Why Did the Central African Republic Declare a State of Emergency?

The country’s postelection violence threatens a humanitarian catastrophe—and a continued standoff between Russia and France for influence in Central Africa.

The president of the Central African Republic, Faustin-Archange Touadéra
The president of the Central African Republic, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, greets his supporters at an electoral rally in Bangui on Dec. 19, 2020. ALEXIS HUGUET/AFP via Getty Images

Less than a month after the Central African Republic (CAR) held national elections on Dec. 27, 2020, the country has been rocked by a wave of election-related violence—one so severe it has forced the government to declare a state of emergency.

The government announced the 15-day state of emergency on Jan. 21, after rebel forces surrounded the country’s capital, Bangui, marking the latest in a string of attempts to overthrow the country’s reelected president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra. The decree will allow authorities “to make arrests without going through national prosecutors” until Feb. 4, said Albert Yaloke Mokpeme, CAR’s presidential spokesman.

The conflict—which also involves Russia, Rwanda, France, and Chad—is creating a dire humanitarian crisis in the region. Since this past December, almost 60,000 people have been forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, further exacerbating existing refugee crises.

How did we get to this point?

On Dec. 27, incumbent President Faustin-Archange Touadéra was reelected in a highly contentious election after securing 54 percent of votes. The source of the conflict? Less than a month before Central Africans headed to the polls, Touadéra’s main rival—ex-President François Bozizé, who seized power in a 2003 coup and was ousted in 2013—was barred from running. Since Bozizé was under U.N. sanctions for alleged torture and assassinations during his presidency, the courts determined that he failed to meet the “good morals” and “clean criminal record” requirement for presidential candidates.

After Bozizé was barred, six major rebel groups—which control roughly two-thirds of the country—joined forces as the Coalition of Patriots for Change and accused Touadéra of preemptively rigging the election and leading a corrupt, predatory government. Bozizé was reportedly the driving force behind the coalition. Together, the rebels took control of villages; briefly captured the country’s fourth-largest town, Bambari; and destroyed voting materials.

With Touadéra’s victory, their attacks escalated even further. Rebels assaulted Bangui and executed attacks on CAR’s main highway line between the city and Cameroon, all while demanding Touadéra’s resignation. Once they attempted to blockade Bangui, the government rushed to declare a state of emergency.

So, how long has this been brewing?

 The roots of this conflict go back to 2013, when the Séléka, a coalition of armed Muslim groups, violently ended then-President Bozizé’s presidential term. The Séléka were disbanded soon after, but the coup sent the country into turmoil and civil war as ex-Séléka factions battled groups known as the anti-Balaka, primarily Christian militias allegedly created by Bozizé. Although Touadéra’s election in 2016 brought hopes for peace, he has struggled to mitigate the conflict, and rebel groups continue to control large swaths of territory. And while a peace agreement was signed in 2019, it has been consistently violated.

Now, Touadéra and the United Nations have accused Bozizé of stoking the unrest, which the latter has denied. Touadéra has also made pleas for national reconciliation. “After I am sworn in, we will pursue national reconciliation in order to defuse the political climate pre- and postelection,” he pledged in January.

How are other countries involved?

The conflict has evolved into a proxy war of sorts: Touadéra is friendly with both Russia and Rwanda, which each sent a few hundred troops as reinforcements last month. Russia in particular has seen CAR as a means of undermining French interests and advancing its own geopolitical goals on the continent. Moscow has provided the country with weapons and military training; in exchange, Touadéra has relinquished significant levels of sovereignty

On the other side of the conflict are France and Chad. France has disseminated allegations of “potential Russian interference in the elections,” and it even sent warplanes for a flyover mission in mid-December in an attempt to retain influence in its former colony. Chad, a military and political heavyweight in the region, has allied its troops with France’s in CAR. 

In CAR, there are also roughly 13,000 U.N. peacekeepers who have helped rebuff rebel advances throughout the country. Since December, seven have been killed. In January, Mankeur Ndiaye, the U.N. envoy to the country, urged the U.N. Security Council to increase the number of peacekeepers stationed in CAR due to an increase in the number of government troops who deserted their posts during the conflict.

What are the stakes?

First and foremost, there’s a large and growing humanitarian crisis. Aid organizations believe that there are almost 1 million internally displaced people in CAR, and since December, almost 60,000 people have been forced to flee the country. It’s possible that the state of emergency will help quell the conflict, as Touadéra hopes, but it also may inflame it.

As displaced Central Africans seek refuge in neighboring countries such as Cameroon, Chad, Sudan, and South Sudan, the conflict threatens to spill into them as well. Internal conflict and a refugee crisis are only compounded by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“This new wave of violence and displacement is increasing humanitarian needs at a time when the Central African people are already dealing with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and years of conflict and insecurity,” said Fran Equiza, the UNICEF representative in CAR.

As for the future? “We expect more unrest to happen,” said Hamdi Bukhari, CAR’s representative in the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. “An escalation would have a serious impact on the population, which is already in a critical humanitarian situation.”

And there are no signs that Russia and France will step back. 

“The stakes are not CAR,” Thierry Vircoulon, an expert at the French Institute of International Relations, told Foreign Policy earlier this month. “This war of influence in CAR is part of the bigger picture of Russo-French relations since the crisis in Ukraine.” 

Christina Lu is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei