The Hired Hands

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Mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group arrived in the Central African Republic (CAR) around two weeks before a July 30 referendum that would allow President Faustin-Archange Touadéra to run for a third term – which the current law forbids him from pursuing.

As Al Jazeera explained, the CAR has been in turmoil since 2013 when a rebellion ousted Touadéra’s predecessor, Francois Bozize. Elected in 2016, Touadéra turned to Wagner for help against the rebels who dominate different regions of the former French colony.

Even though Wagner forces staged an uprising recently, they remain a potent Russian tool in the CAR, which the Financial Times described as a Russian “client state.” They’ve been accused of committing human rights violations and massacring civilians. Now they appear charged with making sure the referendum passes so Touadéra and his pro-Russian rule will continue.

Crepin Mboli-Goumba of the opposition group the Bloc Républicain pour la Défense de la Constitution (BRDC) said Touadéra is essentially a hostage of Wagner fighters and their Russian overlords. Speaking to the Africa Report, he claimed that the referendum was illegal because it wasn’t organized according to the law.

The referendum is a bold power grab, said protesters who recently marched in a rally against the referendum in the capital of Bangui. They argued that the president isn’t above ruling without a remit from his constituents. Voter turnout was extremely low when Touadéra won reelection in 2021 due to violence at polling stations throughout the country and other irregularities, they added.

“We cannot accept that someone who came to power through a democratic process and maintained his position in 2021 through an electoral farce can decide to stay in power and give himself power for life,” BRDC member Mahamat Kamoun told Africanews and Agence France-Presse.

The president’s decision to forge ahead with the referendum will likely worsen the tensions that are already simmering in the CAR, argued Remadji Hoinathy, an analyst at the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies. An uptick in violence stemming from disaffected citizens or emboldened rebels could also spill into neighboring Sudan and Chad, too, where civil wars and insurgencies are now raging.

“This referendum doesn’t augur well for the future of politics, peace, and stability in the CAR, and urgent solutions must be implemented to get past this impasse,” wrote Hoinathy.

Yet Touadéra appears determined to press ahead as Wagner troops line up behind him.

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