Ahead of elections this weekend, there is a serious risk of a dramatic escalation of violence and political crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR). In the last week, the country’s most powerful armed groups, who had previously been bitter rivals and have been fighting one another since 2012, joined forces and formed a new coalition to start taking control of important towns and cities in various parts of the country, displacing 55,000 people from their homes. The government has accused a former President of orchestrating this armed group coalition to attempt a coup d’état, and the civilian population is terrified of the resurgence of widespread violence.
While these events have received minimal international media attention, conducting a credible election and maintaining peace amidst this new upsurge in conflict is the most serious test that the CAR government has faced since a December 2013 crisis, in which thousands of persons were killed in just a few weeks. The current CAR President has developed close ties with Russia, and receives significant military assistance directly from the Kremlin, as well as reportedly from mercenaries, such as the Wagner Group. It is also a challenge to the ability of the large UN Peacekeeping Mission in CAR, MINUSCA, to protect civilians, support the elections, continue to deliver humanitarian assistance, and navigate the demands of the armed groups.
Former Warring Groups United to Destabilize Elections
CAR has experienced multiple cycles of violence and political crisis since independence. In 2013, its most serious fighting broke out between anti-Balaka groups, who mostly identify as Christian, and the ex-Seleka, who mostly identify as Muslim, resulting in allegations of war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Since then, these two factions have splintered into several groups.
The new coalition created this week, calling itself the Coalition de Patriots pour le Changement (Coalition of Patriots for Change, CPC) brings together six armed groups which span different religions and ethnicities, and were previously long-time enemies on opposing sides of the 2013 conflict. Together they control a vast portion of the country.
The CAR government accuses the alliance of being formed by former President François Bozizé as a means to stage a coup d’état – a charge he denies. Bozizé first came to power through a coup d’état in 2003, and ruled until he was ousted in another coup by the Seleka ten years later. He returned from exile to CAR a year ago to run for President, but in early December the CAR Constitutional Court invalidated his candidacy because he did not fulfill a “good morality” requirement necessary to run for office. The Constitutional Court cited existing UN Security Council sanctions and an outstanding international arrest warrant against him as reasons he was ineligible to run for President.
The CPC is demanding that the December 27, 2020 elections be postponed, and is blaming the government for a failure to ensure transparent and credible elections. In the last week, the UN has reported over 17 incidents against humanitarian personnel and assets. The government has confirmed receiving military support from the Russians and Rwandans, and the French announced that they have sent warplanes to fly over the capital city of Bangui, on a surveillance mission.
A Delicate Peace Endangered
Most of the armed groups in this new coalition had initially been signatories to a 2019 Peace Agreement, the eighth such agreement since 2012, which had been negotiated between the government and 14 armed groups, and sponsored by the African Union. Following this accord, many leaders of armed groups were given senior positions in government, to the frustration of civil society who warned that this in practice rewards individuals who take up arms and undermines accountability efforts.
Even prior to this past week’s events, the UN, as of October 2020, had reported 644 violations of the peace agreement. Key provisions in the peace agreement aimed at guaranteeing accountability, such as the creation of a Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Reconciliation Commission, have stalled. More than half of the CAR population continue to require humanitarian assistance.
The current President, Archange Touadéra, has increased ties to Russia and since 2017 has been receiving greater Russian military support, diminishing the country’s traditional reliance on France, although the country remains a key donor. Touadéra has also been accused of maintaining a close relationship with a Russian military company, the Wagner Group. In 2018, three Russian journalists, reportedly investigating Wagner group activities in CAR, were killed in a town in north of Bangui. The outcome of this election could likely determine the extent of Russia’s influence in CAR.
Additional Challenges to Delivering an Election
Outside of the escalating conflict, CAR faces enormous hurdles in implementing a fair and inclusive election, and has faced accusations of disenfranchising minorities. One of the co-authors of this article, who leads an NGO in CAR, has documented challenges in voter registration for members of CAR’s Muslim minority. Registering to vote requires certain documentation, typically a birth certificate. For those who had to flee during the 2013 conflict and may have lost personal documents, this requirement is a steep barrier, and Muslims have complained of facing discrimination when trying to replace documents.
Further, refugees currently residing outside CAR are not able to vote in this election despite the fact that they were able to in 2015. It is estimated that approximately 200,000 otherwise eligible voters will be affected, comprising more than 10 percent of the voting population (1.86 million people are registered to vote). It is estimated that up to 80% of CAR’s Muslim population have fled to neighboring countries; not permitting refugees in neighboring countries to vote accordingly has an enormous disparate impact on the Muslim minority. This is particularly harmful in CAR where Muslims face significant discrimination and barriers to political participation, exacerbating inter-communal tensions.
These fundamental challenges in ensuring an election in which all citizens are actually able to vote, undermine the democratic process, and risk the legitimacy of the elections outcome. Combined with the new threat resulting from the recent coalition of armed groups, CAR is entering a dangerous political phase, which could lead to a serious outbreak of violence.