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Central African Republic gears up for Sunday referendum

People on motorcycles in Bangui, Central African Republic   -  
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Central African Republic

Voters in the flashpoint Central African Republic will cast their ballot Sunday on a controversial plan to change the constitution, opening the door to a third term by President Faustin Archange Touadera.

One of the poorest and most troubled countries in the world, the land-locked nation has been gripped by conflict and political turmoil for more than a decade.

Touadera was first elected in 2016 as the country, with French and UN help, emerged from a civil war that spiralled along sectarian lines following a coup.

Violence persists today, albeit at lower levels, swathes of territory are controlled by rebel groups and Touadera himself remains in power with the support of Russian paramilitaries.

Touadera was re-elected in 2020 after a vote stained by accusations of fraud and low turnout -- less than one in three of the electorate cast its ballot, mainly because of intimidation in rebel-held areas.

The proposed constitutional change would raise the presidential term from five to seven years, and scrap its two-term limit.

Touadera's supporters say his tenure would be reset to zero, enabling him to run again for the presidency.

- 'Will of the people' -

"This constitution stems from the public dialogue which was organised in March 2022 -- it stems from the will of the people," said Evariste Ngamana, deputy parliamentary speaker and spokesman for the pro-Touadera majority in parliament.

"The goal is to create institutional stability and the right conditions for development."

The main opposition parties and civil society groups are calling for a boycott of the poll, describing it as flawed by an incomplete electoral roll and electoral overseers who lack independence.

"We are faced with a constitutional coup d'etat -- the goal of no-limit (presidential) terms is quite simply about having power for life," said Martin Ziguele, president of the Central African People's Liberation Movement (MLPC).

In Bangui, many people said the CAR should focus on addressing poverty, which afflicts nearly three-quarters of the population, on rooting out entrenched corruption and on ending violence.

"There are people who are dying, insurgencies, holdups, money being siphoned off. But the president has stopped thinking about this -- he just wants to get his third term," complained Fios Manda, a Bangui trader.

- Muted protests -

But open protests against the referendum have been low-key and Human Rights Watch (HRW) says opponents have been threatened or harassed.

On July 14, only around 500 people attended a protest rally, braving a ban by the authorities who described the initiative as "subversive".

As for the judiciary, the Constitutional Court in September 2022 dealt a humiliating blow to Touadera, scrapping the establishment of a committee tasked with drafting the new constitution.

The court's president, Daniele Darlan, was then targeted in violent verbal attacks by Touadera supporters and in January this year was forcibly retired.

Around 1.9 million electors are eligible to take part in Sunday's vote.

But whether they will be able to is a question clouded, as before, by intimidation in rebel-held areas.

Touadera has said that Russia and Rwanda, which has also increased its influence in the CAR, would "support" security for the vote.

A Wagner-linked outlet said this month that several hundred Wagner fighters had arrived in the country to carry out this task.

Revising the constitution and justifying this to extend two-term presidential terms has become a growing trend in Africa.

It occurred in Guinea and Ivory Coast in 2020, and emerged as a possibility this year in Senegal, only for the incumbent, Macky Sall, to announce he would step down at the end of his second spell in office.

Last month Mali -- whose ruling military junta is also supported by Wagner -- pushed through a new constitution followed a controversial referendum.

It says the constitution will steer the country's return to civilian rule next year.

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