Ten Years After the Coup, Is the Central African Republic Facing Another Major Crisis?
Ten Years After the Coup, Is the Central African Republic Facing Another Major Crisis?
Soldiers from the Central African special forces march during the military parade held to celebrate the 64th anniversary of the Central African Republic independence in Bangui on December 1, 2022. AFP / Barbara Debout
Q&A / Africa 14 minutes

Ten Years After the Coup, Is the Central African Republic Facing Another Major Crisis?

In March 2013, Seleka rebels triggered a civil war in the Central African Republic. A decade later, strong domestic and international tensions raise concerns the country could face another violent power transfer. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Enrica Picco analyses the state of play.

Where does the Central African Republic (CAR) stand, ten years after Seleka’s coup?

Ten years ago, a predominantly Muslim rebel coalition from the north east, Seleka, marched on CAR’s capital Bangui, supported by thousands of Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries, without encountering any resistance. It overthrew President François Bozizé and launched a transition phase but failed to keep its fighters under control. Faced with the rebels’ brutality, local populations formed self-defence militias, known as anti-balaka groups, that targeted Muslim communities. When regional pressure forced its president, Michel Djotodia, to step down, Seleka withdrew to the country’s north. International forces deployed in the meantime had been working to secure the country to ensure elections could be held safely. In March 2016, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, Bozizé’s former prime minister, assumed the presidency, giving new hope to Central Africans. But despite several peace agreements since then – most recently in 2019 – the national reconciliation process begun during the transition has not put an end to armed rebellions.

In late 2020, Bozizé created the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), a heterogeneous coalition of ex-Seleka and anti-balaka elements, and attacked Bangui. The Central African Armed Forces (FACA) and their Russian and Rwandan allies fended off the rebels, who retreated to rural areas and to neighbouring Chad and Sudan. Two years on, CAR not only remains unstable, it appears to be descending into a new security and humanitarian crisis. As in 2013, the threat facing the authorities in Bangui today is three-fold: the resurgence of armed groups in the hinterland, mounting tensions in the capital and pressure from abroad. While President Touadéra can count on the blue helmets of MINUSCA, the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, and on his Russian and Rwandan bilateral allies to protect his government, recent events suggest the situation could escalate quickly, even in the capital.  

Why is the CPC’s recent spate of attacks a cause for concern?

In early 2023, CPC rebels launched a new offensive against government forces in the hinterland, starting with three major attacks. In the first, which took place on 21 January in the north west, the rebels targeted the Béloko customs post in Nana-Mambéré prefecture, destroying offices and around thirty freight trucks. Béloko is CAR’s first customs checkpoint on the trade corridor between Bangui and Douala, in Cameroon. The CPC is aware of this route’s strategic importance in supplying Bangui and had previously tried to close it in December 2020, in an effort to blockade the capital. Béloko is also CAR’s main source of customs revenue, which the government and representatives of the Russian private security Wagner group in the country cannot afford to lose due to the current financial crisis.

In the second attack, which started on 25 January, CPC and government forces clashed for three days in Gordil, in north-eastern Vakaga prefecture. According to several sources, the confrontation claimed over a dozen lives from both sides, including seven Wagner combatants.

The rebels’ third attack bore close similarities to the second and occurred on 14 February in the town of Sikikedé, also in Vakaga. The CPC captured twenty soldiers from the national army and later posted a video of the hostages on social networks, sparking public outrage. The group’s growing presence in Vakaga is linked to the ministry of mines’ September 2022 decision to forbid local prospectors from working gold production sites in Vakaga and neighbouring Bamingui-Bangoran, in order to allow Russian mercenaries to operate the mines. The rebels, who previously made significant profits from taxing artisanal miners, regrouped and now seem determined to continue their attacks. Competition for natural resources also affects CAR’s central regions. For instance, CPC rebels and Wagner representatives trade accusations of leading the attack on the Chinese Gold Coast Group’s mining operation in Chingbolo village (Ouaka prefecture) that killed nine Chinese nationals on 19 March.  

In their new offensive, the rebels have used weapons and combat strategies new to CAR – such as homemade drones, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and abductions –, taking government forces by surprise. In November 2022, an unidentified flying object bombed a FACA and Russian mercenary base located in the former cotton factory of Bossangoa (Ouham prefecture), 300km from Bangui. The bombing caused significant material damage. On 21 January, a similar attack destroyed a Russian helicopter in Ndélé, in north-eastern Bamingui-Bangoran. A few days later, the Central African government declared that all unidentified aircraft would henceforth be considered a threat and shot down.

The use of explosive devices has also increased since 2021. The CPC, in particular, has used them to barricade one of the last areas under its control. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that explosive devices killed twelve people in 2022, including three blue helmets, and seven people in the first two months of 2023. The most brutal attack to date occurred in late February, when two FACA soldiers and a Wagner paramilitary were killed, and five members of their patrol wounded, on the Bossangoa-Bozoum axis.

