With just weeks to go before the Central African Republic (CAR) is due to hold a constitutional referendum and legislative elections, doubts over the country’s preparedness for the polls linger as logistical problems, sporadic rebel clashes, and flashes of intercommunal violence continue to shape the pre-electoral climate. After two and a half years of conflict, the upcoming polls could have the potential to change CAR’s misfortunes of political crisis and set the country onto a more stable path, but the technical hitches and simmering tensions could be a sign CAR is not quite ready to hold its decisive ballot.
On October 4, Central Africans are expected to vote in a constitutional referendum for a new supreme law recently passed by parliament, and two weeks later, on October 18, voters are scheduled to elect a new president and parliament before the transition government’s extended mandate comes an end in December 2015. Installed in February 2014, after almost a year of violence and anarchy resulting from a coup by the north-eastern Séléka rebel coalition in March 2013, the interim administration, under President Catherine Samba-Panza, is preparing to step down. More than 20 candidates have put their names forward for the presidential polls, including the deposed ex-President Francois Bozizé, but his candidacy may have been ruled out by the African Union as Bozizé faces an international arrest warrant, a UN travel ban and domestic charges for crimes against humanity, accused of funding the vigilante anti-balaka rebels who stirred up a horrifying sectarian conflict against the largely Muslim Séléka alliance in 2013.
However with less than a month to go before the referendum, there are concerns from political and humanitarian observers as well as government officials that CAR is not adequately prepared for polls. In a recent interview with Francophone magazine Jeune Afrique, Alexandre-Ferdinand Nguendet, president of the National Transitional Council (CNT), admitted the election timetable was impossible to adhere to and was the result of international pressure. Donor countries such as France are said to support an early election, but CAR could struggle to meet the deadline. The electoral register is not ready and the enrollment of electoral candidates has been postponed indefinitely, although, by procedural rules, contestants should have been listed by August 9. In addition, thirty days prior to the referendum, a decree notifying the electorate to be published thirty days earlier, but according to Nguendet, by September 4, a national announcement was yet to be issued, and possibly still so, at the time of writing.
Of further concern is voter registration which remains an incomplete process riddled with delays and insecurity. Due to inadequate voter awareness, enrolment had to be extended in Bossangoa, a town in the north west severely affected by the 2013-14 violence, and continuing banditry by anti-balaka vigilantes who, at the peak of sectarian tensions, fought against the Séléka and targetted Muslim civilians. Moreover, high levels of insecurity also persist in the rebel-held territories in the far east, west and interior. A disarmament pact signed with at least nine armed militias after the seemingly optimistic Bangui Forum, a national reconciliation dialogue held in CAR’s capital at the end of May, has been slow to take off because of logistical and funding setbacks. Some non-signatory groups rejected the agreement and clashes between and within rebels and pastoralist communities in outlying areas have continued to cause problems and threaten the safety of the polls.
A weapons-free zone was declared in Bangui and the eastern market town of Bambari where intercommunal violence in August resulted in the deaths of at least 10 residents and wounded aid workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Central African Red Cross. However despite the establishment of an arms-free zone, rebels belonging to the ex-Séléka faction led by General Ali Darass, still reportedly carry weapons. Following the attack, Darass and his politico-militia, Unity for Peace in CAR (UPC) now control all three exit points to the town, while UN peacekeepers, mainly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the National Gendarmerie struggle to keep the peace.
To the far north of the capital, another deadly battle for territory and resources continues. In the diamond-mining town of Bria and it’s surroundings, ex-Séléka control mining and panning points which provide an important source of revenue for the rebels. Militiamen belonging to Djotodia’s ex-Séléka faction allegedly extort taxes from subsistence panners and the displaced. Although the electoral authorities recently completed registration in Bria, it remains unclear how voters there, in Bambari and elsewhere will cast their ballots with the assurance their vote is secret and secure.
CAR’s National Elections Authority (ANE) reports that over 1.3 million (64.9%) of eligible voters have registered for the polls, mainly in the southern parts of the country, but numbers are very low in the volatile northwest and northeast. In Vakaga, on the northern border with South Sudan, only an estimated 11% of voters have been registered and the interior Ouaka prefecture in central CAR. Vakaga is the home of former Séléka leader and rebel president Michel Djotodia, and while the population has expressed keen interest in voting, electoral officers have been unable to reach most of the peripheral rural prefecture due to lack of transport. Persistent violence in Ouaka has also made it difficult for both aid workers and census enumerators to reach the population. Villagers living around the city of Bakouma in Ouaka, where registration has only just begun after more than a month’s delay due to security issues, recently complained of being taken hostage and robbed by militia men. Although the population have appealed to the government and UN peacekeepers to send security reinforcements, they are yet to recieve assistance.
In addition to the local glitches, the dilemma of the displaced is yet to be solved. Up to 10 % of the population remains displaced outside CAR and although the government recently passed a law allowing refugees to vote, it still remains unclear how the transition intends to register or count over 470,000 displaced in neighbouring countries and up to 370,000 internal refugees, a figure which includes an estimated 36,000 hiding in CAR’s remote enclaves, forests and bushes. Initially President Samba-Panza had been unwilling to allow the externally displaced to vote citing logistical challenges, but changed her mind after the UN’s recommendation and a subsequent parliamentary vote. However as reports point out, Chad is the only country among CAR’s neighbors which has agreed to have voting refugees register with the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. Less than a month to before October 18, negotiations with Cameroon, where the bulk of Central African refugees have fled, are still ongoing, while the DRC has reportedly refused and Congo-Brazzaville’s response is still pending.
With a population living in fear of renewed violence to census enumerators complaining about lack of transport and non-payment for their work, it seems CAR might need a little more to organize its crucial polls and referendum. Unfortunately, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous has firmely ruled out another transition and maintained that the 2015 polls must be held accordingly. But with ongoing tensions hampering pre-election processes countrywide, the risk of CAR’s long-awaited polls being marred by violence and irregularity may have greater, more dire consequences for a nation in crisis and conflict.
Tendai Marima is an independent postdoctoral researcher in African women’s literature and a freelance journalist based in Southern Africa. Some of her work has been published by Al Jazeera English, African Arguments and the Daily Vox. She tweets at @i_amten.