The Central African Republic (CAR) will hold on Sunday a contested constitutional referendum that could allow President Faustin-Archange Touadera to extend his rule.
Voters will be asked to decide on whether to scrap the existing two-term presidential limit and effectively allow Touadera to run for a third time in 2025. Opposition parties have called for a boycott of the vote.
First elected in 2016, Touadera was voted in again four years later after a polarising election that was marred by allegations of fraud. At the time, Russian security contractors including members of the Wagner Group helped Touadera beat back a rebel offensive.
The proposed constitutional changes, if passed, would also raise the presidential term from five to seven years and introduce the role of a vice president, a figure to be appointed by the president. The new constitution would also pave the way for changes in the composition of the Supreme Court by allowing the president to appoint more judges.
“The referendum will institutionalise the authoritarian drift that was already under way in the country,” said Enrica Picco, Crisis Group’s expert for CAR, adding the referendum was the culmination of a long-term project by the president to tighten his grip on power.
The idea of a constitutional revision was first put forward during a public dialogue that was organised last year with the stated intent of reconciling the country after a decade of war and turmoil.
Touadera’s argument for holding the vote was that the current constitution does not reflect “sufficiently the deep aspirations of the Central African people”.
In September last year, he set up a committee tasked with drafting the new chart. The country’s constitutional court, however, declared the newly established body unconstitutional and annulled it.
In January, Touadera dismissed the court’s chief Daniele Darlan in a move decried by the president’s critics.
Low turnout expected
Critics have said the proposed amendments are being rushed without allowing time for proper public scrutiny. The draft was submitted to Parliament and made public on July 10, only 20 days before the vote.
Human Rights Watch said in a report last month that the government prevented an open debate over the changes in the lead-up to the polls. It allowed the president’s supporters to hold rallies, often with security protection, while it cracked down on opposition parties and civil society groups protesting against the changes, the rights group added.
“The attitude of power towards the opposition since the beginning of this referendum did not favour the freedom of expression of opponents,” said Vianney Ingasso, a CAR-based political analyst.
The opposition has also not been able to mount a unified front, Picco said, noting that calls for demonstrations from political leaders living in exile failed to resonate with people inside CAR and international actors failed to provide sufficient support for the opposition.
There are nearly two million people who are eligible to vote in the referendum, but Ingrasso said there was widespread apathy in the country about a poll whose result was expected to be a “Yes”.
“The Central African population as a whole does not seem at all interested in the referendum,” he added. “Considering the enthusiasm around this project, what is certain is that the turnout will be very low.”
The CAR, a gold- and diamond-rich country of 5.5 million people, has struggled to find stability since gaining independence from France in 1960. It descended into further chaos in 2013 after then-President Francois Bozize was removed by a rebel alliance. Following the coup, militias fought back and the country fell into a spiral of bloody violence and revenge attacks, with armed groups controlling large swaths of territory.
In 2018, Touadera turned to mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group to quell the violence and push fighters out of main urban centres. Since then, ties between the CAR and Russia have grown stronger, with Moscow securing contracts to exploit the country’s vast mineral resources.
Speaking on Friday, at the second day of the Russia-Africa summit held in St Petersburg, Touadera thanked Moscow “for helping us to oppose foreign hegemony”. He added that Russia had helped his country to avoid a civil war and save its democracy.
This month, a spokesman for Touadera said hundreds of Wagner fighters had arrived in the country to help secure the constitutional referendum.
Russia’s ambassador to the CAR said earlier this year that there were 1,890 “Russian instructors” in the country.
Human rights groups and the United Nations have repeatedly accused Wagner mercenaries in CAR of committing human rights abuses.
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