Central African Republic Elections: A Turning Point for the Country?

With almost constant coverage of debates, candidates, and poll numbers, the United States presidential election is likely to become America’s biggest source of news in 2016. But the United States is not the only country with a presidential election this year. In fact, the Central African Republic held the second and final round of its election just last Sunday. Picked up by some international news outlets, the event was reported on with only vague explanations of the platforms of each candidate and the violence that has gripped the country over the past few years. So how is this election tied to the country’s recent turbulence? How do the final two candidates differ in platform? Will they be able to pacify the country? These questions are crucial to understanding the future of this fragile nation.

The Central African Republic has long been an unstable country. As the name suggests, it is located roughly in the center of Africa. A former French colony, it now has a population of around 4 million people. Like much of Africa, it became a repressive one-party state after its independence in 1960 and has since been plagued by a chain of coup d’états that eventually led to the current crisis that has gripped the country.

The location of the Central African Republic in the center of Africa
The location of the Central African Republic in the center of Africa
A more detailed map of the Central African Republic
A more detailed map of the Central African Republic







In 2003, Ange-Félix Patassé, the president at the time, was overthrown by François Bozizé, setting of a chain of events that are crucial to understanding the Central African Republic’s instability over the past few years. Bozizé’s actions prompted a low-level civil war, called the Central African Republic Bush War, that lasted from 2004 to 2007. Peace was finally reached in 2007 when the government granted amnesty to rebel fighters and allowed them to organize into a political party. But peace would not last.

Eventually, rebel leaders accused the government of violating the terms of the peace agreement. Rebel groups, primarily from the Muslim north of the Christian majority country, joined together under the name Séléka. The group succeeded in overthrowing Bozizé in 2013, installing their leader, Michel Djotodia, as transitional president. But the violence did not end. Séléka continued to carry out atrocities against civilians, and in response the mainly Christian Anti-Balaka militias were formed. They, too, committed mass atrocities and slaughtered civilians. The country had descended into sectarian strife.

It was under these circumstances that Central Africans headed to the polls late last year and early this year. The first round of the elections were held in December. 30 candidates were approved to run, including three former prime ministers. It was two of these former prime ministers, Anicet-Georges Dologuélé and Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who took first and second place, respectively, and advanced to the runoff that was held on Sunday.

The candidacies of Dologuélé and Touadéra have many similarities, with both advocating primarily for a restoration of national unity while also emphasizing the importance of economic development. Both served as prime ministers under Bozizé, indicating ties to the former government. Dologuélé, who won first place with only 24% of the vote, was endorsed by Bozizé’s political party and has emphasized his economic and business credentials. He has stressed the importance of foreign investment to the country’s economic future. Touadéra, unlike Dologuélé, is running as an independent, which strengthens his pro-unity position. Portraying himself as a man of the people, he surprised many with his second place finish in the first round of the elections.

The similar platforms of Dologuélé and Touadéra indicate that both men understand the primary concern of the people: peace. Central Africans have grown weary of the violence in their country, and these candidates are promising to restore peace and bring economic growth. But will they succeed in doing so? If history is any indication, success will be an enormous challenge. In countries as poor and uneducated as the Central African Republic, changes in leadership often rotate among members of the same corrupt elite. But so far, the Central African Republic has followed its plan for a democratic transition to peace. If its new leader can mimic this success and follow through with his own program, this election, the result of which will be released within a few weeks, will hopefully mark the end of the country’s long period of instability.

A Summary of the African Union’s 26th Summit

On January 31st, the Assembly of the African Union concluded its 26th summit. Held every 6th months, the summit was held in the location of the headquarters of the African Union: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The African Union is a supranational organization consisting of every African nation except Morocco. It exists to promote cooperation between African states, work towards higher living standards for all Africans, protect the sovereignty of African nations, and integrate the policies of African governments. Responsible for achieving these goals is The Assembly of the Union, the highest governing body of the African Union. Composed of heads of state of each member nation, it is responsible for setting the policy of the Union. It was this body, The Assembly of the Union, that met last week, with heads of states from all over Africa convening to discuss the path forward for their continent. So what did they accomplish? Read on to find out!

This is map of the African Union with its member states colored green. The countries colored in light green are suspended members.
This is map of the African Union with its member states colored green. The countries in light green are suspended members.

