Central African Republic: A disputed election and a strange rebel alliance

By Jack Losh

  • Published
Supporters of current Central African Republic President and presidential candidate Faustin-Archange TouaderaImage source, AFP

After an election marred by violence, the president of the Central African Republic (CAR) has won five more years in power. But his victory is contested and the fate of the country balances on a knife edge.

A disparate jumble of armed groups formed an alliance last month and launched an offensive in a bid to disrupt this crucial vote.

Since the election, fighting has continued in towns nationwide, with the rebels threatening to march on the capital, Bangui. So far, they have been kept away by United Nations peacekeepers, CAR's armed forces and hundreds of reinforcements from Russia and Rwanda.

The political opposition has said Faustin-Archange Touadéra's victory lacks legitimacy and are demanding a re-run.

While voters turned out in force in Bangui and some other towns, militants launched a violent and disruptive campaign of intimidation elsewhere - burning ballot boxes, ransacking polling stations and preventing the vote in over 40% of electoral districts in this chronically unstable country.

What is this new rebel coalition?

The rebel alliance calls itself the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC). This formation is new but the armed groups within it have been around for many years.

With origins stretching back to the insurgencies of the 2000s, many of them were involved in the civil war that erupted in 2013 albeit in a different guise. That year, mainly Muslim rebel groups from the lawless north banded together into the so-called Seleka coalition and ousted then-President Francois Bozizé.

Man carrying eggs
CAR key events

  • 2003Rebel leader and former army commander Francois Bozizé seizes power

  • 2009UN Security Council agrees to creation of UN peace-building office for CAR to address ongoing insecurity

  • 2013Bozizé flees into exile as Seleka rebel coalition rapidly overruns the country and takes control of the capital

  • 2015Referendum on constitutional changes in November, followed by first round of presidential election

  • 2019Bozizé returns to CAR

Source: BBC

The Seleka's brutal rule prompted the creation of another group of militants known as the Anti-Balaka, drawn mainly from Christian and animist communities. These militias fought back against the rebels and carried out reprisals against CAR's minority Muslim population, pushing the country deeper into bloodshed.

The Seleka coalition eventually splintered into various rebel factions, often drawn along ethnic lines and known by a bewildering array of acronyms - the FPRC, the MPC, the UPC, 3R and so on. Along with Anti-Balaka militias, these armed groups have terrorised civilians for years, clashing over the control of mineral resources, such as diamonds and gold, and cattle migration routes, and occupying some two-thirds of the country.

Despite sporadic violence, a peace deal signed between CAR's government and 14 rebel groups in 2019 raised hopes of stability. But last month, these armed groups - despite supposedly being sworn enemies - said they were uniting "into a single entity" and launched a new uprising.

It is not clear exactly why these rival armed groups have banded together, except that rebellions in CAR have a history of being used as a tool to extract concessions from the government and to secure lucrative official positions.

Why is Bozizé back?

A key figure amid this mayhem is Francois Bozizé - a former general who seized power in a 2003 coup before being toppled by Seleka rebels a decade later. He fled the country, allegedly supporting the Anti-Balaka's rampage from afar, which resulted in UN sanctions against him, although he has denied controlling the group.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Former President François Bozizé was barred from running in the elections

Despite an international warrant for his arrest, the 74-year-old Mr Bozizé slipped back into CAR in late 2019 after years in exile and announced his presidential candidacy last July. The country's top court barred him in December from running, saying he did not satisfy the "good morality" requirement for candidates.

Soon afterwards, shortly before the election, the new insurrection erupted. CAR's government and the UN accuse Mr Bozizé - whose location is unknown - of colluding with armed groups to seize power. He denies the accusation. But if true, his alleged alliance with the same rebels that deposed him years earlier would mark an extraordinary twist in this long-running, unpredictable drama.

Who is President Touadéra?

A former maths lecturer and vice-chancellor at the University of Bangui, Mr Touadéra, 63, served as prime minister under Mr Bozizé between 2008 and 2013. He came to power as president in 2016, running on a ticket to unite CAR and disarm the rebels, but has struggled to wrest control of vast swathes of the country from them, despite enjoying the backing of a UN peacekeeping mission and Russian weapons and personnel.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Mr Touadéra faces serious challenges, but is unlikely to be ousted

The signing of the 2019 peace deal was regarded as a positive step by his administration, although the agreement was criticised for its ambiguity over securing post-conflict justice.

