The Central African Republic (CAR) was due to hold its first round of parliamentary elections on 14 February 2021. However, on 13 February President Faustin-Archange Touadéra decreed that the parliamentary elections would be delayed until 7 March and the second round of parliamentary elections to 14 March due to the surge in violence after the 27 December presidential elections – which saw Touadéra and his United Heart Movements (MCU/Mouvement Cœurs Unis) party win the first round with an unexpected 53% of the vote. Touadéra’s win has been partly attributed to poor election registration and turnout (about 34%) driven by a surge in violence in rebel-controlled territories. Hence, people who live in districts where the 27 December elections were disrupted will also be allowed to cast presidential ballots during the parliamentary round although the details of how the numbers will be reconciled remain vague.
In addition, the presidential election results were bound to be contentious as former president François Bozizé was blocked from running by the CAR High Court on 3 December 2020. In response, on 4 December, Bozizé met with Mahamat al-Khatim, leader of the Central African Patriot Movement (MPC/Mouvement patriotique pour la Centrafrique). This led to the MPC’s 15 December announcement of a new rebel force called the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC/le Coalition des Patriotes pour le Changement) which rallied behind Bozizé and started to expand its control over the western parts of the country.
Unlike previous rebel forces, which have usually been formed out of alliances of sectarian Islamic, Christian, and local Animist groups, the CPC cuts across ethnic lines and is united in its support of Bozizé and the belief that the 27 December election was rigged. The CPC includes the Islamist MPC, Popular Front for the Rebirth of CAR (FPRC/Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique), Union for Peace in CAR (UPC/Unité pour la Paix en Centrafrique) and Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation (3R/ Retour, Réclamation et Réhabilitation), as well as the Christian Anti-balaka group.
This unusual alliance has not gone unnoticed among its members. The PFRC’s second-in-command Nourredine Adam has agreed that for the coalition to work, the ex-Séléka members (predominantly Muslim) and anti-Balaka (predominantly Christian) armed groups, as well as Fulani factions, will need to reconcile.
The CPC launched a massive offensive on 25 December, effectively shutting down 29 of the 71 polling stations in the country. Then, after Touadéra was officially recognised as the winner of the election, the CPC attacked Bangui on 13 January 2021.
This prompted the declaration of a state of emergency on 25 January that allowed police and soldiers to make arrests without having to go through the state prosecutor, thereby allowing authorities to jail suspected rebels more efficiently.
The rebels blockaded the capital for 50 days before they were repelled by CAR armed forces, with the support of United Nations (UN) peacekeepers as well as troops from Russia and Rwanda on 8 February.
The impact has been decisive and far-reaching. Since the 13 January attacks, over 200 000 people have been displaced – with over 100 000 people remaining internally displaced and in danger of attack. The CPC presently controls the entirety of the Bamingui-Bangoran, Nana-Grébizi, and Haute-Kotto prefectures; most of the Vakaga, Ouaka, and Ouham prefectures; and large areas of the Ombella-M’Poko, Nana-Mambéré, Mambéré-Kadéï, and Ouham-Pendé prefectures.
Because the government controls less than 50% of the country’s territory it is unclear how it will be able to hold successful elections in March. One way would be to allow Bozizé to run for president, but that is highly unlikely. Even if the former president was allowed to appear on the ballot, if he lost the CPC would likely to continue its attempt to takeover the country through force.
There are also tensions within the formal politics of Bangui. Touadéra’s main political rival Anicet-Georges Dologuélé has launched several court cases to challenge the president’s December victory. It is unclear what will happen if Touadéra and the MCU loses its majority in March or if Dologuélé’s Union for Central African Renewal (URCA/Union pour le Renouveau Centrafricain) wins enough seats or forms a coalition that gives it control of the National Assembly. It is unlikely these parties will begin an open conflict, but it may trigger a constitutional crisis which will result in more instability.
There is also a significant geopolitical element to the conflict. Touadéra is a close regional ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and by extension Rwanda, and resents French interference in its former colonies, while Dologuélé is closer to France and Chad. While all these factions are working together to battle the rebels, underlying tensions within the government alliance are high. Indeed, Dologuélé and his allies believe that Russia may have stoked the tensions which sparked the initial conflict in December 2020 in order to ensure that Touadéra retained power.
Clearly complex, tensions within the CAR have pushed the country back into a state of civil war. The government has lost control of most of the Northern and Eastern regions, and barely maintains control over Bangui. Should Touadéra’s gambit work, and the delayed elections defuse the violence, the conflict could be nipped in the bud. However, the CPC’s tone has been inflammatory, citing the duty of the people to remedy the disrespect of democratic principles by any means necessary, including force.