Agenda 2063:

Much of this year’s discussion is influenced by Agenda 2063, a document that has provided the vision for the African Union for the past few years. Conceived as a 50 year plan starting in 2013, the Agenda envisions a future Africa of economic prosperity, political unity, better governance, security, and common cultural identity. The Agenda draws heavily from the ideas of the African Renaissance and Pan-Africanism. The former refers to a flowering of technological and cultural progress from the continent while the latter refers to the development of much stronger political and cultural ties between the countries and peoples of Africa.

Topic-African Year of Human Rights:

The theme of the 26th AU summit was “African Year of Human Rights with particular focus on the Rights of Women.” It is difficult to tell, at this time, the policy decisions made concerning this topic during the summit. While the AU always releases a document containing the decisions and declarations of the summit, it has not yet been released.

New Chairperson:

Every year, a new Chairperson of the AU is chosen from among the heads of states of African nations. In 2015, the Chairman was Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. During this summit, he was replaced by Idriss Déby of Chad. The role of Chairperson is quite ceremonial, as they are responsible for little more than representing the AU at international events. Thus the appointment of Déby will have little effect on the decisions made and policies pursued by the AU.

Mugabe Sleeps:

The retirement of Mugabe as AU Chairman is, nonetheless, probably a positive change. Why? Well, Mugabe is quite well-known the world. An ailing dictator who drove Zimbabwe’s economy into the ground, his name recognition is due more to infamy than to fame. And at the age of 91, he is likely not a fitting figurehead to oversee the future of Africa. This was made abundantly clear during this summit, as there were reports of him sleeping through heated debates.

Decision on Burundi:

With the political crisis in Burundi overshadowing this year’s summit, the AU had been under pressure from the United Nations to convince the Burundian government to allow a peacekeeping force to be deployed in the country. Burundi has been simmering since last year, when it was shaken by protests and a failed coup d’état in response to an announcement by the president that he intended to seek an unconstitutional third term. Despite a request from Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general who spoke at the summit, the AU decided against sending troops to Burundi. It instead opted to send delegates to engage in dialogue with the Burundian government.

Criticism of the ICC:

Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, submitted a proposal that the AU develop a roadmap for withdrawal of African nations from the International Criminal Court (ICC). The proposal exposes the common feeling that the Court unfairly targets African nations because most of those prosecuted by the court have been African leaders. While a withdrawal by AU nations would certainly be concerning, alarm should be reserved for a later date as the decision made during this summit was simply to explore the option of leaving the ICC.

Criticism of the United Nations:

In his speech at the summit, Mugabe sharply criticized the United Nations. In a show of strong anti-western sentiment, he slammed the body for favoring western nations and neglecting African countries. He called for reform, proposing that Africa be given a permanent seat on the UN’s Security Council. While the extent of the Mugabe’s antagonization of the west is quite extreme, they do bely a common frustration. Like the criticism of the ICC, his comments show a growing weariness of the western-dominated status quo of international politics.

Mozambique’s RENAMO Party: Walking On Thin Ice

If the leader of Mozambique’s second largest political party is to be believed, things are about to get serious. Afonso Dhlakama, the leader of RENAMO, has vowed to forcibly take over 6 of the country’s 11 provinces, essentially threatening to plunge the country into civil war. But can he really manage the feat? Considering that he has been threatening war for years, his threats should be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, this is one of the most alarming reflections of an ongoing trend of increased tension between RENAMO and Mozambique’s ruling party, FRELIMO.

To provide some context, Mozambique is a nation located on the southeast coast of Africa. It borders South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, and Tanzania. Although it shows high levels of sustained economic growth, it has one of the lowest per capita GDPs in the world. Many of its around 25 million people live in deep poverty. Rated by the Freedom House as “Partly Free,” Mozambique’s government is a deeply flawed democracy. Its elections are generally considered to be fair by international observers, but the government is rife with irregularities and corruption. Most of the power is concentrated in the hands of FRELIMO, which holds the presidency and a majority in the legislature, but RENAMO and another party, MDM, are unrestricted by the government and hold minorities in the legislature.

Mozambique, dark blue, in the African Union, light blue.
Mozambique, dark blue, in the African Union, light blue.

Now you may be wondering why RENAMO and FRELIMO have become so hostile that one is threatening civil war. Well, this isn’t the first time that they’ve disagreed. In fact, most of Mozambique’s first two decades in existence were marred by a civil war between the two groups. It was FRELIMO that fought for the country’s independence from Portugal in 1975, taking power and setting up a one-party Marxist government. Soon after independence, RENAMO was founded to oppose the communist government. A 15 year civil war ensued, finally ending when FRELIMO transitioned the country to a multi-party democratic state in 1992. At this time, RENAMO transitioned from a militant group to a legitimate political party and FRELIMO transitioned from a Marxist group to a democratic-socialist political party that has ruled the country ever since.

