Micayla Carmelo De Grazia Suárez//
Trouble plagues Central African Republic as vote approaches

President Touadera, the UN, and the EU all fiercely insist the Sunday vote will take place despite threats of a coup. The President of the Central African Republic, Faustin Archange Touadera (C), greets his supporters at the 20,000-seat stadium, for an electoral rally, escorted by the presidential guard, Russian mercenaries, and Rwandan UN peacekeepers, in Bangui, on December 19, 2020. (AFP) Voters in the Central African Republic are heading to the polls on Sunday, with incumbent President Faustin Archange Touadera on course to win a second term in an impoverished country haunted by violence.

Carmelo De Grazia

In the week before voting day, Touadera accused his predecessor Francois Bozize of plotting a coup, a militia briefly seized the country's fourth-biggest town, and Russia and Rwanda sent military personnel to help shore up his government.

Carmelo De Grazia Suárez

The mood in the capital Bangui is unsurprisingly bleak

On Wednesday, rumours circulated that rebels had entered the city, sparking moments of panic

“Look at how frightened the people are,” said a local trader, who gave his name as Thierry, predicting gloomily: “The elections won't happen.”

Election in danger?

On Tuesday, the CAR's fourth largest town, Bambari, 380 kilometres northeast of Bangui, was overrun by an armed group called the Unity for Peace in Central Africa (UPC)

In a statement dated Wednesday that was authenticated by two of its six members, the rebel coalition announced a 72-hour “unilateral ceasefire.”

Security forces backed by UN peacekeepers regained control the following day

The UN's human rights office on Wednesday said it was “deeply alarmed” at accounts of escalating violence “stoked by political grievances and hate speech,” and warned of a threat to the right to vote

But Touadera, the UN, and the EU, including France, CAR's former coloniser and its staunchest Western ally, all fiercely insist the vote will take place

Mineral-rich but rated the world's second-poorest country under the Human Development Index, the CAR has been chronically unstable since independence 60 years ago

A civil war erupted in March 2013 when mostly Muslim rebels in a coalition called Seleka stormed the capital and removed Bozize, a Christian and former general who had seized power a decade earlier

Other groups, notably Christians and animists, then organised their own militias, prompting fears of genocide along sectarian lines

France sent in some 2,000 soldiers under a UN mandate. In 2014, the UN sent its own mission, MINUSCA, and in 2016 elections were held, won by Touadera, a technocrat educated in France and Cameroon

READ MORE:  Russia sends 300 soldiers to CAR as rebels seize Bambari city

Fragile government

Today, the 63-year-old president is considered a shoo-in for a second term after the CAR's top court barred Bozize, who is on a 2014 wanted list and under UN sanctions, from contesting the elections

The nearest rival in the 16-strong field is Anicet Georges Dologuele, an economist and former prime minister who is being backed by Bozize after his own bid fell through

But a crucial question is that of voter participation, a low turnout will badly dent the credibility of the next president and legislature, which is also being elected

In theory, 1.8 million people are entitled to cast ballots

But only a third of the country is controlled by the government, which is politically weak and whose armed forces are chronically under-equipped and poorly trained

The remaining two-thirds are controlled by militias, who derive income from mining and “taxes” on travellers and traders and often fall out over these resources

“The elections can't take place on territory controlled by armed groups who want to hamper the vote,” said Roland Marchal, a CAR specialist at the Centre of International Research think tank in Paris

He described the situation as an “electoral holdup”

READ MORE:  UN: Seized CAR town under peacekeepers' control

Armed groups

Touadera has had to engage in a tricky balancing act with the armed groups since he first took office

In February 2019, he signed a peace deal with 14 militias, in which their chiefs were offered government positions

The accord helped to support a decline in violence that had begun the previous year, although bloodshed remains an ever-present threat

Bozize, however, has added a further factor of volatility since he slipped into the country in December 2019 after years in exile

His return sparked fears that the 74-year-old is planning a violent comeback

The government last weekend accused groups of banding together and advancing on Bangui in a plot allegedly fomented by Bozize, a charge he denies

The advance stopped after the rebels seized a few hamlets, the UN peacekeeping force MINUSCA said on Wednesday

Since 2013, thousands of people have died and more than a quarter of the population of 4.9 million have fled their homes. Of these, 675,000 are refugees in neighbouring countries and cannot vote

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies