Central African Republic: president in for the long haul
A referendum in the Central African Republic has just approved constitutional changes allowing the president to run again as many times as he wishes rather than stand down when his second term ends. The new constitution was developed with minimal consultation and opposition protests were banned during a campaign that offered few opportunities for debate. President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s rule relies on close links with Russia: mercenaries from the Wagner group were present for the campaign and the group has strong economic and political influence. This is bad news for democracy activists and journalists, who came under increased pressure ahead of the referendum.
It’s a story told time and again, but that doesn’t make it any less outrageous. A president nears the end of their second term and it’s time to step aside and give someone else a chance. But instead, they decide the time’s ripe for constitutional change – a change that removes or resets term limits so they don’t need to plan their retirement. For the sake of international legitimacy, referendums come in handy to sanction the constitutional change – providing all the conditions around the vote can be controlled to ensure an agreeable outcome.
And so it duly came to pass that the referendum held in the Central African Republic (CAR) on 30 July – provisional results of which have just been announced – abolished presidential term limits and extended terms from five to seven years.
President Faustin-Archange Touadéra has been in power since 2016 and was re-elected in a disputed election in December 2020, when 14 per cent of polling stations were closed due to a spike in violence and numerous irregularities were reported. He should be stepping down in 2026; instead, he can now run again. Troublingly, one of the reasons cited for the change was the fact that few countries in the region now have term limits, indicating that long spells of rule rather than regular democratic turnover are becoming the regional norm.
This wasn’t Touadéra’s first attempt to change the rules. In September 2022, the Constitutional Court blocked his attempts to begin a process to change the constitution. The government’s response was to remove the court’s head, Danièle Darlan, and impose a replacement who dutifully agreed that a referendum could go ahead.
The provisional results record that around 95 per cent of voters backed the constitutional change, but reports of turnout vary widely: the official figure stands at around 61 per cent, while opposition groups say it may have been as low as 10 per cent; if this was the case, it would indicate both apathy and boycotting – something the opposition and many civil society groups called for.
The opposition complained of a lack of transparency and consultation, with the draft constitution unveiled just weeks before the vote. There was little prospect of genuine debate. In the run-up to the referendum, pro-government groups harassed and threatened opponents and journalists. Protests opposing the plans, including by the Republican Bloc for the Defence of the Constitution, a coalition of civil society and opposition parties, were banned. Protests backing the changes, some involving paid supporters, faced no constraints.
Russia’s African ground zero
Touadéra has some powerful friends. The CAR is ground zero for the extensive African involvement of the shadowy Wagner group of Russian mercenaries and associated companies. Wagner is thought to have some kind of role in as many as 18 African countries, but it’s in the CAR that it’s most embedded.
Touadéra reached out to Russia shortly after taking power in 2016. He received Russian military instructors and weapons, and Wagner mercenaries soon followed. They’ve helped keep Touadéra in power in a country where a civil war has lasted over a decade.
There’s no chance of the presidential guards rebelling and conducting a coup, as happened recently in Niger, since those guards come from Wagner. Several hundred new Wagner fighters arrived in the CAR a couple of weeks before the referendum, presumably on hand to quell any attempts at disrupting voting.
Wagner’s track record is brutal. All sides in the CAR conflict have committed human rights abuses, but around 40 per cent of political violence is attributed to Wagner. Civilians are paying the highest price: they’ve been targeted in over half of all acts of violence by Wagner forces, and the figure is even higher when Wagner forces have fought on their own rather alongside CAR forces.
Wagner forces are accused of targeting Muslims and ethnic Fulani civilians, purely on the basis of their religious and ethnic identities. They’re accused of extrajudicial killings, sexual violence and looting.
One particularly notorious incident came in two villages, Aïgbado and Yanga, in January 2022. Wagner forces reportedly fired indiscriminately at crowds, summarily executing people and burning down homes. At least 65 people were killed, children among them. The government provided the mercenaries with cover, insisting no civilians had been killed. The Wagner group continues to enjoy widespread impunity over its actions.
Alongside the deep human rights costs there’s also a steep financial price tag. The CAR has one of the world’s lowest per-capita incomes but it’s rich in diamonds and gold. No payments to Wagner appear on the state budget, but mercenaries don’t work for free. Wagner’s relationships in Africa are consistently characterised by the extraction of resources that flow back to Russia.
Wagner and associated companies are believed to have been offered some control over gold and diamond mining, along with a logging concession. The group even brews beer – and its move into the drinks business has coincided with a series of attacks on the facilities of the French-owned company that brews the country’s most popular beer, along with the circulation of social media disinformation.
Wagner’s economic interests are backed by force. There’s been heavy fighting between Wagner forces and rebel groups over control of goldmines. Wagner’s CAR diamond operations almost certainly breach the Kimberley Process, an international agreement intended to stop the sale of conflict diamonds.
And then there’s the political influence. Touadéra doesn’t just surround himself with Wagner bodyguards; he also has an inner circle of Russian advisers and decision-makers. Danièle Darlan reported that it was Russian officials who first approached her for advice on how to change the constitution.
After the rebellion
It might have been expected that the situation would be complicated by the Wagner group rebellion that saw mercenary forces march towards Moscow in June. But Vladimir Putin treated Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin with kid gloves, and charges were dropped – a highly unusual outcome in a country where those who disagree with Putin tend to end up in jail or worse.
Prigozhin is supposed to be in exile in Belarus, but he was seen in St Petersburg ahead of the Russia-Africa summit held in July, where he was photographed shaking hands with a CAR presidential advisor. So far, little seems to have changed. The CAR and Mali, the two countries where Wagner has its biggest presence, were reassured by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov that private military contractors would remain in their countries.
The soft treatment afforded to Prigozhin suggests that Putin knows he needs Wagner in Africa. It’s Wagner personnel rather than state forces who are his boots on the ground, offering Putin some ability to distance himself from human rights crimes. Wagner’s economic, military and political operations are likelier to be gradually taken over by the Kremlin than be wound down. Putin’s cultivation of warm relations with African states is vital when it comes to offsetting international pressure over his war on Ukraine. The votes and abstentions of African states at the United Nations enables Putin to position criticism of his invasion as selective and partial.
Russia portrays itself as an anti-western ally of African states, even though it’s currently engaged in a war to reestablish an empire and its actions have helped provoke a food-price crisis that has impacted the worst on the poorest people in the poorest countries. Putin recently tore up the United Nations-brokered deal to ensure Ukraine could export grain through the Black Sea – a deal that had helped bring down soaring wheat prices. Putin has announced that to cushion the impacts, six African states will receive free Russian grain. This is largely being used to reward repressive close allies: the CAR, along with Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Mali, Somalia and Zimbabwe.
Gaining some grain while exporting its gold and diamonds, the CAR seems set to stay Russia’s regional lynchpin, which can only be bad news for human rights. Those fighting to realise democratic freedoms in the CAR face a long struggle ahead.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government must commit to respecting the full range of civic freedoms, including the right of people to organise, speak out and protest.
President Faustin-Archange Touadéra should ensure that he faces genuine political competition when he next stands for re-election.
Civil society should work to scrutinise and expose Russia’s involvement in the Central African Republic and its complicity in human rights abuses.
Cover photo by Barbara Debout/AFP via Getty Images