The risk of an entrenched political and security crisis remains high in the Central African Republic following December's contested elections. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2021 for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the EU and France to press the government and opposition to halt heated rhetoric and nudge the many parties toward talks.
Hopes that the Central African Republic (CAR)'s 27 December 2020 presidential and parliamentary elections could reinforce state authority and provide a basis for political consensus were dashed as a new coalition of armed groups began advancing on the capital Bangui. Turnout was low, partly as a result of insecurity, with only 35 per cent of the country's 1.85 million registered voters casting their ballot in presidential and legislative elections, according to official figures, leading much of the country's political opposition to say the polls lacked credibility. Also due to insecurity, the vote could not be held for roughly 40 per cent of the 140 National Assembly seats up for grabs. Nevertheless, the National Elections Agency on 4 January declared incumbent Faustin Touadéra the winner with over 53 per cent of the vote, obviating the requirement for any run-off. The opposition, furious about alleged fraud as well as disenfranchisement, took its complaints to the Constitutional Court, which rejected its call for a rerun, confirming Touadéra's victory on 18 January. The largest opposition coalition, COD2020, rejects the court's decision and refuses to recognise Touadéra's re-election. Other opposition leaders criticise the court but have passively accepted its decision.
Trouble started in early December when the court rejected the candidacy of former President Francois Bozizé, who seized power in a coup in 2003 but was deposed by a coalition of rebels, known as the Seleka, in 2013. The court cited the government's international arrest warrant and UN sanctions against Bozizé for alleged assassinations, torture and other crimes. An opportunistic coalition of armed groups, made up of six of the fourteen signatories to a 2019 peace deal comprising ex-Seleka factions as well as "anti-Balaka" militia that had formed to resist the Seleka, then declared its intention to disrupt elections. Bozizé later confirmed that he was behind the new grouping. Many fear that he is committed to overthrowing the government. As fighting spread to the Bangui outskirts in late December and early January, the government has relied on assistance from UN peacekeepers and troops deployed from Russia and Rwanda to keep the rebels at bay. Authorities have meanwhile started to arrest opponents and perceived allies of the rebellion.
The Constitutional Court's confirmation of Touadéra's victory has done little to cool things down. Both the government and opposition politicians, many of whom had for months prior to the elections been increasingly strident about their ambitions to unseat Touadéra, feel aggrieved, reducing the chances of compromise. Yet the parties will have to find some common ground to avoid the outcome of the elections giving birth to an entrenched political and security crisis.
The European Union is deeply engaged in CAR. It provides much humanitarian and development aid. It has a longstanding mission in the country, tasked with training the national army, and a newer civilian mission, formally set up in December 2019, that advises on security sector reform. It is also the largest donor for the elections. The EU, and its member state France, have extensive and longstanding contacts with government and opposition figures, which makes them well placed to nudge the parties toward compromise.
The EU and its member states should consider the following steps:
- Pressure government and opposition to cool down the heated rhetoric and desist from violent behaviour. In particular, the EU should seek to persuade the opposition to clearly condemn Francois Bozizé's actions, while pressuring the government to rein in abuses by security forces and allied militias against civilians or the government's political opponents.
- Nudge the government and political opposition toward talks and help find compromise positions. The talks should ideally be overseen by the African Union (AU) and the regional body Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), as the latter has already made some attempts to build bridges, but the EU could support any mediation through its diplomatic engagement, and be ready to provide technical support for talks if required. The EU could usefully also eventually support AU-mediated talks with armed groups.
- Support the holding of legislative elections for those seats for which no voting took place by making sure funds are available if needed. The EU should advocate for additional time to hold these elections so that mediation efforts have a chance to persuade political parties to support the process, improve security and allow more citizens to vote.
Bozizé and Armed Groups Sow Electoral Chaos, Continue Attacking
Tentative hopes elections could improve the lot of CAR's people who have faced nearly a decade of on-off civil war were seemingly dashed in December as violence escalated. With one month to go, election preparations, while far from perfect, had been more or less on track, with 1.85 million citizens registered to vote. But former President Bozizé's ambitions to return to power ultimately stirred political tensions until they descended into conflict. Returning from exile in late 2019 despite an arrest warrant against him, he had met with President Touadéra, who once served as Bozizé's prime minister, in what many diplomats took to be a sign of cordiality between them. His presidential ambitions and opposition to Touadéra soon became clear, however. Tensions spiked when on 4 December, the Constitutional Court rejected Bozizé's application to contest the presidential election, arguing that he failed the moral person test due to a national arrest warrant and UN sanctions against him.
