Since the Central African Republic gained independence back in 1960, from France, it has been prone to instability and bursts of violence. The last decade of its existence has been democratic in name only, due to the violence undermining its rule of law. The most recent election, that of December 2020, has exposed this vulnerability in a way the previous election did not.
These most recent issues can be traced back to a coup d’état in 2013 that overthrew the then-president, Bozizé. Calling themselves Séléka, this rebel militia threw the nation into some two years of civil war before new elections could be held. The current president, Touadéra, was electing in spring of 2016, for a 5-year term. This was a surprisingly smooth process, with less interference from the numerous violent militias within the country.
In 2017, a peace deal was brokered between most of the rebel groups and the government. The U.N. began their current MINUSCA program. The French acronym being translated to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic. These developments inspired hope that the violence ravaged country could accomplish another peaceful transition of power, a tell-tale sign of a healthy democracy.
The question becomes, can this stability last through a second election season? The first election using a new constitution is never as good an indication of the resilience of a democracy as the second election. That 2016 election was upheld and supported by multiple international players, such as France. In a sense, the first successfully democratic election was forced upon the country. However, the next election would leave more to the mercy of the domestic players.
In discussing how to measure the success of a democracy, we can refer to an American political scientist, Schumpeter. He creates one broad but minimalist requirement for democracy. There must be a competitive election for the people’s vote, that is accessible for both voters and politicians to participate in. Schumpeter gives little to no consideration for the rights the government offers the people, or the freedom of information to be spread and consumed. The one focus is to allow politicians to competitively struggle for the peoples’ vote.
To look at the quality of the 2020 election, we must study the players involved in it.
Touadéra was the incumbent president. He spoke of continuing the process of creating a lasting and stable government, and exuded confidence in the ability of his government to run a free and fair election. His main competition was a man that had garnered support from several of the rebellious militias that held control of various regions of the nation.
The previous president, Bozizé, who was removed in the 2013 coup, was determined unfit to compete on moral grounds by the judicial system. Bozizé suffered international U.N. sanctions and an arrest warrant. Leading up to the December election, he announced he accepted the court’s decision and gave his endorsement to Touadera’s other competition. These actions facilitated some level of peace, and potentially satisfied Schumpeter’s requirements for a free, competitive election. However, days ahead of the December election, Bozizé flips his narrative.
The unstable peace agreement, this one being from 2019, was thrown out the window. 6 of the 14 major militias formed a new coalition. The Coalition of Patriots for Change, or the CPC. This group was a mix of different religious, and previously warring, militias. They appeared to be uniting behind Bozize and began making demands of the acting government. They requested the election to be delayed, else they would fully abandon the peace deal to march on the capital, Bangui.
This development was a clear attempt at another coup d’état. With help from international players, such as the Russian Wagner Group and military forces from Rwanda, the CAR government was able to protect the capitol and ensure the procession of election. But the surge of violence that emerged from this Coalition was extreme. It went as far as to claim the lives of three UN peace keepers.
There were reports of prospective voters being threatened and brutalized. Approximately 14% of polling locations, about 800 in count, were forced to close. The number of polling stations that were ‘disrupted’ is a much higher figure, closer to 50%.
In all, despite the country having universal suffrage for citizens, only about 35% of voters participated in this election. In addition to those that could not safely access their voting location, there were tens of thousands of people that had fled into the bush or neighboring countries due to avoid pre-election violence.
These militia groups, spread across large swaths of the country, wreak havoc on not only the communities they occupy, but also the inclusion of citizens in the government. The election described above cannot be considered a peaceful transition of power. Despite the promising quality of the 2016 election, the 11,000 UN Peacekeepers could not secure opportunities to vote for most of the population. There are thousands of people fleeing townships to seek refuge in rural bush or the neighboring countries of Chad, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Republic of the Congo. There can be no basis for a democratic government with this violence.