After an election period marked by violence and rising tension, the Central African Republic’s (CAR) incumbent president, Faustin Archange Touadéra, has been re-elected, according to the country’s election commission. Days before the vote, a disparate medley of armed groups coalesced to demand the elections be postponed. Since the polls’ closing, there has been a serious spike in violence with fighting in many major towns. The political opposition as well as the newly formed armed coalition have rejected the results and have demanded a re-run election. USIP’s Elizabeth Murray and Rachel Sullivan explain what led to rising violence in the weeks before the polls, what it means for the floundering 2019 peace agreement, and where the international community stands.
Why are these elections important, particularly given the country’s ongoing conflict?
The Central African Republic has suffered from cycles of violent conflict, including many coups d'état, since its independence in 1960. The violence around the December election is the latest expression of this conflict.
At the end of December, former CAR President François Bozizé and a coalition of armed groups stoked election violence throughout the country. Bozizé, who had initially seized power himself in 2003, went into exile in March 2013 after being removed from power by the Séléka, a coalition of armed groups. Cycles of retaliatory violence between the Séléka and an opposing association of local self-defense groups and former presidential guards, the anti-Balaka, escalated to ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population in 2014, forcing an estimated 80 percent out of the country. Altogether, more than one million people have been displaced since the fighting began.
In the years since, attempts to restore peace and stability have been met with mixed success. CAR was eventually able to transition back to constitutional democracy in late 2015, and elected Bozizé’s former prime minister, Touadéra, as the new president in February 2016. In February 2019, Touadéra signed a peace agreement with 14 recognized armed groups. Still, violence continued, often directed at civilians on the basis of religious or ethnic identity.
The violence surrounding December’s national election—poised to be an important milestone as the second democratic election in CAR—was a replay reflecting many troubling and persistent issues. To avert further escalation, it is critical that CAR and international authorities acknowledge the cyclical nature of this violence and address longstanding drivers of conflict.
What has led to the rise of violence in recent weeks?
The recent violence was sparked by the Constitutional Court rejecting the candidacy of former President Bozizé. Despite being in exile under U.N. sanctions and an international arrest warrant for crimes against humanity and incitement to genocide, Bozizé has consistently protested his exclusion from CAR’s peace processes. He returned to CAR in 2019 and later announced his intention to run for president, but the Constitutional Court rejected his bid on December 3.
In total, the Constitutional Court approved 17 candidates for the presidential election, including incumbent Touadéra and main opposition candidate Anicet Georges Dologuélé. The campaign period opened two weeks before the election, and in the thought-to-be likely event that no candidate received a majority in the first round, a second round was scheduled for February 2021.
Publicly, Bozizé accepted the court’s decision and endorsed Dologuélé. Yet, on December 19, six armed groups formed the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) to demand that the elections be postponed and a new round of peace talks initiated. The CPC began attacking civilians, seizing strategic locales, and threatening to march on the capital, Bangui. Over 55,000 were displaced as a result. The CAR government accused Bozizé of attempting a coup through the CPC, and international partners stepped in to secure the elections.
The violence caused significant disruption. Six of the presidential candidates were unable to campaign and petitioned the Constitutional Court to delay the election, but were denied, and the election went ahead on the December 27. According to the National Election Authority, voting was carried out successfully in 2,560 out of 5,448 polling stations. In other polling stations, violence prevented polls from opening or ballots were destroyed by armed groups. Furthermore, thousands of displaced persons were unable to participate. The results, announced one week later, gave Touadéra a decisive victory and were immediately disputed by the opposition and CPC. The Constitutional Court has until January 19 to confirm the results.
What does this mean for the current peace agreement?
The Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in CAR (APPR-CAR) has had mixed results since its signing in February 2019, with repeated violations of the agreement and armed groups continuing to control much of the country. However, the formation of the CPC and its recent attacks on major towns represent the gravest threat to date to the peace agreement. It remains to be seen whether the CPC coalition will hold, particularly as it includes several rebel groups who were previously rivals. But Bozizé’s backing of the coalition—and its members’ claim that the elections were held illegitimately—may serve to hold the group together.
In the lead-up to the election, prominent opposition candidates criticized the agreement itself and Touadéra’s failure to make more progress implementing it. These critiques resonate with many Central Africans, particularly outside of Bangui, who have seen few improvements in their living conditions. Although armed groups have little support among the public, pervasive insecurity and unemployment mean that they are still able to recruit.
President Touadéra has removed several armed group leaders from their government posts to sanction them for their roles in the CPC coalition and has brought charges against Bozizé for inciting rebellion, moves that will exacerbate existing tensions. The announcement of Touadéra’s victory in the first round, has been rejected by the CPC and may fuel further violence. If the current violence continues apace, it is possible that the agreement will collapse altogether.
What has been the position of the international community?
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in CAR, known as MINUSCA, has continued to play a critical role in stabilizing the country, including in repelling recent armed group attacks. MINUSCA supported election logistics and provided security around select polling stations. Nonetheless, the mission’s approximately 14,000 uniformed personnel are simply unable to respond to the scale of violence in CAR, particularly during the recent spike. Russia, which is supportive of President Touadéra, and Rwanda each sent hundreds of troops to the country to help quell unrest around the elections, and France carried out flyover missions.
Following the January 4 provisional announcement of Touadéra’s victory, MINUSCA issued a joint statement with the African Union (AU), Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the European Union and the United Nations noting the provisional results and calling on all actors to settle disputes through a peaceful process and to respect the upcoming final determination by CAR’s Constitutional Court. These entities, together with the United States and Russia, comprise the G5+, which should continue to exert its influence for a peaceful resolution and for the parties, particularly those in the government, to refrain from hate speech and disinformation. This is particularly important following recent reports of ethnically targeted violence. Amid the massive disinformation campaigns that are plaguing CAR, international partners should elevate the voices of the credible, independent journalists in CAR and firmly denounce hate speech and disinformation as it arises.
In the event of further escalation, CAR’s neighbors, ECCAS, and the AU will be best positioned to play a more direct role in convening dialogue between Touadéra and the political opposition. The involvement of the region will also be critical in securing an immediate cease-fire from the armed groups and in reinvigorating a peace process.