On 15 December, a new armed coalition emerged that seemed intent on disrupting the vote. The Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) criticised what they said were elections that had been poorly prepared while denouncing the lack of implementation of the February 2019 peace agreement, of which they were all signatories. Some of the six members of the CPC were part of the Seleka coalition that overthrew President Bozizé in 2013, while others are drawn from the anti-Balaka militia that grew up in reaction to the growing violence. Starting just days before the polls were due to be held, they began taking on the national army and UN forces in several towns in the west and centre of the country. Shortly before the 27 December vote, Bozizé confirmed what everyone suspected: that he was behind the opportunistic alliance.
In early January, after election results were announced, rebels continued to attack, finding their way into the outskirts of the heavily defended capital, although this seemed more to demonstrate their disruptive capacity than a serious attempt to capture Bangui and overthrow the government. They were repelled by a combination of UN forces and troops or military advisers flown in from Russia and Rwanda at President Touadéra's request.
Electoral Results Marred and Ever Deeper Political Divisions
Election turnout has been badly disrupted by the insecurity. Crowds of enthusiastic voters lining up in Bangui were not matched by those voting in the provinces: nationally, over half of polling stations could not open. The National Elections Authority put the turnout at merely 37 per cent of the 1.85 million registered voters. Elections for National Assembly seats were also significantly disrupted: the vote did not take place for 58 of the 140 seats. The first round of voting delivered results for 21 seats, with five seats going to Touadéra's party, while second-round voting is in principle scheduled on 7 February for 61 seats which could not produce a first-round winner. Nothing is yet planned, however, for the 58 empty seats for which no voting took place. On 4 January, the National Elections Agency declared Touadéra the winner of the presidential poll with over 53 per cent of the vote, making a second-round run-off unnecessary. Violence did not prevent the Constitutional Court from proclaiming Touadéra's victory on 19 January.
The vote has left government and opposition sharply divided. The government is deeply aggrieved at the perceived failure of some opposition leaders to clearly distance themselves from the coup attempt mounted by Bozizé. The authorities have arrested civilians and military officers seen as close to Bozizé and barred at least one political opponent from leaving the country. Touadéra has also called on allies in the region (Rwanda, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo) and on Russia to back him militarily. He seems in little mood to compromise with an opposition he sees as allied with insurgents. For its part, the opposition argues that electoral preparations were already insufficient long before the new rebellion and that their inability to campaign due to previously prevailing insecurity, along with multiple other irregularities and the low turnout, should invalidate the whole exercise. They are also angry at the increasingly heavy hand used by government security forces and pro-government militias inside Bangui. For them, swearing in a new president in such conditions will do nothing for the country's long-term stability.
Both government and opposition are aggrieved, but it is in their long-term interests to strike a deal. Without one, the country could see a prolonged period of instability. Touadéra runs the risk that such a crisis could undermine his second and final term in office, with his agenda possibly blocked by a hostile National Assembly. Meanwhile, opposition politicians risk losing public support if they are seen to be complicit in or condoning any prolonged rebellion by Bozizé, which is likely to lead to a heavy loss of civilian life.
What the EU Should Do
The EU and France, the only member state with an embassy in Bangui, along with African partners should push the opposition to recognise the results of the elections. Building on a joint statement the EU made with the AU, UN and ECCAS on 19 January, and more widely on the technical and financial support it has offered to mediation efforts over the last two years, it should, together with those partners, hold consultations with opposition politicians to persuade them not to condone Bozizé's rebellion. The EU should also use its good offices to persuade the government that talks with the opposition are the only way to repair relations. It should offer diplomatic support to the AU, ECCAS and the UN as they seek to repair the damage done to the 2019 agreement and move toward new talks with armed groups. Reducing fighting between the government and those groups is a priority, to facilitate preparations for legislative elections and possibly to pave the way for African actors to convene talks. The EU, working with others, should do what it can to push for a ceasefire.
The EU should also push Touadéra to agree to rapidly create the conditions needed for inclusive National Assembly elections, which may include rerunning first-round votes in the constituencies where no vote took place and potentially even, if the parties all agree on the parameters, in those with very low turnouts due to insecurity. Brussels should be ready to finance these polls to bolster the credibility of the overall election. At the same time, the EU should do whatever it can, again working with others, to help persuade Bozizé's party to disassociate itself from the actions of the former president and take part in legislative elections, to ensure inclusion of its large constituency in the west of the country. The EU could also offer to work with the government to improve the overall electoral system before the local elections take place at the end of 2021, including on issues related to refugees' voting or the National Elections Agency's perceived lack of neutrality.