The use of IEDs and kidnappings is further isolating rural communities and reducing humanitarian access.

Finally, kidnappings for ransom, which represent a new source of funding for the CPC, have become more frequent. Between November 2022 and March 2023, the rebels kidnapped two UN agents and a Central African official near Birao, in Vakaga. In March, they abducted three Chinese miners in Nana-Mambéré prefecture, in the west. The use of IEDs and kidnappings is further isolating rural communities and reducing humanitarian access in a country were 56 per cent of the population depends on aid.

The CPC threatens to seize Bangui, yet it has not formulated any clear political demands. Besides generating pockets of instability that are hard to control, the scaling up of attacks in the country’s hinterland requires government forces to redeploy to the north, leaving the capital exposed. In parallel, the rebels say they have infiltrated Bangui. While the claim is hard to corroborate, the government has taken the risk seriously and increased the number of FACA searches around the capital. According to a non-governmental organisation based in CAR, the armed forces led at least 35 such operations in 2022, arresting at least 800 people. President Touadéra, who refuses to negotiate with the CPC and labels the rebels “terrorists”, also has to deal with social movements that could lead to civil unrest and worsening instability in the capital, a situation the rebels could exploit.  

What are the threats to Bangui’s stability?

In the capital, three endogenous elements could threaten the state’s stability: the government’s spiral into authoritarianism, the financial crisis and divisions within the national security forces.

First, the president’s attempts at constitutional reform have accelerated the government’s lurch toward authoritarianism. In the summer of 2022, the ruling party launched a series of legislative initiatives designed, among other things, to lift the constitutional limit of two presidential terms, which would clear the way for Touadéra to run for president again in 2025. Despite the Constitutional Court’s annulment of the presidential decrees that paved the way for the reform, the government has not given up hope, as evidenced by the forced retirement of the Court’s president, and it could still organise a referendum on the constitution in parallel with the local elections due in July. Opposition groups have rallied together, both in Bangui and among the diaspora in Paris, to prevent a potential referendum and to call for President Touadéra’s resignation and the launch of a transitional phase.

The president’s camp has responded to the opposition’s actions with repression. Pro-government movements such as Héritier Doneng’s Republican Front and Didacien Kossimatchi’s National Galaxy, both of which have been active since 2021, have recently intensified their hate speech and violence against opposition and civil society leaders. In parallel, the national security forces and their Russian allies have increased surveillance of the population, mostly focusing on groups suspected of opposing the ruling party, such as Muslim communities, particularly the Fulani. These repressive tactics risk encouraging some Central Africans to side with the rebels.

The decision by CAR’s Western partners to suspend financial assistance following Russia’s involvement in the country has emptied the state’s coffers.

Second, the government may soon be unable to pay the salaries of its officials and national security forces. Foreign aid formerly provided more than 50 per cent of the state’s budget. The decision by CAR’s Western partners to suspend financial assistance following Russia’s involvement in the country has emptied the state’s coffers, forcing the administration to suspend all current payments since December 2022. The government has increasingly turned to the informal economy to obtain liquidity, leading to growing corruption and embezzlement. In July 2022, CAR’s youth minister was arrested in South Korea on charges of selling fake diamonds for half a million dollars. The global crisis is also causing rampant inflation: in Bangui, for example, the cost of rice has risen by 33 per cent, and that of cooking oil by 25 per cent, since January 2023.

The Central African population’s pressing socio-economic demands, which the increasingly conflictive political arena cannot cope with, have already triggered violent protests. Between January and February 2023, public sector officials demanding higher wages organised a series of strikes that paralysed parts of the national education system, health care and telecommunications. On 7 March, striking teachers attacked private schools in the capital, injuring dozens of people, including children. These strikes are reminiscent of those which, between November 2000 and April 2001, set the stage for an attempted coup against then President Ange Félix Patassé. The people’s frustration could lead to riots that security forces would struggle to control, leaving the country vulnerable to a dangerous cycle of protests and repression.

Appointments within the presidential guard made on the basis of ethnicity are also causing resentment. In response to persistent rumours of an attempted coup that circulated in late 2022, President Touadéra decided in late January to replace the commander of the presidential guard since April 2020, General Alfred Service, with Colonels Martial Selengué and Igor Seregaza. Both colonels, like Touadéra, belong to the Mbaka-Mandja ethnic group, while most other high-ranking officers belong to CAR’s majority ethnic group, the Gbaya, of which former President Bozizé is also a member. This power struggle within the presidential guard compounds mounting frustration among national army soldiers at the Russian mercenaries’ often abusive behaviour. Further feeding tensions are rumours that FACA soldiers’ bonus for deploying to the hinterland will be cancelled. These funds, which were frequently embezzled, have been suspended since November 2022.  

