Will the Central African Republic’s elections create more problems than they solve?

In light of the CAR’s recent disintegration, many doubt whether the elections scheduled for this month can be held safely and fairly.

At Bili refugee camp in the DRC. Credit: William Clowes.

At Bili refugee camp in the DRC. Credit: William Clowes.

In early May of this year, following more than two years of intercommunal violence in the Central African Republic, positive news was finally coming out of Bangui, the riverside capital. Nearly 700 delegates, representing the interim government, political parties, civil society, traditional chiefs, religious communities and armed groups, had just concluded a peace and reconciliation forum. The gathering yielded several key agreements designed to deliver the CAR from a hellish cycle of tit for tat slaughter and mass displacement.

Ten factions of the Seleka – the largely Muslim coalition which seized power in March 2013 – and the anti-balaka – the militias, predominantly Christian and of indigenous religions, which subsequently chased away their new rulers before turning on the country’s Muslim minority – consented to a disarmament programme. Following that, the forum had determined, parliamentary and presidential elections would be held before the end of 2015.

No-one was offering this beleaguered country a panacea, but Central Africans could perhaps look towards 2016 buoyed by the hope of living in a country run by accountable politicians rather than an unelected government and heavily armed militias.

However, with the 13 December referendum on a new constitution and the 27 December presidential and parliamentary elections fast approaching (with a possible run-off in January 2016), concerns are rising that the polls could create more problems than they solve.

Displaced and disenfranchised

A little way over the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where more than 100,000 Central Africans live in refugee camps, the forum’s conclusions were received with a blend of anger and scepticism. Many living in these tarpaulin cities were particularly preoccupied with the ambitious electoral timetable and their already denuded rights as citizens of the CAR.

Gravier Bissenou Wenceslas, a 25-year-old student who fled his university studies when the Seleka descended on Bangui, expressed anger at the forum’s lack of refugee representation and accused the interim authorities of “abandoning” the more than 460,000 Central Africans currently displaced outside the country’s boundaries. Others, such as Angazika Louis Brice, a former provincial mayor, were insistent that the refugees, comprising about 10% of the CAR’s population, should return home from the DRC, Cameroon, Chad and Congo-Brazzaville before the holding of elections.

Months later, this acute fear of disenfranchisement and suspicion of the interim authorities has turned out to be justified. There are still no coherent plans for repatriation, and the unelected interim administration of President Catherine Samba Panza initially attempted to exclude the refugees from elections altogether. Fortunately for CAR’s refugees, the Constitutional Court overturned the decision and, following persistent advocacy efforts, the transitional government voted to allow them to participate from outside the country.

The desire to conduct elections without the involvement of refugees especially worried observers because the involuntary exiles are disproportionately Muslim and their exclusion would risk reinforcing the sectarian narrative that Muslims, which make up about 15% of the population, do not belong in the CAR. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have fled the country while many left behind are trapped in enclaves they cannot leave for fear of being attacked. According to Human Rights Watch’s Lewis Mudge, “not allowing refugees to vote could’ve put in place the conditions for another coup by giving the Seleka an excuse to go back to the bush and prepare to retake Bangui”.

Nonetheless, practical efforts to register exiled Central Africans have been only partially successful. The DRC (in which nearly all the refugees are in fact Christian) refused to allow the Central African authorities to sign up eligible voters, though the governments of Chad, Cameroon and Congo-Brazzaville did grant access to the CAR’s electoral commission.

According to the UN refugee agency, these latter three asylum countries host more than 150,000 potential voters, of which only 35.5% could be registered in the time available to the ANE. In Cameroon, where over 90% of refugees are Muslim, a little under 30% of the nearly 115,000 voting age adults have been added to the electoral roll.

Election troubles

The registration of refugees is a serious concern, but it is far from the only challenge afflicting those arranging the elections.

At the end of October, President Samba Panza told the BBC that “95% of eligible voters have already registered”, an assertion the director of the UN’s electoral affairs division in Bangui told African Arguments is “more or less” accurate. Yet many have received this news with raised eyebrows.

According to Veronique Barbelet, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute, “there are more than 400,000 people internally displaced and there are parts of the country where it is unclear how many more may be displaced so I don’t understand how that is possible”. Another experienced Bangui watcher said, “I don’t know where those numbers are coming from and when I asked someone from the UN he looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. Someone from the interim authorities told me that the registration rate was about 60% and then a few days later the UN said it was 95%. I’m not saying they’re invented, but it seems incredibly high.”

