Thu. May 30th, 2024

The Central African Republic president is asking voters to support abolishing term limits in a referendum backed by Russia’s Wagner mercenary group.

Wagner, which has troops and business interests in the country, is providing security for the referendum.

The main opposition has called for a boycott of the referendum, accusing President Faustin-Archange Touadéra of wanting to become president-for-life.

Mr Touadéra has grown ties with Russia since French forces withdrew in 2022.

His supporters say that constitutional limits on presidential terms are “uncommon” in the region, and the proposed changes will help achieve stability and development.

The CAR has been plagued by rebellions and coups for decades, with a powerful coalition of rebel groups trying to oust Mr Touadéra.

On Wednesday, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin said hundreds of its fighters had arrived in the resource-rich country as part of “a planned rotation before the referendum”, according to the Afrique Media website linked to the Russian group.

It quoted Mr Prigozhin as saying that “we control the territory of CAR and we are convinced that the gangs will not be able to harass the population”.

The UN has a peacekeeping in CAR but it did not provide security for the referendum.

But Wagner is increasingly seen as the main group on which Mr Touadéra’s government relies to remain in power, and to fight rebels.

Wagner has had at least 1,000 forces in CAR since 2018, and has also developed huge business interests in the country.

It reportedly trades in the minerals and timber industries.

Earlier this week, Mr Prigozhin was photographed shaking hands with Ambassador Freddy Mapouka, a CAR presidential advisor, at a Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg.

France, the former colonial power, pulled its last forces out of CAR in 2022. It first sent about 1,600 troops to the country after a coup in 2013 unleashed a civil war.

As CAR moved to restore democracy, Mr Touadéra was elected president in 2016 and won a second term in 2020.

But he has been accused of becoming increasingly authoritarian, and his critics say the referendum is the latest sign of his attempt to extend his power.

If the changes to the constitution are approved, it would allow Mr Touadéra to seek a third term in 2025.

It would also raise the presidential term from five to seven years and allow the president to appoint more judges to the Supreme Court.

Correction 31 July: This story has been amended to make it clear the UN is not providing security for the referendum

By Joy

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