In May, Central African President Faustin-Archange Touadéra announced a constitutional referendum for 30 July 2023. This announcement was the culmination of a process that started much earlier and has drawn the ire of opposition parties, civil society and rebel movements. The constitutional referendum project is largely viewed as aiming to lift the presidential term limit, allowing Touadéra to run for a third term and possibly more.
For the Central African Republic's (CAR) presidential camp, this reform is an aspiration of the people and must correct the imperfections of the 2016 Constitution, which they say contains provisions that could compromise the country’s development.
Despite encountering serious resistance, the presidential camp has remained determined. The Constitutional Court, chaired by Professor Danièle Darlan, issued a ruling on 23 September 2020 declaring the planned reform unconstitutional, particularly the possible lifting of presidential term limits. She was automatically retired and replaced by Jean-Pierre Waboé, who is seen as close to the president.
First elected in February 2016, Touadéra was re-elected for a second five-year term in 2020. The opposition contested the results due to alleged fraud, a lack of transparency and the impossibility for more than half of registered electors to vote. Political tensions therefore date back to the 2020 elections.
The Republican Dialogue of March 2021, meant to ease political tensions, was boycotted by the opposition and rebel movements. Moreover, at that occasion, the sensitive issue of constitutional reform was barely discussed.
With the announcement of the date of the constitutional referendum, the political actors and civil society again mobilised. The Bloc Républicain pour la Défense de la Constitution, a group of opposition parties, is firmly opposed to the proposed constitutional reform. The Groupe d’action des organisations de la société civile pour la défense de la Constitution du 30 Mars 2016 was set up to block the way to this initiative.
On their side, rebel movements base their threats on Touadéra’s desire to run for a third term at any cost. They intend to prevent this through military means. These rebels are regularly involved in attacks, especially in the Nana-Mambéré and Bamingui-Bangoran prefectures.
According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, there have been at least 112 incidents implicating rebel groups and militias since December, compared with 95 for the same period in 2022. There have been over 530 fatalities from June 2022 to June 2023. On 21 January this year, the locality of Béloko (Nana-Mambéré), bordering Cameroon, was attacked by Coalition of Patriots for Change rebels. Noureddine Adam and his Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique are very active in the prefectures of Vakaga, Haute-Kotto (east), causing Sudan to close its borders in December 2022.
The continuing conflict in Sudan and the intensification of clashes in neighbouring Darfur also represent clear risks of spillover into these eastern prefectures. The porous nature of the borders would facilitate armed groups and weapons movement, as in the past with the Séléka rebellion. In the north, the neighbouring Chadian province of Logone Oriental is said to be the stronghold of a new Chadian rebellion, with CAR as its rear base. This while intense inter-community conflicts and killings orchestrated by armed gangs taking refuge in the CAR have spread.
Despite this volatile security situation and the public disapproval of the referendum process, the presidential camp is more determined than ever, further hampering political solutions and aggravating existing cleavages. Political camps radicalise, while rebel movements raise stakes on the ground, further degrading security. Although they’re uncoordinated and unlikely to seize Bangui, they could foster instability as the constitutional referendum and elections loom.
On the social front, the African Development Bank reports that inflation rose from 2.3% in 2020 to 4.4% in 2021 and stagnated at 4.3% in 2022. Households face increasing difficulty in meeting their daily needs and accessing essential commodities. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says the CAR has one of the highest percentages of people suffering from acute food insecurity. At least half the population are affected. Added to this are thousands of Chadians fleeing insecurity to the sub-prefecture of Paoua and over 14 000 Sudanese seeking refuge in Amdafock, a village in Birao.
The situation in CAR has been marked by relative instability for over 20 years. However, incidents suggest political tensions have increased since Touadéra’s re-election, aggravated by the referendum project and a difficult socio-economic context.
Despite signing an integrated security plan for the elections with the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the CAR, growing insecurity will limit voting across all the country’s prefectures. Even if it does go ahead, there’s a real risk that the referendum won’t be inclusive. This could lead to even more protests and tension, which could mar future political processes such as the local elections – which have already been postponed several times – and the 2025 presidential polls.
This referendum doesn’t augur well for the future of politics, peace and stability in the CAR, and urgent solutions must be implemented to get past this impasse.
Central African political and military actors must soften their positions on both sides to allow for renewal of the dialogue. However, the latest developments and the positions taken by the various camps suggest that direct discussion between them is unlikely.
The Economic Community of Central African States and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, already involved in the 2021 Republican Dialogue, should focus on bringing the actors back to the negotiating table before the referendum.
Lastly, better coordination of initiatives by all the regional and international actors present in the CAR would enable more effective action to preserve peace and stability in the country.
Remadji Hoinathy, Senior Researcher, Central Africa and Great Lakes
Image: © Paul Kagame/Flickr
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This article was produced with the support of the Governments of the Netherlands and Norway. The ISS is grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.