Considering the history of Mozambique’s government, the current resurgence of tensions may seem bizarre. The country has already emerged from a civil war, transitioned from a repressive authoritarian state to a partial democracy, and incorporated the opposing parties into a multi-party system under which each is represented. The problem, I believe, is that RENAMO has come to understand that it cannot gain power through the democratic system. FRELIMO has won every election since the end of the civil war, and RENAMO has repeatedly cited electoral fraud as the reason. While there have been electoral irregularities, international observers believe that FRELIMO’s sustained governance does, in fact, represent the will of the people. Dhlakama, the leader of RENAMO, unwilling to accept his party’s failure to gain power democratically, has begun to search for alternatives.

As a result, Dhlakama has become increasingly violent in recent years. He withdrew from his government posts and founded a new base of operations. He is now training soldiers who have, since the resurgence of violence began in 2013, attacked government forces and motorcades. He often threatens to bring destruction to the country and to restart the civil war. When the Mozambican government raided one of his military camps, he declared void the peace accord that ended the civil war. Thus his recent vow to take over much of the country, which he declared in retaliation to an assassination attempt on one of RENAMO’s leaders, is not as serious as one might expect. If he had the resources to move beyond the low-level insurgency that his party has been waging for the past few years, it is likely that he already would have done it. Thus it is unlikely that Mozambique is going to plunge into a full-blown civil war in the next few months, although the country will likely face a sustained low-level insurgency that will undermine rule of law and cause suffering among civilians. Therefore, both RENAMO and FRELIMO must work to resolve this escalating conflict.

RENAMO has put itself in a fragile situation by returning to its roots as a militant group. It now exists simultaneously as a legitimate participant in a multi-party democratic system and a rogue insurgent militia trying to destroy that system. It cannot continue to be both at the same time. If power is what Dhlakama and RENAMO seek, they must choose to seek it democratically. In order for this to happen, FRELIMO must reassure them that it is willing to commit to the pursuit of a more inclusive and effective democracy. But they will not do so if RENAMO insists on continuing its insurgency and thereby directly threatening the country’s people and integrity. Therefore, RENAMO must lay down its weapons in exchange for a promise from FRELIMO that the government will be bilaterally reformed. Achieving a compromise like this must be a priority, or else this escalating conflict may have time to evolve into something much uglier than it is now.


Vietnam’s 12th National Party Congress: An Explanation

Today was a big day in Vietnam. Why Vietnam? Because today marked the end of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s 12th National Congress. The congresses, which occur every five years, are without a doubt the most important political events in the country. They mark the complete reorganization of the Vietnam’s leadership structure, which has enormous ramifications for the direction that the country will follow for the next 5 years. The most significant result of this year’s congress was the maintenance of Nguyễn Phú Trọng as the General Secretary of the Communist Party. What does that mean, you ask? Well, to answer that question, an understanding of Vietnam’s political structure is needed. In the stories by popular international media outlets like the New York Times, the basic implications of this event are mentioned, but they don’t go into enough detail to truly explain how Vietnam’s political system works. That’s what I’m going to do in this post!

First, for those who are unfamiliar with Vietnam, I’m going to provide some context. Vietnam is located in Southeast Asia, bordering China, Laos, and Cambodia. With 90 million people, its population is significantly larger than those of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. Like China, Vietnam is a one-party state ruled by a communist political party. While it is less developed economically than China, it, too, has introduced capitalist market policies that have allowed it to build one of the fastest growing economies in the world. This means that, geopolitically, what happens in Vietnam matters to the rest of the world!

This photo shows Vietnam's location in Southeast Asia.
This photo shows Vietnam’s location in Southeast Asia.

So what exactly happened in Vietnam this week? Essentially, the Communist Party decided on its new leaders, who in turn will decide on the path forward for the Party, and consequently the country, over the next five years. In most western democracies, it is hard to imagine one political party having so much influence on a country’s policies. But because Vietnam is a one-party state, the governing structures of the Communist Party are intimately intertwined with the governing structures of the country as a whole. So what are some of these primary governing structures? Just to shoot out some names: the President, the Prime Minister, the Central Government, the National Assembly, the Central Committee, the General Secretary, the Politburo, and the Secretariat. Yep, these are all individuals or groups of individuals responsible for the government of Vietnam. Confusing, right? Well, I’ll try to explain it. I’ll start by distinguishing bodies of the Communist Party from bodies of the state.

