Managing Election Tensions in the Central African Republic
What’s new? Almost two years after the government and fourteen rebel groups signed the peace agreement, the Central African Republic (CAR) is facing insecurity, political tensions and administrative delays in the run-up to elections scheduled for late December 2020.
Why does it matter? The fate of CAR’s peace agreement and the country’s stability partly depend on the elections. If the losing party does not accept the results, the dispute could trigger a political and institutional crisis that armed groups, in turn, might exploit in order to further undermine the state.
What should be done? Government and opposition should engage in dialogue to ease tensions before the elections. International partners should find common ground to support credible elections, and regional actors should encourage armed groups to abstain from violence during the poll.
Presidential and legislative elections in the Central African Republic (CAR) could test the ability of national and international actors alike to keep the country stable. While armed groups will continue to hold sway in much of the country, the elections could nevertheless contribute to strengthening the state in the long term. But challenges remain: despite the February 2019 agreement between the government and fourteen rebel groups, insecurity persists in several areas of the country, and tensions between government and opposition are acute. Both should engage in dialogue to ease tensions before the elections. Neighbouring countries where Central African armed groups have rear bases should encourage those groups to abstain from violence during the poll. Finally, Russia and France should overcome their rivalry to adopt a common position if a post-electoral crisis emerges.
Armed groups have already upset preparations through acts of violence and crime. It seems that most do not intend to disrupt the poll itself, but their fighting and predation have already set back the national elections agency’s work, including voter registration. Two armed groups have targeted registration operations in the country’s south east and west – kidnapping polling agents and blocking access to some areas – resulting in lower registration rates than elsewhere.
On top of the insecurity, political tensions are rife, and the opposition is mistrustful of the national elections agency. Opposition parties accuse it of being in the government’s pocket, despite a law passed in July 2020 which, in principle, gives it greater independence. Pursuant to this law, eleven new agency members, or electoral commissioners, took up office in October. Eventually, they will replace all the previous commissioners, who are staying in their posts at present for a transitional period alongside the replacements. But the opposition still considers both old and new commissioners too close to the president. It harbours misgivings about the new commissioners’ independence, as most of them were selected by the government or ruling party. A further difficulty is that the elections agency has yet to nominate a central bureau, while the current body’s mandate runs out just four days before the poll.
Following delays, the government initiated a change to the electoral law, causing further friction. It decided to extend the deadline for voter registration and publication of the voters’ lists by one month to 27 October, while keeping election day the same. Opposition parties, which had wanted the elections postponed to 2021, cried foul, citing poor preparations and the electoral agency’s alleged fraud in the registration exercise. They argued that a delay would allow for a better poll, and also open the way for a national unity government that could appoint a new, more impartial, electoral agency.
The unilateral change to the electoral timetable could lead to disputes after the elections as it could provide the opposition with another reason to contest the results. The opposition can already point to general insecurity, the low level of voter registration (1.85 million out of five million inhabitants) and the fact that refugees, an eighth of the country’s population, will not be able to vote. A contested outcome may lead to a post-electoral crisis that armed groups could use to further weaken the state.
International actors have an important role to play in maintaining the country’s relative stability in the electoral period. They have so far pressed for credible elections within the constitutional timeframe. Despite limited means, the African Union, sub-regional organisations and neighbouring states have mediated between armed groups and also between armed groups and the government to reduce violence before elections and keep an eye on electoral preparations. Nonetheless, rivalries among these actors could jeopardise a coherent regional and international response in case of unrest around the elections. The latent contestation between France and Russia in particular could hobble international multilateral initiatives, including at the UN, if a serious crisis emerges.
Despite the difficulties, electoral preparations have been rather smooth, and the country can hope for a reasonably peaceful election. If the opposition strongly contests the results, however, the post-electoral moment could be tense. To reduce these risks, the government and its international partners should take the following measures:
- Neighbours such as Chad, Sudan and Congo-Brazzaville should use their influence over armed groups, especially those based in north-eastern and south-eastern CAR that use their territory as a rear base, to persuade them not to disrupt elections. The UN, other international partners and the government must maintain dialogue with those armed groups that more or less respect the February 2019 agreement and do not interfere with electoral operations. But they must act firmly against those who commit further acts of violence or otherwise disrupt the poll, by using military force where possible and by dismissing them from government in line with the agreement’s Article 35.
- The government should enter dialogue with the opposition so that the elections agency can nominate officers for a new central bureau as soon as possible.
- All bilateral partners active on the CAR file, especially France and Russia, should find common ground before the vote, including through contacts among their capitals, to reduce any tensions and agree to communicate strong joint messages to the government and opposition concerning the need to respect the Constitutional Court’s decision and refrain from violence if on the losing side.
- In the event of a contested outcome, international actors will likely be called upon for mediation. African states will almost certainly take the lead, but with UN and European Union support, as was the case with the 2019 peace agreement. It will be vital that international actors speak with one voice as far as possible. They should avoid congratulating any candidate before all the results are in and all legal disputes have been settled by the Constitutional Court.
The December elections are a vital step for CAR. True, an orderly vote alone will not solve the country’s myriad problems, but a contested result could make things worse. All national and international actors should work to avoid this outcome and to prevent an electoral crisis that would threaten the country’s relative stability.