Wagner forces return to CAR before referendum
The Central African Republic is confident that its July 30 referendum will go ahead. Russia's Wagner mercenaries have been contracted to provide security
The government of the Central African Republic (CAR) has expressed confidence that an incident-free referendum on a new constitution will take place later this month — with the help of hundreds of fighters from the Russian paramilitary group, Wagner, who arrived back in the country last Sunday.
Government spokesperson Albert Yaloke Mokpem said the fighters were there to simply secure the constitutional referendum process, as many fear another uptick of violence. However, many analysts have a different take on these developments.
Samson Itodo, the founder of Yiaga Africa, an NGO that promotes democracy across the continent, questioned the reasoning behind the continuous deployment of Russian fighters in CAR, warning of serious political implications.
"I think we should be worried as a continent about Russia's increasing influence in shaping domestic politics within the Africa region. And this interference needs to be resisted because CAR is naturally endowed with gold, with diamonds," Itodo told DW.
"So, the big question is, why Wagner forces? Why is Russia deeply interested in the politics of the country?"
The initial Wagner withdrawal
Wagner forces had only recently withdrawn from several towns in the country, sparking safety concern. An anonymous source in the capital Bangui expressed worry about their departure earlier this month, telling DW that "their presence [in the Central African Republic] is a deterrent [to rebels]."
It has since emerged that this initial withdrawal was mainly of a rotational nature, according to government spokesperson Mokpem:
"This is what happens every year. There are some who arrive, there are some who leave," he told DW, adding that it wasn't clear how many Wagner fighters in total were back in the country.
"The main thing for me is that the work is done," Mokpem stressed, referring most immediately to security measures taken ahead of the referendum.
In a statement, the Officers Union for International Security (COSI), which is linked to Wagner, said that conducting a smooth referendum was also its main priority for the time being:
"Russian instructors will continue to help soldiers from the Central African armed forces and CAR law enforcement agencies to provide security, in anticipation of the constitutional referendum scheduled for July 30," the group said, adding that "several hundred experienced professionals from the Wagner company" were joining the COSI team to this end.
Wagner's influence in CAR
The CAR was plunged into turmoil ten years ago after a violent takeover of power. Since then, various armed groups have continued to fight each other while also launching attacks on civilians.
President Faustin-Archange Touadera, who was first elected in 2016, turned to Russia for help to tackle the security issues created by these rebel groups, which one year later resulted in Wagner troops fighting alongside the army to deal against any insurgency.
Since then, Wagner has been a continuuous force in the country, gaining popularity and influence.
Alexander Ivanov, the head of COSI, said in a statement that the work of Wagner mercenaries in Central African Republic is seen as a success:
"We have managed to ensure that the republic turned from one of the most insecure countries in the world, where the government controlled only a few quarters of the capital, into a safe place for the life and development of the local population," Ivanov said. "As a result, most of the armed groups were destroyed or disarmed, former criminals have been integrated into society and moved to a peaceful life."
Jean-Serge Bokassa, a Central African Republic politician meanwhile told DW that those successes, however, come at a cost:
"I could recognize with some that there are results here and there, but all these results are marred by imprescriptible crimes which, unfortunately, will never be punished," he said.
Thierry Georges Vackat, the chairman of the Defense Committee in the CAR's National Assembly, believes the country still needs time to stabilize its security while the Russian mercenaries remain on the ground.
"We cannot use mercenaries to train the Central African army," Vackat told DW.
CAR 'needs saving' from Russia influence
Itodo meanwhile thinks that Russian elements should not be at the forefront of solving CAR's problem:
"We recognize that CAR, is a fragile state, but why do other African countries not provide the necessary support. Why is it just Russia?" he said, adding that in his view, the African Union should step in and prevent Russia from interfering with domestic issues in CAR.
"I don't think that there's any strong message that has come out of there [African Union], to show that they stand in solidarity with with Central African Republic or to ensure that this interference is limited by all means possible," he added.
Opposition to constitutional referendum
Meanwhile President Touadera has launched a campaign on Sunday, urging voters to back the new constitution in the upcoming referendum — without any mention of foreign interference from Russia.
"Today, I want to appeal to the sons and daughters of the country. The referendum vote gives you the opportunity to decide on a better future for the country. So don't let this opportunity to create a new republic through the constitution pass you by," Touadera said.
After his initial 2016 election victory, Touadera won again in 2020 but is up again a constitutional two-term presidential limit. If the new contitution is passed in the referendum this hurdle would be removed, enabling him to run again. Furthermore, the presidential mandate would be extended to years.
The new constitution would also introduce the position of vice-president and abolish the senate, which would turn the parliament into a single chamber.
Other changes in the new constitution include the banning of any citizen from running for president they have dual citizenship, requiring them to renounce the other nationality if they wanted to hold the hightest office in the country.
Whether these measures will indeed spell "a better future" for the country is rather doubtful. The Republican Bloc for the Defence of the Central African constitution (BRDC), a platform of opposition leaders against the new constitution, considers the move to be a putsch — one that is facilitated and supported by Russian elements.
"The regime's option is to continue its constitutional coup d'état to the end to impose a life-long presidency on the Central African people. And to protect this constitutional coup d'état, they need armed forces," Martin Ziguelé, spokesman for the BRDC, said during a gathering in Bangui, calling the referendum "illegal"
According to Ziguelé, it's the Wagner forces that are doing this work; some of them have even been enlisted to protect the president.
Itodo believes that the country isn't ready for such a referendum, and that ensuring peaceful political transition has been a fundamental problem in the Central African Republic which won't be fixed with growing foreign interference.
"This referendum further exposes the vulnerability within CAR. I don't think that they are poised to actually fix the fragile state using referendum as an instrument. I don't think that the country is ready for that," he told DW.
Zigoto Tchaya in Bangui and Eddy Micah Jnr. contributed to this article