An upcoming constitutional referendum could further close civic space in the Central African Republic and risks reversing democratic gains made since 2015, Human Rights Watch said today.
The president of the Central African Republic, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, announced via Facebook on May 30, 2023, that he was calling a referendum on a new constitution. While the text is not yet public, the change could enable Touadéra to stay on as president beyond 2025, when his current term is up. Fidèle Gouandjika, minister and special adviser to the president, told AFP that a referendum would not enable Touadéra to run for a third term, “but the counters will be reset at zero” and the president could run again.
“This referendum comes as government institutions, including the police, have threatened civil society advocates and prevented opposition political protests,” said Carine Kaneza Nantulya, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “President Touadéra should publicly announce that he encourages a free and fair debate as to the merits of this change and allow its detractors to speak freely and openly.”
In his statement, Touadéra said the current constitution, ratified in 2016, “does not reflect sufficiently the deep aspirations of the Central African people” and that he could not remain “insensitive to the urgent and legitimate demands of the sovereign people to endow our country with a new constitution.” The referendum is slated to be held on July 30.
The guiding principles of the Central African Republic’s constitution were initially set forth as recommendations of the 2015 Bangui Forum, a series of national consultations to map out a political transition after widespread violence in 2013 and 2014. The recommendations included ending indefinite rule by the head of state, alongside the need to curb impunity, tribalism, corruption, and coups.
The idea for the referendum first emerged in March 2022, when the government, using a national dialogue intended as a reconciliation tool with the opposition, decided to promote changing the constitution to pave the way for a third presidential term. As debate around a constitutional referendum intensified, the government prevented opposition parties from protesting the proposed change, while permitting supporters to hold rallies, sometimes with police protection.
Despite resistance from the opposition and statements of concern from some members of the international community, Touadéra and his party have continued advocating changing the constitution, including by proposing a technical committee tasked with recommending the necessary changes. The Constitutional Court ruled that such a committee was unconstitutional. In response, Touadéra removed the court’s president, setting off a judicial crisis that continues to threaten the court’s legitimacy.
The former court president, Danièle Darlan, told Human Rights Watch that on March 7, 2022, Russian Embassy officials visited her and asked her for advice on how to change the constitution to enable Touadéra to stay in power. “It was not normal for a diplomat to approach the head of the court to see how to get the president to stay on,” Darlan said. Darlan also spoke about the Russian diplomats’ attempt to push for a constitutional change in a May newspaper interview.
In January, the Constitutional Court, now under a new president – Jean-Pierre Waboué – declared that a plan to initiate a referendum was legal, clearing the way for the constitutional change. In April, Human Rights Watch issued a report outlining how the government is cracking down on civil society, media, and opposition political parties that are critical of the referendum.
Attempts by Russian diplomats to influence political processes in the Central African Republic exacerbate fears about Russia’s role in the country, Human Rights Watch said. Russian forces from the Wagner group, a Russian private military security contractor with links to the Russia government, have been in the country since 2018, operating under training agreements with the government. Human Rights Watch has documented that Russian forces, possibly linked to Wagner, have summarily executed, tortured, and beaten civilians since 2019.
Two political associations closely aligned with the ruling party, the United Hearts Party (Mouvement des Cœurs unis, MCU), have coordinated popular support for the referendum, including at times by paying people to march in support of the project. These same groups, the Requins (Sharks in French) and Galaxie Nationale (National Galaxy in French), have taken a leading role in harassing opponents, both online and in the streets. Media reports indicate that the Wagner group has provided financial support to Galaxie Nationale.
Local elections, originally slated for September 2022 and rescheduled for July 2023, will again be pushed back to allow for the referendum to occur first. The Republican Bloc for the Defense of the Constitution (Bloc Républicain pour la Défense de la Constitution, BRDC), a coalition of opposition parties, announced it will boycott the local elections.
Instead of amplifying the calls of those who want to stifle discussion about the referendum, the government should encourage an open debate and prevent threats and intimidation against those opposed to the constitutional change, including by members of the ruling party, Human Rights Watch said. Diplomats in Bangui, who maintain they encourage officials to respect the rights of political opponents, journalists, and activists, should publicly encourage Touadéra to allow peaceful protests against the referendum.
“People watching the Central African Republic have known this referendum is coming and that it is likely to enable the president to stay on,” Kaneza Nantulya said. “The big question now is whether Central Africans opposing the referendum will be allowed to speak their minds.”
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Human Rights Watch (HRW).