What are the regional and international stakes?

Dynamics within the region and further afield remain critical for CAR’s stability. As in 2013, relations with Chad and Sudan are strained, as both countries have provided exiled CPC leaders with refuge and rear bases since 2021. Unlike in 2013, however, new players are actively involved in the country’s security. As relations with the West have degraded, President Touadéra has turned to new allies, such as Russia and Rwanda, to satisfy his security needs. Some 2,000 Wagner paramilitaries arrived in CAR on the eve of the 2020 elections. Kigali also answered the president’s call, sending around 1,000 troops to CAR as part of a bilateral defence accord. Meanwhile, Central African authorities and their Russian allies have targeted the former colonial power, France, in a media campaign that has further damaged relations with Paris. As a consequence, France has progressively withdrawn its advisers to Central African ministries and pulled its remaining soldiers out of the country.

The war in Ukraine has also exacerbated concerns in the West about Wagner’s operations in Africa. In January, the United States classified Wagner as a transnational criminal organisation, exposing the group and its supporters to financial sanctions. Following this announcement, Washington began discussions with President Touadéra aimed at offering him an alternative security plan and helping expel the Russian group from the country. Among other measures, this plan would include support for security reform, particularly in regard to military training, which is currently monopolised by the Russians. The U.S. initiative has sparked several European and African partners’ interest, notably Rwanda’s. Meanwhile, regional efforts led to former President Bozizé’s removal from neighbouring Tchad to Guinea-Bissau in early March, thus addressing one of Touadéra’s main security concerns.

If Touadéra chooses to remain within the Russian sphere of influence, Chad and Sudan may decide to back Central African rebels.

If it takes effect, the U.S. initiative could pose a political and security dilemma for Touadéra. If he turns to the West for support, sidelined members of his ruling party and officers recently sacked from the presidential guard or military command could support the Wagner group in a possible attempt to overthrow him and preserve Russian interests in the country. Yet if Touadéra chooses to remain within the Russian sphere of influence, Chad and Sudan may decide to back Central African rebels with rear bases in their territory.

N’Djamena and Khartoum view Washington’s strategy to push the Wagner group out of the region favourably. Both are in the midst of a difficult political transition that depends on Western support and consider the Russian mercenaries a threat to their stability. In Chad, President Mahamat Idriss Déby suspects Wagner of supporting armed movements in the country’s south and has already reinforced military positions along its border with CAR. In Sudan, traditionally a Russian ally, President Abdel Fattah al-Burhan fears that his all-powerful VicePresident Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti” might use his close ties to Wagner to replace him as head of state.

How to avert a new crisis?

The current status quo is untenable. As in 2013, the main threats to the country’s stability derive from domestic authoritarianism, poor governance and exclusion. This time, however, the Central African government can still take urgent steps to put the country back on track and prevent a new outbreak of violence. First of all, using their security support as leverage, the United States and Rwanda should push Touadéra to resume communication with exiled CPC leaders, in an effort to negotiate a ceasefire and bring discussions with the rebels back under the auspices of the UN- and African Union-backed peace process. Meanwhile, Touadéra should take steps to address the root causes of the crisis and limit regional and international pressures’ influence on CAR’s future.

Firstly, the Central African government’s drift toward authoritarianism can still be checked. As the steps it has taken till now have elicited no response from countries in the region and Western partners, the ruling party has continued to press for constitutional reform and is preparing to hold a referendum. Priorities for the 2025 presidential and legislative elections should therefore be to ensure a diverse pool of candidates, and to give opposition candidates the same opportunities as those from the majority. International partners who regularly provide financial and logistical support for elections in CAR, particularly the United Nations and the European Union, should encourage the government to lower the temperature of the political debate, allow the safe return of opposition members currently in exile and reopen the democratic space – which will include guaranteeing freedom of expression and association.

Secondly, the government should take stock of the current financial crisis and accelerate long-overdue administrative and public finance management reforms. Some controls that are already in place, such as background checks on public officials, could help resolve the state treasury’s difficulties in paying public officials while also paving the way for improved governance. This approach has already borne fruit by exposing 1,900 fictitious officials, saving the government $300,000 per month. These efforts should be followed up with similar initiatives in other areas of government, as well as in the president’s and prime minister’s offices.

Finally, urgent reforms will be required to mitigate the increasing risks of a mutiny within the army. As Crisis Group already recommended in May 2022, the Central African authorities should set up a Defence Council to avoid rivalries and strengthen chain of command within the defence forces. President Touadéra should also abstain from stoking ethnic divisions in his appointments to senior security positions; ensure the army chief of staff holds regular inspections of troops on the ground to prevent a groundswell of discontent; and base any reform of the armed forces on a realistic evaluation of state finances.

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