The first round of legislative and presidential elections held on December 27, 2020 is behind the new crisis in the Central African Republic. As soon as the election was prepared, the electoral process was off to a bad start…
By Thierry Vircoulon*
Armed groups had been disrupting the organization of elections in the provinces for several months and blocking the application of the peace agreement signed in Khartoum in 2019, the party in power was maneuvering behind the scenes to lock up the electoral process and win “by knockout in the first round”; the opposition denounced the lack of consultation; refugees who were able to vote in their camps in 2015 lost their right to vote in 2020 amidst general indifference; well before the official start of the electoral campaign, social media were already heated up by hyper-aggressive militancy partly controlled from abroad, etc. The governance of the electoral process was already problematic.
Everything changed on December 3 when the constitutional court invalidated 22 presidential candidates, including of the former president and inveterate coup leader François Bozizé, considered by the government to be the most threatening candidate. From that point on, events followed one another to lead to the current crisis. François Bozizé played a double game by displaying a legalistic attitude (respecting the court’s decision and calling for a vote for Anicet Georges Dologuélé, who came second in the 2015 presidential election). He at the same time was discreetly organizing a new armed coalition (the Coalition of Patriots for Change, CPC), which brings together 6 of the 14 armed groups that signed the Khartoum agreement.
« This election is a real political, security and humanitarian decline»
The CPC emerged from the shadows in mid-December, denounced the peace agreement, demanded the postponement of the vote and headed for Bangui. The CPC was finally pushed back after it was stopped a hundred kilometers from the capital by another unprecedented coalition. It included peacekeepers from the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic/MINUSCA, Russian mercenaries, and Rwandan soldiers called in by the Central African government as reinforcements under recently signed bilateral agreements.
After several clashes in January, the Central African Armed Forces (FACA), Russian mercenaries and Rwandan military launched a counter-offensive that prevented the supply route to Cameroon from being cut off and regained lost ground.
On the political front, President Touadéra’s re-election in the first round, as expected, with 53 percent of the vote was announced on January 4 by the electoral commission and confirmed on January 18 by the constitutional court. Paradoxically, while a new putsch was avoided and the first round of elections was “saved,” this election constitutes a real political, security and humanitarian decline.
One need only compare the 2020 election to the 2015 election to see the extent of the failure. This election was a complete fiasco. While, 59% of the electorate voted in 2015, only 35% voted this time and only 22 out of 140 deputies could be elected in the first round. While the preparation of the elections had been hampered by armed groups (theft of materials and kidnapping of electoral staff) for several months, the decision to vote under the threat of the CPC resulted in the impossibility of voting for many Central Africans (voting was disrupted in 12 out of 16 prefectures). There was considerable recourse to voting by exception, as well as irregularities in the counting process. Due to a lack of security, international election observation missions (OIF, AU, etc.) remained blocked in Bangui on December 27 and were only able to observe the vote in the capital. Aware of the opacity and irregularity of this election, which cost 29 million euros (21 million of which came from the European Union), the international actors merely “took note of the results” – which in diplomatic language means that they know that the vote was fraudulent but accept it all the same. 
This election triggered a political crisis. While the results of the previous elections had been accepted by the entire political class, the main opposition platform (COD-2020) rejected the results of the first round, filed appeals for annulment, which were rejected by the constitutional court, and did not participate in the second round of legislative elections. It pointed to the impossibility of campaigning, the numerous irregularities in the first round and the climate of intimidation that the government has been practicing since the election, particularly through its militia called the Sharks (searches, arrests, declaration of a state of emergency on January 21, hate speech, etc.). The second round of legislative elections should be a formality, and the new term of President Touadéra, known as the “Mayor of Bangui,” is illegitimate for many before it has even begun.
New security crisis
This election has led to a new security crisis that calls into question the Khartoum agreement. While armed groups had already criticized the implementation of the agreement before the election, or even disavowed it (e.g., the 3Rs), the CPC, which includes the most powerful armed movements among the 14 signatories of the Khartoum agreement, pulled out the agreement. The government acknowledged this withdrawal by dismissing the representatives of these armed groups from their official positions. From the beginning of 2020 to the end of 2020, some armed groups moved from a strategy of stalling the agreement to explicitly challenging it. This new security crisis could only be contained by the joint effort of MINUSCA and a Russian-Rwandan expeditionary force, which alone launched a successful counter-offensive against the CPC in late January.