Security is another pressing concern, especially after its deterioration provoked a recent delay of elections. After a relatively sedate 2015, sectarian violence returned to Bangui in September when the murder of a Muslim taxi driver set off intercommunal revenge attacks which, according to Human Rights Watch, resulted in over 100 deaths. Violence has also flared up in other parts of the country such as Bambari and Batangafo where armed groups have attacked sites housing internally displaced peoples, of which there are more than 350,000 in the CAR.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ bulletin from mid-November refers to a “volatile and unpredictable security situation countrywide”, and much of the responsibility lies with the failure of the disarmament component of the Bangui forum. Thibaud Lesueur of the International Crisis Group told African Arguments that “armed groups still control whole swathes of territory, still have their weapons, and have lost none of their ability to cause harm”, adding that “nobody put any pressure on them to disarm”. Some observers are in no doubt that it is not the time to be asking Central Africans to go to the polls. “The security situation is certainly not conducive to holding secure elections”, said Mudge.

Much of the country is under the effective control of armed groups and there is a risk they will interfere with or deliberately impede the electoral process. Indeed, Nourredine Adam, the leader of a major Seleka faction whose fief is in the north of the CAR, has said that elections cannot go ahead in the areas under his influence.

Another serious problem is the lack of information available to the electorate. On Sunday, the CAR’s voters are required to approve or reject a constitution which very few people have seen, a state of affairs Lesueur describes as “completely ridiculous”. One UN official in Bangui who preferred to remain anonymous explained that there was supposed to be a voter education programme but, like disarmament, “this phase was very weak”.

It is a similar story with the identity of the CAR’s next president. The Constitutional Court has only just ruled on which of the 44 hopefuls can compete on 27 December and disqualified two of the best known: Francois Bozizé, the CAR’s president from 2003 until his overthrow in 2013, and Patrice Edouard Ngaissona, a prominent anti-balaka leader, both of whom are under UN sanctions for their alleged role in the country’s violence.

Supporters of Bozizé and Ngaissona may respond violently, and of those permitted to run most have been unable to campaign at all, while some of the better established candidates have managed only token levels of self-promotion. The scarce time available favours the few contenders with name recognition and party machines such as Martin Ziguélé, a former prime minister and presidential candidate, and Désiré Kolingba, a one-time Bozizé minister and the son of a former head of state.

Rushed polls

Many who have observed the period since the conclusion of the Bangui forum contend that those insisting on elections this year are not acting in the best interests of this long suffering country. The schedule’s supporters respond that the quicker Central Africans replace an unelected government with an accountable one the better (although they do not seem to mind that voters will head to the polls with little knowledge of what or who they are voting for). Additionally, Samba Panza’s interim administration whose mandate expires on 31 December is seen as a venal and incompetent liability.

Many, however, think that there has been an irresponsible rush towards elections motivated more by powerbrokers’ external calculations than the reality on the ground. The president of the electoral commission recently resigned his post claiming the international community was forcing an unrealistic timetable upon him. (Others claim he was removed for financial irregularities.)

The accusation of outside coercion has been levelled at the UN’s peacekeeping mission MINUSCA as well as at presidents of neighbouring states such as Chad and Congo-Brazzaville, but it has been most persistently levelled at France, the former colonial power which deployed a peacekeeping force known as Operation Sangaris to the country in late 2013. “The French were thinking about their exit strategy the moment they set foot in the CAR”, said Lesueur. “They want to secure the electoral process and then immediately send away the troops.”

Everyone agrees that elections are desirable and a fundamental aspect of transitioning to some sort of normality. Yet the imminent rounds of voting are causing a great deal of nervousness. Some, such as the ODI’s Barbalet, question the priorities of the transition process. She told African Arguments that “it’s hard to think about elections right now when there’s 400,000-plus refugees, similar numbers internally displaced, and millions without access to livelihoods, homes and proper nutrition”.

There also appear to be well-founded concerns that without more time for preparation, the elections, both on the days themselves and afterwards, will be plagued by doubts over their legitimacy and unaddressed anxieties about the (still) armed groups. According to Mudge, “most people in Bangui, apart from a few diplomats, acknowledge that this whole thing is half-baked, and there may be an awful lot of questions after voting”. The greatest fear is that the polls will amount to what one UN employee called “artificial elections” which ultimately cause more problems than they solve.

The stakes could not be higher and the future of the CAR’s national character up for grabs. As Lesueur warns in particular, “if Muslims cannot vote because of security inside the country or registration of refugees, it won’t create resentment which lasts 1 or 2 years but 10 or 20 years”.

William Clowes is a journalist based in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. Follow him on Twitter at @WTBClowes.

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