Contested elections: thousands flee amid renewed violence
Surge in violence in the run-up to, during and following the December 2020 legislative and presidential elections
An African Union-backed peace deal between 14 armed groups and CAR’s government brokered in February 2019 was further undermined by the of a new rebel coalition, Coalition des patriotes pour le changement (CPC), in December 2020 in the run-up to the presidential and legislative elections. According to Human Rights Watch, the CPC consists of six rebel groups that were signatories to the 2019 peace deal and created havoc in the run-up to the elections, including blocking the principal supply routes to Bangui, prompting international actors, such as the United Nations, to step up military operations. The violence came amid increased political tension exacerbated by the decision of the Constitutional Court to bar François Bozizé, a former president who seized power in a coup in 2003, from running in the presidential elections. Bozizé, who is under UN sanctions and has a government-issued arrest warrant against him for alleged murders, torture and other crimes, is also accused by the government of inciting the rebel groups.
Presidential and legislative elections, which took place on 27th December 2020, were marred by violence and a low voter turnout – according to the Constitutional Court only 35 percent of eligible voters were able to cast their vote. The announcement that incumbent president Faustin Archange Touadéra had won the presidential elections - contested by opposition and armed rebel groups - sparked more violence from the rebel coalition CPC, who launched attacks around the country, including in the capital Bangui, forcing thousands of people to flee. Opposition candidates have demanded an annulment of the election results, citing irregularities and insecurity during the vote. On 18th January 2021, the Constitutional Court confirmed Faustin Archange Touadéra as the winner of the presidential elections. On 21st January 2021, authorities announced a State of Emergency for 15 days.
“On trial, these warlords lowered their eyes” a former judge in #CAR said. In 2020 some were convicted for crimes against humanity for the first time. But most alleged responsible still need to be brought to court! #JusticeCAR New @Amnesty report: https://t.co/ZTJNygaLhZ pic.twitter.com/cwxgbJpsDr— Amnesty West & Central Africa (@AmnestyWARO) October 22, 2020
The Special Criminal Court (SCC) and the fight against impunity
In a new published report, ‘On trial, these warlords lowered their eyes. The Central Africa Republic’s challenging pursuit of justice’, human rights organisation Amnesty International takes stock of CAR’s efforts to fight impunity. According to the report, the Special Criminal Court, a UN-backed hybrid court mandated with investigating and prosecuting serious human rights violations since 2003 and inaugurated in October 2018, lacks transparency regarding its proceedings as not much is known about the events and crimes investigated in the ten cases before the investigating judges and the progress in these cases. The recruitment of international judges and a delay in the SCC’s legal aid system were identified as challenges impeding the operationalisation of the Court. Meanwhile, the ordinary courts, which resumed criminal trials in 2015, are challenged by a lack of personnel, equipment and infrastructure and the criminal sessions remain under the minimum required by law. The ongoing conflict and insecurity and the police and judicial authorities’ lack of independence from the executive power further restrain the ordinary courts in their fight against impunity.
Humanitarian workers and NGOs continue to face attacks
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), there were a total of 424 reported incidents against humanitarian organisations in CAR in 2020, indicating a very precarious situation for humanitarian work in the country. Burglaries and robberies are the most reported incidents (211 incidents). Three humanitarian workers were killed and 29 humanitarian staff members were injured in 2020.
The security situation regularly forces humanitarian organisations to cease or suspend operations in certain areas, as was the case in Ndélé, northern CAR, where four international humanitarian organisations suspended their activities in May 2020 following violence since March 2020 and targeted attacks against humanitarian NGOs. Enguerrand Roblin, mission head of Première urgences internationale in CAR explained to RFI:
‘We have witnessed the start of a cycle of crime, of banditry against NGOs which is unprecedented in Ndele. There have been phenomena of robbery, burglary, armed intrusions, whether at the level of NGO bases or at the level of warehouses in which goods are stored. It was almost at the rate of a daily robbery with not only material losses but also acts of violence during these burglaries, staff who were threatened with guns to their temples.’ (translated from French)
A few days prior to the elections, on 24th December 2020, about 200 women gathered in front of the MINUSCA in Bangui, the UN mission in CAR, and marched for peace in the country.
On 15th June 2020, security forces reportedly dispersed a meeting of the opposition platform Front uni pour la défense de la nation. A gathering of the platform was planned to take place in a stadium in Bangui but security forces prevented the gathering from taking place. About a hundred people subsequently gathered 200 meters from the stadium, where they were dispersed by security forces. According to the organisers, officers fired live ammunition as warning shots. Authorities reportedly banned the gathering citing security grounds.
On 30th November 2019, on the eve of CAR’s national holiday, a police officer shot twice in the air and at a journalist for Radio Maigaro, who was hit in the leg. Journalist Bruno Makilo was covering a ceremony in the city of Bouar and reportedly asked a group of people to be silent during the national anthem, which led to an altercation. The police officer, responsible for the ceremony’s security, responded to the altercation by firing his gun. Arnaud Froger of Reporters without Borders (RSF) commented:
‘Opening fire on a journalist who is covering an event is a serious crime that cannot go unpunished. We urge the authorities to ensure that this police officer is duly sanctioned and put on trial for what he did. Crimes of violence against journalists go unpunished only too often in the CAR, but this time the authorities have no excuse for not taking appropriate disciplinary and judicial measures.’
On 15th June 2019, police officers of the Central African Office for the Suppression of Banditry physically attacked and arrested two French reporters while they were covering an unauthorised opposition gathering in CAR’s capital Bangui. Florent Vergnes and Charles Bouessel of Agence France-Presse (AFP) were subsequently interrogated for several hours and accused of having assisted in the organisation of the protest. They were released after six hours.