Bangui - When the Muslim-led Seleka rebels marched into the
capital Bangui and deposed President Francois Bozize in March 2013, it ushered
in one of the darkest periods in recent Central African Republic history.
A political struggle quickly mutated into a
communal tussle between the Muslim and Christian communities, as rival militia
and vigilante groups unleashed a spate of violence upon one another.
Thousands were massacred and many more wounded and
scarred as more than 20% of the population found themselves displaced, hiding
from rival gangs in the dense forests across the country or beyond its borders.
In January 2014, a transitional government was
propped up with the purpose of bringing some order following mass
After repeated delays and postponements, on Wednesday
citizens of the country take to the polls for parliamentary and presidential
elections in a bid to turn the country's fortunes around.
Why this election must take place
Even if there remains significant discontent about
the timing and uncertainty over the authorities' ability to stage a
free-and-fair election, many analysts see Wednesday's vote as
the country's best chance to move on.
According to David Zounmenou, a senior researcher
at the Institute of Security Studies based in the South African city of
Pretoria, there are two reasons the elections need to be held.
"One is to put an end to the transitional
government, which has no credibility, and the other is to create an impetus for
the peace process in the country," said Zounmenou from the institute's
African Security Analysis Programme.
Without a credible, legitimate government, no
decisions can be truly seen as representing the will of the people.
"There is a perception from the international
community that it's better to have bad elections than no election. [The logic
is that] even if we wait for 10 years, the conditions are never going to be in
place to hold elections, so it's better to transfer the responsibility to
government to address some of the issues now," he told Al Jazeera.
Not everyone is convinced that elections should
happen at this point.
Thierry Vircoulon, project director for Central
Africa at the International Crisis Group in Paris, told Al Jazeera that the
lack of preparation could plunge the country into a deeper crisis.
But proponents say the elections should be seen as
part of a larger move to improve the country's destiny.
"Elections on their own won't solve its
problems ... it is only one move of a larger initiative that needs to be taken
in the CAR for it to return to normalcy ... It's already a risk to hold
elections in a country where disarmament of armed groups haven't take
place," Zounmenou said.
Issues at hand
At the top of everyone's agenda are peace,
security, rebuilding the country, and reviving its devastated economy.
The new government faces the daunting task of
reuniting the estranged Christian and Muslim communities who have faced off
against each other in bloody communal violence over the past two years. Amnesty
International described the killing of Muslims as "ethnic cleansing", while the
Muslim-led Seleka rebels have equally been accused of a litany of crimes
against the Christian population.
More than a million people remain displaced, both
internally and across the border in neighbouring Chad, Cameroon and the DR
Congo, underlining the extent to which the social contract in the region has
Thirty candidates are vying for the post of
president. Both former President Francois Bozize and Michel Djotodia, who
toppled him in March 2013, have been banned from participating. As a result of
their omission, the ensuing political alliances have left this election wide
open. If there is no outright winner, a second round will take place in late
Some of the frontrunners include:
Anicet Georges "Mr Clean" Dologuele, 58,
who headed the Development Bank of Central African States between 2001-2010. He
set up the Central African Union for Renewal Party. Dologuele was also a former
prime minister of CAR during 1999-2001.
Abdoul Karim Meckassoua, 62, is a Muslim leader who
served under Bozize. Though still considered an ally of the former president,
he is running as an independent candidate.
Martin "Iron man" Ziguele, 58, served as
a prime minister in CAR between 2001-2003. Ziguele was a firm opponent of
former President Bozize and is currently the leader of Movement for the
Liberation of the Central African People.
Why the election matters
Africa is changing rapidly and coups and conflict
should be part of a time long past. But beyond the damage to the "emerging
Africa", which has seen so many countries such as Ethiopia, Rwanda and
Senegal debunk the basket-case myth of the "dark" continent, a
protracted crisis in CAR only threatens to fuel more instability in a region
already characterised by uncertainty.
CAR is after all surrounded by South
Sudan, Sudan, Chad, Cameroon, Congo and the DR Congo, zones currently embroiled
in one conflict or another. Resolving CAR is about consolidating peace and
democracy on the continent.
"There is a concern that the conflict in the
CAR will take religious lines, which has already happened, and allowing the
country to take that path will be detrimental not only for the country, but the
entire region and this is why the African Union, the UN and the international
community are insisting that a proper peace process is implemented in
CAR," Zounmenou said.
"The election is supposed to hold the key to
enter a new era that could influence the larger region as well."
State of security
Since the formation of the transitional government
in January 2014, it is mostly the capital Bangui that has been made secure. The
rest of the country has largely been left to the mercy of militia; at one point
80% of it was held by armed groups.
Understandably, the remote areas have been
difficult to patrol and it is still not clear how safe rural areas will be for
voters. While 2.1 million people are on the electoral roll, little more
than 38% cast votes on December 13-14 for the new constitution.
Moreover, out of the 460 000 refugees - mostly
Muslim - living beyond the country's borders, only 26% have been able to
register. Zounmenou says that even if there was a bigger voter turnout on
Wednesday, questions would still need to be asked about the new government's
While the UN Mission to CAR already has 11 000
peacekeepers, a further 300 were deployed from the UN Mission in Ivory Coast to
assist. In the absence of a stable state, the UN Mission is responsible for
providing logistical, technical, and security assistance for the elections.
"Our efforts aim to ensure Central Africans
can vote in security and elect the country legitimate bodies, which will mark
the end of the elections," Vladimir Monteiro, spokesperson for the
MINUSCA, told Al Jazeera.
The African Union has sent 40 observers to the
country. Souleymane Ndiaye, head of the African Union's Election Observer
Mission to CAR, told Al Jazeera two to three observers will
be deployed to 17 districts across the country.
But Bangui, despite the presence of thousands of
peacekeepers, remains a fragile city.
At least 100 people have been killed, hundreds
wounded, and some 40 000 displaced since September. During the voting on
December 13, five people were killed and 20 others injured in the PK5 district
of the capital, pushing the vote to a second day.
Since 1960 CAR has endured five coups and years of
instability, leaving analysts to conclude the country has never been able to
institutionalise a system of governance beyond the whim of its leaders.
For too long, good governance was compromised,
tailored around personalities. Moreover, France, Zounmenou argued, has meddled
far too much with CAR's politics since "granting" the country
independence. France will have to change its posturing towards the nation, he
One of the major priorities of the new government
will be to disarm and demobilise a litany of armed groups that emerged in the
political vacuum of the past 24 months. There is also the complex issue of
"There is often very high expectation on
post-conflict governments to fix everything and often less international
attention allows the problems to build up and derail the peace process, like
they have in Mali and Cote d'Ivoire [Ivory Coast] recently... This is the main
challenge now," Zounmenou said.