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Referendum in CAR

Madelaine Meier/mc December 11, 2015

The Central African Republic is to vote in a referendum on a new constitution. The aim is to prepare the way for parliamentary and presidential elections later this month which would lead the country out of chaos.

Blue helmet soldiers in Bangui
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Longari

One passerby on the streets of Bangui, capital of Central African Republic (CAR), said he knew nothing of the new draft constitution which is to be put to the vote in a referendum on Sunday (13.12.2015).

"How we are we supposed to vote?" he asked. Another man was equally bewildered. "I know nothing about a campaign for a referendum. But every Central African should find out what's at stake," he said.

One of the reasons for the uncertainty over the new constitution is that several versions of it are circulating on the Internet. Most Central Africans don't know exactly what they will be asked to decide upon.

Analyst Tim Glawion from the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in Hamburg has also been poring over various versions of the draft constitution of the Central African Republic. On Friday he was unable to say which version would be submitted to voters. A final version had neither been made available to the citizens of CAR, nor had there been any discussion of its contents with their rulers.

Campaigning for the referendum began just over a week ago. Members of the transitional authority, such as Modibo Bachir Walidou, minister for territorial administration, urged the population to vote in favor of the draft constitution. He said the document means "that the state will guarantee that all regions of the country will be represented in public institutions. And that is a big step forward."

A street scene in Bangui showing a man earning money by photocopying documents
Sunday's referendum and elections later in December are meant to put CAR back on the road to democratic governanceImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Dibert

Giving the regions a voice was a key issue when drawing up in the draft. Central Africans participating in citizens' groups would be involved in inclusive "grassroots talks." But few people are aware of the constitution's provisions or wording.

New constitution as a path to reconciliation?

Sunday's referendum and the elections on December 27, 2015, are being heralded as a milestone for Central African Republic which has been mired in crisis for two years. President Francois Bozize was ousted from power by the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels in March 2013. Christian 'anti-balaka' militias were founded in response to the coup and the country is frequently pummelled by outbursts of sectarian violence.

This violence kills Central Africans every week. The new constitution would guarantee respect for human rights and religious freedom. But could this document really help reconcile the opposing factions in Central African society?

It's unlikely, says Glawion. The key question is the implementation of the constitution. "It is not as if the previous constitution contained provisions forbidding Muslims from trading. But that is exactly what happened out on the streets when Muslim traders were forced to pay additional taxes," he said.

Tim Glawion from GIGA Institute Hamburg
Tim Glawion of GIGA says much depends on the manner of implementation of a new constituionImage: Sascha Bachmann

Rebel leader Nourredine Adam has already threatened to block elections in areas under his control. His Patriotic Front for the Renaissance of Central Africa (FPRC), a Seleka splinter faction, is staging an armed revolt in the north and east of the country. He has even declared a separate "Logone Republic."

"I do not know how they are going to carry out elections in these areas against the wishes of the rebel groups," he said.

There were many armed actors who refused to join negotiations on the new constitution. They may have been irked by one particular provision, Article 23, which says members or former members of militias or rebel groups are not allowed to run for the presidency.

"That means that all armed groups with their eyes on the presidency are opposed to the constitution, for the time being at least," said Glawion. "That's also why Nourredine Adam is against it."

Controversially, this paragraph had been deleted from a draft that appeared in September.

Constitutional court judges ban Bozize

Nonetheless, the judges at the interim constitutional court still abided by the guiding principle behind Article 23. Political heavyweights with an unsavory past - including ex-dictator Francois Bozize - have been barred from competing in the elections. "It was a courageous decision," said Glawion.

Pope Francis in a refugee camp in Central Africal Republic
Pope Francis told Central Africans that 'Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters'Image: Reuters/S. Rellandini

CAR is currently governed by an interim authority which has been tasked with the setting up of the elections and the drawing up of a new constitution. Members of the authority cannot stand at these elections themselves. This provision is supposed to stop them from influencing the transitional process to their own advantage. It has done little to motivate transitional authority members in their work. On the contrary, some say the interim authority is now ineffective and corrupt.

Fear of attacks

The precarious security situation could be a threat to Sunday's referendum. Whereas some rebel groups have said publicly they intend to disrupt the poll, leaders of smaller groups such as Ali Darassa from the town of Bambari are supporting the referendum for strategic reasons. There could be clashes between the various groups. "Attacks on polling stations are possible and many civilians could be caught up in the crossfire," Glawion said.

CAR Defense Minister Joseph Bindoumi is also uneasy. He told DW that his forces were subject to an arms embargo and couldn't carry out any military operations. "There are international forces in the country who must make it clear to Nourredine Adam that he does not have the right to disrupt the electoral process," Bindoumi said.

He was referring to some 11,000 UN peacekeepers and some 900 French troops stationed in Central African Republic.

Asked whether a secure environment was possible in CAR, the minister noted that they were able, despite their limited means, to create sufficient stability for a recent visit to the country by Pope Francis, albeit with international assistance. "The pope came and he returned home in the best of health." he said. The next challenge would be Sunday's referendum.

Many observers had doubted that the referendum and parliamentary and presidential elections would take place this year. The interim authority was months behind schedule with voter registration and the polls were repeatedly postponed. But now the organizers seem determined to hold them this year. Glawion believes the international community had applied pressure. The international community wants these elections because they can serve as an excuse, he said. "Elections are always an excuse to say, now we've finished and we can leave."

Hippolyte Marboua and Jeff Murphy Bares contributed to this report