This election has caused a humanitarian crisis as a backlash. While Central African refugees had been gradually returning from surrounding countries for the past two or three years, the security crisis has reversed the trend: according to OCHA, the number of refugees has increased by 60,000 and the number of displaced by 240,000 since the end of December. These population movements have been accompanied by an increase in violence against civilians by armed groups, government forces, and their allies.
Solution proposed to overcome crisis
As soon as the results were announced, the ways out of the crisis were quickly defined by Mankeur Ndiaye, the head of MINUSCA:
- Re-engage with “elements of the armed groups who opted to join the CPC, but who have not committed serious crimes.” 2] In other words, convince CPC members to reiterate their adherence to the Khartoum agreement and to restart its implementation as if nothing had happened – the restarting of this “dialogue” (not to say negotiations) being entrusted to the region, namely Angola.
- Form a government that is “even more integrated, with the most radical elements replaced by members more involved in peace and reconciliation in CAR.
- Transforming MINUSCA into MONUSCO: In January, the SRSG requested a reinforcement of 3,000 peacekeepers in New York, authorization to provide logistical support to Central African security forces, and the creation of an intelligence fusion center – all proposals that were implemented in the neighboring DRC mission a few years ago.
«Yet another repetition of UN “peace template»
For those familiar with recent history, these ways out of the crisis are yet another repetition of the UN peace template and a sign that the UN is doing its best not to learn from its failures.
This crisis has put an end to the official fictions of the internationals and the government, has revealed a paradoxical international consensus and opens the way to a second term that will be that of a stable regime in an insecure country.
The fiction of peacebuilding developed by the internationals (led by the UN) has collapsed abruptly. The progress of the Khartoum agreement has been reduced to dust in a few days, much to the dismay of its main sponsor, the European Union. The UN and EU-led security sector reform has shown that it has not changed the government’s habits of building up hidden forces – such as the 7th FACA battalion formed from self-defense groups in the PK5 neighborhood of Bangui. Security sector reform did not change the governance of the Central African security forces, which, as usual, failed to organize and command the enemy. Desertions have been particularly high in the mixed units that were the symbol of the Khartoum agreement. As a result, in February 2021, the Central African authorities disbarred 800 elements of the Central African Armed Forces.
The institutions have shown that they still lack a democratic ethos: The National Elections Authority (ANE) and the constitutional court remain subservient to the government. Congratulated by the G5, the latter worked to re-elect the president three times in two months: by invalidating the candidacy of François Bozizé, by rejecting an interpretation of the electoral code after Jean-Serge Bokassa withdrew and postponed the vote, by rejecting the opposition’s appeals for annulment, and by confirming the electoral results despite irregularities. The MINUSCA, which was responsible for the plan to secure the elections, showed that it was no more capable of carrying out this task than it was of protecting the Central African population from armed groups in ordinary times. The other fiction that has collapsed is that of civil society and the democratic opposition as a third way to save the day between the government and the armed groups. If civil society has been inaudible since the beginning of the crisis, the democratic opposition has made two strategic mistakes: it colluded with François Bozizé before the election and it was disunited and incoherent for the legislative elections (COD-2020 is now a ghost and the initial slogan of boycotting the legislative elections did not hold).
Consensus between actors with divergent interests – Russia, France and the United States
In this crisis, the most paradoxical thing was the consensus between actors with divergent interests – Russia, France and the United States – to keep the elections on their original date. While Russia, which had relations with both the government and the armed groups, ultimately chose the former over the latter by securing Touadéra’s re-election, France and the United States chose to assert the right to vote in a context where the majority of voters could not exercise it. Faced with the dilemma of “give in to the armed groups and postpone the elections or not give in and make a mockery of the elections,” they chose the second option. In doing so, they decided to support an anti-democratic election in the name of preserving democracy! These contradictions are not lost on the government or the public, who compare the policies of both sides and see on the one hand a contest of hypocrisy and on the other a commitment finally clarified.
In the end, the electoral crisis highlights the regime’s dependence on its foreign security partners and President Touadéra’s lack of legitimacy. However, thanks to the electoral crushing of the opposition, the power militia, corruption and the Russian-Rwandan security umbrella, the second term risks being one of authoritarian consolidation and marginalization of MINUSCA, the EU and others.
**Thierry Vircoulon, associate researcher at the Sub-Saharan Africa Center and coordinator of Observatory of Central and Southern Africa within Ifri
1] Joint G5 statement, January 21, 2021.
2] Briefing from the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in the Central African Republic to the Security Council on the situation in CAR, January 21, 2021.