A subsequent presidential decree sparked controversy by naming three of the country's most powerful rebel commanders as "special military advisers" within the government. These were essentially token positions, but still carried significance. Human rights groups condemned the decision to bestow official positions on these warlords, whose groups have committed widespread atrocities, and warned against handing them any amnesties.

Why is Russia involved in CAR?

Russia says it is responding to a legitimate request for security assistance from the CAR government.

Besides gaining access to CAR's mineral riches, Russia's aim of forging new partnerships and rekindling Cold War-era alliances across Africa is seen as a bid to project a great power image and implant itself into areas of Western interest. Its involvement in CAR is a threat to France's influence in CAR, its former colony.

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Why is Russia helping the Central African Republic?

With Russia's economy in long-term decline, Moscow is seeking political influence and new markets in several African countries through arms, construction and energy deals, analysts say.

What will happen next?

Violence is likely to continue but observers don't expect a repeat of 2013's total collapse into anarchy.

Security has been strengthened by a 14,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission and an army bolstered by Russian arms and training, as well as private military contractors sent by Moscow - none of which were present seven years ago.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The president is protected by Russian mercenaries, and Rwandan UN peacekeepers, as well as the presidential guard

Nor does the new alliance appear to have the popular support or uniting agenda to help this mishmash of former rivals overthrow the government.

But it is hard to see these armed groups laying down their arms yet. Incentives to continue the unrest include seizing new areas to extort funds and controlling the main route into neighbouring Cameroon, thus securing leverage in future peace negotiations.

Mr Touadéra faces serious challenges but is unlikely to be ousted. "Touadéra's vote was the expression of people fed up with armed groups who want to impose a setback for democracy," said Fridolin Ngoulou, a Central African journalist. "Touadéra will retain power as the entire international community supports these elections."

Yet the incumbent's authority is certainly dented, not only by reduced voter turnout but also by the embarrassment of staking his first term on making peace with rebel warlords - sometimes through controversial deals - only for them to turn on him.

Mr Bozizé's shadowy influence is another threat, although his next move is hard to predict. "It is a very risky game of balance that the president needs to play," said Tity Agbahey, of Amnesty International's West and Central Africa office.


More about CAR:

The latest flare-up is also a disappointment for the UN peacekeeping mission which has invested huge sums towards re-establishing state control over the country.

"The slow process by which the UN has been helping the central government extend some sort of authority has been set back quite badly," said Paul Melly, a consulting fellow at the Chatham House think-tank. "In a negative scenario, instability would splutter on and not get any better."

What's life like in CAR?

CAR is a diverse country, populated by a multitude of different communities, from Bayaka "pygmies" in the Congo Basin to ethnic Peul (Fulani) nomads in northern arid areas. Before the war, the Christian majority and Muslim minority had coexisted in relative peace in this large but sparsely populated country of 4.7 million people.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Parents will do everything they can to ensure children don't go without at Christmas, whatever the circumstances

Daily life, though, is tough for many. Ranked among the world's least developed countries, CAR is not just enmeshed in a security crisis; it faces a grave humanitarian emergency.

Protracted conflict has left more than 1.2 million people - a quarter of the population - displaced and impedes the work of aid organisations. Malnutrition rates have continued to rise, with 1.9 million people enduring crisis levels of food insecurity. Many face poor access to education, healthcare, hygiene and other basic services.

What's at stake?

CAR's civilian population has faced decades of war crimes and human rights abuses. Thousands died in the recent civil war which pushed the country to brink of genocide, while the accompanying humanitarian crisis has stretched resilience to breaking point in the hardest-hit areas. The country cannot afford the devastation of another full-blown conflict.

While CAR occupies a marginal position on the world stage, that is precisely why it is so crucial to help the country through this latest crisis, analysts say. Such support would be powerful proof of the international community's commitment to nudging even the most geo-strategically peripheral countries towards stability.

Allowing the resurgent armed groups to block the election process would undermine the African Union principle that "you can't take power permanently by the gun," said Melly. "The consequences for the whole policy approach would be catastrophic."

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The UN's 14,000 peacekeepers have been unable to end the conflict

Ending impunity for abuses is regarded as key to CAR's sustainable peace. As part of efforts to bring war criminals to justice, a new tribunal in Bangui - known as the Special Criminal Court - promises to break new ground as the first UN-backed court founded in a country where fighting continues. Trials are yet to commence but, if successful, this institution could offer a new model of justice to other hotspots.

"The country is really at some kind of crossroads," said Agbahey. "Everything is there for the change to happen. There is a judicial momentum. For once, there is a feeling that people could have accountability. But it is still so fragile."

Jack Losh has reported extensively from the Central African Republic