Thursday, February 25, 2016

Familiar Problems Confront Central African Republic’s New President
Celeste Hicks
Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016

Faustin Touadera, the newly elected president of the Central African Republic, has a big job on his hands. Elected comfortably last weekend with almost 63 percent of the vote against his rival Anicet-Georges Dologuele’s 37 percent, the former math teacher, who served as prime minister in the years preceding CAR’s 2013 descent into violence, has been given a strong mandate to tackle the country’s immense problems. But even that may not be enough, given the scale of CAR’s recent history of conflict and ongoing mistrust between religious communities.

Touadera’s victory in the second round of presidential election is expected to mark the end of a 3-year political transition established in the months following the fall of former President Francois Bozize, who was chased from power by the mainly Muslim rebel alliance known as Seleka. As the Seleka rebels swept southward across the country in late 2012 and early 2013, their advance ignited a series of bitter inter-religious killings, with mainly Christian “anti-balaka” self-defense groups emerging to seek revenge on Muslim communities. It’s been estimated that at least 5,000 people were killed as neighbors and villages turned on each other; at one point the United Nations estimated that a quarter of the country’s 4 million people had been displaced. Today, at least 360,000 people are still living in displaced people’s camps.

The political scene hasn’t been much better. There were allegations of fraud in the first round of the elections in December, notably from veteran opposition leader Martin Ziguele. In January, CAR’s Constitutional Court decided to annul the results of the simultaneously held legislative elections, citing numerous examples of mistakes and delays in issuing ballot papers. The court still has to review Saturday’s presidential results, but they are widely expected to be confirmed, and Dologuele said he will not contest them. The results of the first round of the rerun parliamentary elections, which were also held last weekend, have yet to be announced. The second round should now be held before the end of April.

In this context, it’s highly significant that both rounds of CAR’s presidential election took place peacefully, especially after a number of rebel chiefs—including Nourredine Adam, the former deputy leader of Seleka, whose militiamen attempted to march on Bangui last October—had vowed to disrupt the voting. Adam reportedly may have softened his position following a recent visit to Chad, whose president, Idriss Deby Itno, has long sought to influence the fortunes of its southern neighbor.
Elections alone are not enough to prevent a return to violence.

“We should welcome the fact that the poll passed off peacefully and people were able to vote safely,” says Richard Moncrieff, Central Africa program director at the International Crisis Group. “It shows the extent to which people have a strong desire to get out of the crisis.”

Despite this good news, improving security and disarming the rebel groups remain the primary challenges for Touadera in office. His record on this is patchy. A demobilization, disarmament and reconciliation process for northeastern rebel groups that was announced in 2008, when he was prime minister, was never implemented. Although he has called for reconciliation, there is currently no roadmap for such a process. And elections alone are not enough to prevent a return to violence.

The two-stages of voting “will produce a government that has been elected through a technical procedure of elections,” says Louisa Lombard, an assistant professor of anthropology at Yale University who studies Central Africa. “But has it changed the fact that there’s a low start-up cost to rebellion in Central Africa? Has it changed the fact that there are so many guns circulating?”

The central authorities in Bangui do not exercise control over vast areas of the north and west of CAR, where a number of other rebel groups vie for control of weapons and the lucrative diamond mines around Bria. There have been long delays in launching the nationwide process of demobilizing and disarming militias, which was pledged at a reconciliation forum last year.

Tensions remain high. Last September, at least 61 people were killed in intercommunal clashes in Bangui after a Muslim taxi driver was killed. Although the United Nations peacekeeping mission, known by its French acronym, MINUSCA, has around 11,000 boots on the ground, it has been unable to make much progress in providing security. France, which has a contingent of about 900 peacekeepers in CAR, seems keen to withdraw them at the earliest opportunity.

There are also thorny questions of identity to resolve. The inter-religious violence generated much hostility and polarization, and perceptions have grown that Muslims, who generally live in the north of the country and often have historical and family links to Chad and Sudan, are not true Central Africans. Chad’s perceived meddling in the politics of CAR has done little to assuage these views. A recent International Crisis Group report included interviews with citizens of CAR who spoke about how the Seleka rebels’ rise to power had stirred up memories of 19th-century raids into present-day CAR by Muslim slavers. Others expressed jealousy toward Muslims for their tendency to dominate cross-border commerce. Until now, the government has done little to address these attitudes.

In addition, the vote has served to remind Central Africans that their politics is still dominated by a small number of individuals with a strong grip on power. Although Bozize’s own attempts to return to power were thwarted, there is widespread suspicion that he was pulling the strings behind both candidates for the second round. Touadera was Bozize’s prime minister from 2008 to 2013, and Dologuele received the blessing of Bozize’s party, the National Convergence, or “Kwa Na Kwa,” known simply as the KNK. Furthermore, the candidates who finished in third and fifth place in the first round, respectively, are also scions of CAR’s political class. Desire Kolingba, who scored about 12 percent of the vote, is the son of a former president; Jean-Serge Bokassa—son of the egregiously extravagant and self-proclaimed emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who ruled CAR from 1966 until his overthrow in 1979—surprised many by gaining 6.5 percent.

“It’s positive that we’re moving back toward constitutional government,” Moncrieff says, “but if this process is not done correctly we may just see the same story emerging from CAR. A lot of the problems we see this time round are very familiar.” With a new government waiting to be formed until after the second round of parliamentary elections, change may be slow to arrive.

Celeste Hicks is a freelance journalist whose work focuses on Africa and the Sahel. She was the BBC’s correspondent in Mali and Chad from 2007 to 2010.

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