The first four bodies in the list; the President, the Prime Minister, the Central Government, and the National Assembly; are all organizations of the state. The National Assembly is the country’s legislative body. Its members are elected by the people and its duties include making laws and appointing both the President and Prime Minister. The President is the head of state and commander-in-chief, entrusted to “represent the Socialist Republic of Việt Nam internally and externally” (www.chinhphu.vn). The Prime Minister, currently Nguyễn Tấn Dũng, is the head of government and is responsible for overseeing and directing the Central Government. The Central Government is simply a council of ministers that is responsible for implementing the policies of the National Assembly and Communist Party.

The Communist Party is made up primarily of the Central Committee, the Politburo, the Secretariat, and the General Secretary. The Central Committee is 175 member political body that meets twice per year and sets the policy of the Communist Party. The Politburo, whose 19 members are decided by the Central Committee, is sort of like an elite group that is responsible for enacting the policies set by the Central Committee. The Secretariat is another small group that has administrative responsibilities within the Party. The General Secretary of the Central Committee is the highest ranking member of the Central Committee, Politburo, and Secretariat, essentially leading the Communist Party.

The thing is, none of these organs of the Communist Party technically decide the policies of the state. They only decide the policies of the party. But because Vietnam is a one-party state, these organs are immensely powerful and are intertwined with the affairs of state organizations. Because both the President and Prime Minister are high-ranking Politburo members, and because the National Assembly is filled with members of the Communist Party, the leaders of the Communist Party make the decisions that determine the policies of the State. Therefore, decisions are often made collectively and the members of the Politburo are the most influential in setting the country’s policies. The General Secretary is considered the most powerful person in the country, surpassing even the President and Prime Minister. Thus the importance of the 12th Part Congress is very clear. While it did not involve the state bodies, delegates in this congress decided the members of the bodies of the Communist Party, including the Politburo and the General Secretary. They were consequently responsible for determining Vietnam’s direction over the next five years.

And what are the possible directions that they could have chosen? The two main competitors for the position of General Secretary were the incumbent,  Nguyễn Phú Trọng, and the current Prime Minister, Nguyễn Tấn Dũng. Nguyễn Phú Trọng represents a more conservative section of the party. He is reluctant to stand up to China, which often encroaches on Vietnam’s maritime territory, and is weary of market-based reforms that will result in a more capitalist system. Nguyễn Tấn Dũng, on the other hand, is more open to reform and favors closer cooperation with Western countries like the United States. During the recent congress, Nguyễn Phú Trọng remained the General Secretary.

So what does this mean? Well, Nguyễn Tấn Dũng is ineligible for becoming Prime Minister again, so the country will likely shift further towards the conservative position. It will be more reluctant to enact reform and will not seek to favor the United States over China. Nevertheless, both factions within the party recognize the importance of growing the economy and resisting China’s expansionism, as is evidenced by the fact that Vietnam is already a member of the American-led economic agreement, the Trans-Pacific-Partnership. In the end, with Nguyễn Phú Trọng remaining the General Secretary, the status quo in Vietnam has not shifted radically, but it may have tilted slightly towards a greater reluctance to pursue reforms.

Thank you for reading! I hope that this post has helped you understand the world a little bit better!

Welcome to NewsAware!

Welcome everyone! I’m very excited to be writing NewsAware’s first post! This post will simply be an explanation of what NewsAware aims to be and what you can expect from future posts. NewsAware was born out of my desire to better understand the world. As the name suggests, its focus is on the news and current events. But, unlike traditional news outlets, it is not driven by viewer ratings and consequently does not intend to comment on the biggest story of the day. On the contrary, the entire purpose of NewsAware is to dig deeper, to find international stories that don’t make the front page of the mainstream media, and to truly understand them.

If you, like me, truly want to understand the world, then this is the place to be. If you, like me, are tired of seeing important stories from around the globe go either unreported or underreported, then look no further. Because that’s why NewsAware was created. It was created to find important but underreported stories, to synthesize local material on those stories, to research their historical contexts, to generate meaningful analysis, and to present all of that information here–to you. NewsAware is here to go beyond the front page–and to make understanding what goes on in the world a little bit easier.