CAR: Touadéra’s third-term plans are pushing CAR to the brink
In his quest to remake the country in his image, President Touadéra has unleashed forces he may not be able to control.
Half-way into his second term as president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra is taking a gamble on a constitutional referendum that would allow him to stand for a third term in 2025. The brazenness with which the government has brushed aside legal and logistical concerns looming over the 30 July poll suggests the result is a foregone conclusion. With the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) rebel movement, a Muslim-Christian coalition linked to ousted former president, Francois Bozizé, making a powerful comeback in northern CAR, and cracks in the security apparatus widening, Touadéra’s ambitions threaten to plunge the country into chaos.
A third term for Touadéra
The idea of a constitutional amendment to abolish the presidential term limit first gained traction with Touadéra’s Movement Coeurs Unis (MCU) following the otherwise inconsequential Republican Dialogue in March 2022.
However, the plan hit a snag in October when the Constitutional Court declared a commission installed by Touadéra to oversee the revision unconstitutional.
In a brazen manoeuvre to control the Court, Touadéra relieved the court’s president, Danièle Darlan of her duties and named her deputy, Jean-Pierre Waboe as her successor. In January 2023, the Constitutional Court reversed course, giving its go-ahead for a referendum on the proposed changes.
Rising hate speech and incitement to violence
Two pro-government organisations, Galaxie Nationale and the Front Républicain, have been instrumental in creating the illusion of public support for the constitutional revision by paying participants of pro-Touadéra rallies and disrupting opposition gatherings.
Although both groups have long agitated against the government’s actual and imagined adversaries, including the UN’s MINUSCA mission, their rhetoric has become more inflammatory over the past year. For instance, in a communiqué issued in July last year, Galaxie nationale called on its supporters to use machetes and baseball bats to hunt down individuals linked to the opposition.
The group’s coordinator, Didacien Kossimatchi and Front Républicain leader, Héritier Doneng thus bear significant responsibility for creating a toxic climate in which the language of violence is being normalised by both sides.
Although the Ministry of Territorial Administration officially disbanded Galaxie in September, it continues to operate largely undisturbed and with the government’s blessing.
An impotent opposition
The political opposition has stood by helplessly as Touadéra and his supporters assault CAR’s constitutional democracy. MCU and its allies hold a comfortable majority in the national assembly and have few qualms about using government resources to tilt the playing field in their favour.
The opposition’s greatest handicap, however, is a widespread lack of faith in the democratic process itself, informed by a long history of regime change at the barrel of the gun.
As the controversy around the referendum intensifies, the impulse to favour military over political solutions is coming to the fore, with even previously moderate opposition media openly expressing their support for armed groups.
In early June 2023, former interim president, Alexandre-Ferdinand Nguendet released a statement on social media threatening to oust Touadéra with the help of army elements unless he steps down within 30 days. Although the armed forces (FACA) promptly distanced themselves from the ultimatum, it is testament both to the combustible atmosphere in Bangui and increasing concerns regarding FACA’s cohesiveness.
A rebel comeback
Over the course of 2021, the Wagner Group, FACA and Rwandan troops routed CPC rebels from their provincial strongholds, bringing most of CAR’s territory under government control for the first time since the civil war erupted in 2012. But these gains have come at a considerable human cost. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Database, civilians have borne the brunt of Wagner’s take-no-prisoners approach to peace-making. Muslim communities, in particular, are treated as guilty by association with the CPC’s predominantly Muslim fighters.
Widespread abuses by security forces have made it easy for armed groups to recruit new members among disaffected Muslims, notably the nomadic Fulani. Meanwhile, Wagner’s focus on securing mining sites has allowed CPC fighters to regroup outside Wagner’s immediate areas of interest. The rebels have compensated for depleted weapons stocks by making increased use of drones, explosive devices and kidnappings, catching the government-aligned forces by surprise. As a result, attacks on FACA and Wagner have reached an intensity last seen in the first half of 2021. Further complicating the picture, new militia such as Coalition Siriri and Azandi Ani Kpi Gbe are cropping up across the country, illustrating that peripheral areas are increasingly slipping out of the pro-government troops’ control.
A sustained economic downturn
CAR’s ongoing economic and fiscal woes are playing into the rebels’ hands as well. In 2021, the European Union, France and others suspended budgetary support in protest of Touadéra’s chumminess with the Russian mercenary group, leaving the government struggling to pay for civil servants’ wages.
Meanwhile, the economy remains under significant strain. A poorly managed price cap has amplified the impact of surging fuel prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, triggering shortages that have crippled economic activity and driven up food prices. As a result, per capita incomes are shrinking. As Bangui’s small but growing middle class starts to feel the pinch, public sector strikes are becoming more frequent, further fuelling social tension.
Widening cracks within the armed forces
Alongside rising security threats from armed groups and civil unrest, the armed forces are emerging as another potential source of upheaval. Following an intensified recruitment drive, FACA’s ranks have doubled to around 15,000 since 2019, far surpassing a target of 9,800 outlined in the 2017 National Defence Plan. It is doubtful the government will be able to maintain current troop numbers for long. Complaints about insufficient provisions and equipment have multiplied, and cuts to soldiers’ pay may soon be necessary. The impact on morale would be devastating.
Worryingly, thousands of troops have been recruited into parallel command structures while bypassing the regular selection and training process. Driven by fears of a coup, Touadéra has stacked the Republican Guard, which is nominally part of FACA but directly subordinated to the President, with members of his Mbaka-Mandja ethnic group. Rather than boosting FACA’s effectiveness, these recruitments have undermined its unity.
Under these circumstances, it is increasingly doubtful FACA would be able or willing to withstand another large-scale rebellion. Worse still, Touadéra may have inadvertently increased the risk of desertions, mutinies and coup attempts by creating rival command chains and fanning ethnic discord within the armed forces.
Walking the tightrope
Touadéra is clearly not oblivious of the risks that this authoritarian turn entails to the country’s stability and, by extension, his own rule. In an apparent effort to hedge his bets, the president has quietly sought to rekindle ties with scorned partners. Since May, Bangui has widened security operations against Chadian rebel groups to assuage Chad’s President Mahamat Idriss Deby, a CPC ally, amid reports Wagner are using CAR as a rear base for Deby’s overthrow. Meanwhile, the US-brokered transfer of CPC leader François Bozizé from Chad to Guinea-Bissau, and a modest injection of US funding for FACA could herald a thaw with Washington. But more meaningful re-engagement with Western partners will be predicated on Bangui scaling back its ties with Wagner, whose support Touadéra continues to rely on. Evidently, Touadéra believes he can walk the tightrope. The coming months will show whether that is a miscalculation