to be back,” said 30-year-old Solange Ngortene, a secretary at the factory.

In blazing heat, workers cut sugar cane on four hectares (10 acres) of rolling green fields. They  cut 200 tonnes of raw cane in one day — enough to make 20 tons of sugar worth about $27,000.

“I was unemployed for more than a year. I was only getting between 10-and-30 percent of my gross salary. That wasn’t easy with a family to provide for,” Ngortene told AFP.

The predominantly Muslim Seleka rebel militia looted the refinery, which normally produces 11,000 tons of sugar a year, and made it their eastern base.

Their coup three months later plunged the country into chaos, eventually displacing a quarter of the 4.6-million population.

After taking power, some of the rebels went rogue and began a campaign of killing, raping and looting.

The abuses prompted members of the country’s Christian majority to form vigilante groups known as “anti-balaka,” or anti-machete in the local tongue, unleashing a wave of brutal tit-for-tat killings.

Fifteen months later, Seleka has been removed from power following intervention by French and African troops, leaving the economy of the mineral-rich country in tatters after years of neglect and corruption.

“The factory is going well,” said Sylvestre Serelgue. “Our brothers from MISCA are providing security. We feel at ease in the factory.”

The problem, he said, is the local Fulani tribesmen — nomadic herders who are armed and directed by Seleka.

“The Fulani really bother us,” he said. “They attack the staff in their neighborhoods. There are 15 or 20 of them and they take our money.”

Gabonese MISCA officers said 15 Seleka rebels controlling Ngakobo have recruited the Fulani to rob area residents.

“Many employees who sought refuge in Bangui after fleeing the Seleka came back here when it became even more dangerous” in the capital, said Akroma Ehvitchi, the factory’s Ivorian site manager. “They returned alone, without their families, as there’s no transport and there are still security problems.”

Prosper, a 42-year-old day laborer, earns 1100 CAR francs ($2.20) a day — barely enough to buy a kilo of sugar. Employees send money back to their families in Bangui aboard the company plane, but the salary isn’t enough.

“It’s not much,” said Sucaf boss Thomas Reynaud, a young Frenchman, who was hosting a delegation of diplomats and military officials from Bangui. “But in some families you have five or six people who work here. The goal is to restart production to save the site.”

Leaving the factory aboard a company pickup truck, Ehvitchi joked about CAR’s
widespread poverty and violence.

“In such a situation if you understand what’s happening it means it has not been well explained to you,” Ehvitchi said laughing.