Central Africans prepare for elections seen crucial to end of violence

Central Africans prepare for elections seen crucial to end of violence

Central African Republic’s beleaguered people are once again preparing to head to the polls on Wednesday (December 30) for elections they hope will bring them one step closer to ending years of inter-religious violence.

Voters will decide on a new president and parliament that day, restoring democratic rule under their freshly-approved constitution. And while doubts still loom over the authorities’ capacity to hold polls in a country carved up by warlords, a more important test will come after as their next leader seeks to rebuild and reunite a nation that now exists in little more than name.

Since mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the majority Christian country in early 2013, deposing then-President Francois Bozize, the former French colony has slid ever deeper into chaos.

Abuses by Seleka’s, or “Alliance” in the Sango language, fuelled the rise of Christian militias who launched reprisal attacks against Muslim civilians in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Thousands have died and nearly one in five of the republic’s 5 million residents fled the violence. The unrest has also repeatedly delayed the polls.

While security remains a major concern, observers say the the general population demands peace.

“I am certain that Central Africans will live together again because it is only one group of people that is making a mess in the country,” says Richard Ouanga, a law professor at the University of Bangui.

“An example of this is last week at the PK5 (a Bangui Muslim neighbourhood), Muslims rallied to denounce the troublemakers in PK5, that kill with impunity in PK5 in front of everyone,” he said, noting that the community has called upon the United Nations peacekeeping force in the region to expel the militant groups.

But despite initial agreements, there has been almost no progress towards disarming thousands of fighters loyal to rebel and militia leaders ahead of the vote.

During a referendum gunmen attacked voters in Bangui and the polls were also disrupted in Bossangoa, a Bozize stronghold, as well as in some areas in the northeast under the control of Seleka factions. The UN mission, MINUSCA, has yet to show it is prepared to use force to push disarmament. And France’s peacekeepers will likely withdraw next year.

If and when the guns are silenced, presidential candidate Anicet Georges Dologuele says, any long-term strategy for maintaining stability must include a revival of the economy.

“You can make as many reconciliation speeches as you want, you can sign as many reconciliation acts as you want, but as long as you do not give the people anything to eat, the crisis still looms. Today, not only today but for decades, Central African Republic has not been able to create conditions for people to have the minimum required to feel comfortable,” he told Reuters.

Turning all that around will take time, and it will also require the participation the country’s Muslim community who, despite constituting a minority, have traditionally played an outsized role in trade and transportation.

They make up a large part of Central African Republic’s roughly 900,000 displaced, having either fled abroad or moved to the northeast after coming under attack from those anti-Balaka or Christian reprisals.

“Muslims are discriminated against in this country. Muslims are marginalised. We don’t recognise them as sons of this country, that is the real problem, there is a citizenship problem. The majority of our Christian compatriots believe that all Muslims are foreigners. So we have to change that in people’s minds, so I think all religious leaders and politicians need to restore the truth.” said Ali Ousman, head of the Coordination of Muslim Organizations.

Bangui’s Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga, however, is confident reconciliation is possible. It has to be, he says, because without it Central African Republic as a nation will fail.

“In this country, because there hasn’t been any search for a consensus, because there hasn’t been any spirit of negotiation or sacrifice, small groups wanted to take the majority of the people hostage and we saw the results,” he told reuters. “Now the time has come to go past religion.”

But for Bangui residents such as Angela Devis, the main concern is for the elections to simply proceed as planned.

“There needs to be a major change, all the blood spilled, killing people here and there, it should not start again, we don’t want that. We want for CAR to become again the CAR it was before, in the time of Bokassa and other presidents,” she said after picking up her voter card.

“Lets hope that after the elections there will be change,” added local student Keleb Motomboli Junior.” But change needs to first start in our hearts, the hearts of all Central Africans and together we can cultivate peace.”