Central Africa set to vote for 'president for peace'
29 December 2015, 12:16
Bangui - The Central African Republic votes on
Wednesday in presidential polls, in which all leading candidates have vowed to
reunite a nation torn and terrified by unprecedented sectarian strife.
Postponed several times due to violence and
logistical problems, the first round of the polls was again delayed by three
days from Sunday, partly because of reports of clashes in regions where armed
gangs still hold sway.
The vote, which also includes legislative polls,
follows a referendum on constitutional change that was backed by a resounding
93% of voters, widely seen as showing how much people long for peace and a
return to normal life.
Three men are tipped as front-runners in a race
with 30 candidates. All are experienced politicians who held high-profile posts
in previous governments and one comes from the small Muslim minority
The violence in the mineral-rich but dirt poor
country followed the ouster in March 2013 of president Francois Bozize by a
mainly Islamic rebel alliance, the Seleka, which installed Michel Djotodia, the
first Muslim head of state of a mostly Christian country.
Djotodia quit in January 2014 after disbanding the
Seleka, but attacks on Christians by rogue Muslim forces led to brutal
reprisals against Muslim districts by "anti-balaka"
("anti-machete") militias from Christian communities.
Thousands were slaughtered in a spiral of
atrocities that drove about one in 10 of the population of 4.8 million to flee
Christians and Muslims alike came forward massively
to ensure their names were on the electoral roll and to collect their voters'
cards, often saying they never again wanted to hear gunfire or other
manifestations of violence.
Top electoral officials also urged a three-day
delay because voting materials were not reaching isolated areas and some
voters' cards had yet to be printed and handed out, while polling station staff
needed last-minute training.
Cash and T-shirts
While 30 candidates vie to become president, at
least 1 800 people want a place in the 105-seat National Assembly, but by the
weekend, the National Elections Authority (ANE) had not cleared a valid final
roster for the parliament poll.
Two of the three men far ahead of the crowd in the
presidential race were prime ministers under the late president Ange-Felix
Patasse: Anicet Georges Dologuele and Martin Ziguele, who are both Christian.
The third, Abdoul Karim Meckassoua, is a Muslim
with a serious chance in the race and a good business reputation. He served
Bozize from 2003-13 in successive posts, including as foreign minister.
Up to the end of campaigning late on Monday,
candidates were handing out cash and T-shirts in Bangui and in remote provinces
for those who could afford to use aircraft instead of ruinous roads.
The three previous presidents are barred from
standing again. Catherine Samba Panza has overseen a political transition while
the country has licked deep sores and benefitted from a blood transfusion by
donor nations, France in the lead.
Bozize and Djotodia are both in exile and both face
UN and US sanctions stemming from violence. The latter stepped down under
strong foreign pressure after failing to rein in forces that led to fears of
genocide along religious fault-lines.
CAR's own security forces – the army, the police
and the paramilitary gendarmerie – have begun to patrol areas where tension
remains high between ex-Seleka and anti-balaka forces.
These national troops are also going into the
flashpoint PK-5 Muslim enclave in Bangui, where Islamic extremists killed five
people for wanting to vote on referendum day.
France's Operation Sangaris has deployed troops in
Bossangoa, Bozize's former stronghold in the west, and at Kaga Bandoro, a
strategic town where ex-Seleka forces remain strong.
The outcome of the referendum was announced eight
days after the vote, but given the large number of candidates and the
parliamentary poll, the National Elections Authority is likely to take a while
to release results.
Observers anticipate that a second round will prove
necessary and expect it to be held by the end of January.