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C.Africa's Touadera: man of peace or 'President Wagner'?

By Barbara DEBOUT
Central African Republic Touadera, 66, a former prime minister with an academic background, won a first term in 2016 elections.  By Stanislav KRASILNIKOV (TASS Host Photo Agency/AFP)
TUE, 08 AUG 2023 LISTEN
Touadera, 66, a former prime minister with an academic background, won a first term in 2016 elections. By Stanislav KRASILNIKOV (TASS Host Photo Agency/AFP)

Faustin-Archange Touadera, who looks set to seek a third term as Central African Republic president after voters approved a new constitution, casts himself as a unifier in one of the world's most turbulent countries.

Each time he travels, Touadera receives a stark reminder of the scale of this challenge in a poverty-stricken nation torn apart by civil war for more than a decade.

A hefty guard of United Nations peacekeepers and private Russian security agents escort Touadera, who has beaten back rebel forces with decisive help from Russia's Wagner mercenaries.

Touadera, 66, a former prime minister with an academic background, won a first term in 2016 elections, the first after a coup and civil war that erupted three years earlier.

The early optimism surrounding his presidency soured when he struck a controversial deal with warlords in a bid to bring peace. Little fanfare greeted his 2021 re-election on a low turnout.

Critics now dub him "President Wagner", referring to his dependence on Moscow and the Russian mercenaries, and say he wants to cling on to power for life.

With voters overwhelmingly backing a new constitution that abolishes the two-term limit for presidents and extends their mandate from five to seven years, Touadera's rule could now stretch to 2033.

Contested peace deal

Criticism over the credibility of Touadera's 2016 victory was muted at the time. Many saw the ballot, however flawed, as the price to pay for stability.

During his post-electoral honeymoon period, Touadera gained an image as hard-working, competent and self-effacing.

His supporters even found him too modest.

Critics now dub him 'President Wagner', referring to his dependence on Moscow and Russian paramilitaries.  By Artem Geodakyan (TASS Host Photo Agency/AFP) Critics now dub him 'President Wagner', referring to his dependence on Moscow and Russian paramilitaries. By Artem Geodakyan (TASS Host Photo Agency/AFP)

His detractors saw him as the head of a "predator government", rife with corruption, prolonging a scourge that has beset the Central African Republic (CAR) for decades.

Others say he was conned by the militias that once held sway over two-thirds of the country, sporadically attack civilians and the army, and fight over mineral riches.

Touadera struck a peace accord with 14 armed groups in February 2019, essentially bringing warlords into the government in return for the disarming of their militias.

The agreement alienated many in the population who had suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of militias.

Western powers, the United Nations and international NGOs said he was bartering his political survival and a relative peace against the country's mineral wealth.

Russian companies linked to Wagner have cashed in on mineral concessions, even as the CAR remains heavily dependent on international aid.

The intervention of Russian mercenaries in 2020 to shore up the CAR's beleaguered armed forces thwarted rebels who had surrounded the capital Bangui and threatened Touadera's government.

Each time he travels, Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadera is escorted by a hefty guard of UN peacekeepers and private Russian security agents.  By ALEXIS HUGUET (AFP/File) Each time he travels, Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadera is escorted by a hefty guard of UN peacekeepers and private Russian security agents. By ALEXIS HUGUET (AFP/File)

Touadera has also ruffled feathers in former colonial power France, whose military intervention in 2013 helped stem the civil bloodbath.

French President Emmanuel Macron said Touadera had become a "hostage" of what he called "predatory" Russian mercenaries.

Touadera won re-election in 2021 with 53.16 percent of the vote on a paltry turnout of 35.25 percent. Many voters were unable to cast their ballots in areas outside government control.

Herculean task

To his supporters, Touadera has had to take on one of the world's most thankless jobs.

He took the helm of a country that ranks consistently near the bottom in the UN's Human Development Index, a benchmark of prosperity.

Thousands of people have died since 2013 and more than one million have fled their homes.

Touadera's backers say he has never deviated from his policy of an outstretched hand, a policy they say encouraged a relative lull in the violence that began in 2018.

Security has been restored in the capital and the rebels pushed out of much of the territory they once controlled, but some say at too high a cost.

Thousands of people have died since 2013 and more than one million have fled their homes.  By Barbara DEBOUT (AFP) Thousands of people have died since 2013 and more than one million have fled their homes. By Barbara DEBOUT (AFP)

The United Nations and NGOs say rebels, government soldiers and Russian mercenaries have committed crimes against civilians, while a UN peacekeeping force has not prevented abuses.

Touadera's claimed achievements -- largely funded by the international community -- range from the rebuilding of the army to free health care for women and children under five.

Education spending has risen and the government has made pay for civil servants more regular after many years of arrears and discontent.

With a maths degree from the University of Lille in France and a PhD from the University of Yaounde in Cameroon, Touadera's background had given him little personal resonance among many CAR voters.

He had no electoral base before 2016 and later gained the backing of a party set up from scratch in 2018, the United Hearts Movement (MCU), which brought together some 40 groups.

Analysts say Touadera's political strengths lie in his ambiguous tactics.

"His governing style is to say 'yes' to everyone without deciding publicly," said Charles Bouessel, a consultant at the International Crisis Group.

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