The CAR’s Rushed Elections are a Dangerous Gamble

This piece originally appeared in African Arguments.

Posted by Kasper Agger and Chris Day on Sep 02, 2015,

The Central African Republic (CAR) is at a critical juncture. The country is preparing for elections this October. But it is also facing a severe humanitarian crisis and is struggling to end a brutal civil war that has claimed more than 6,000 lives and displaced at least 1 million people. That’s nearly one quarter of the population.

However, few in the country believe that the timing for the elections to replace its transitional government, which has been led by President Catherine Samba-Panza since January 2014, is right. Many warn that the premature timetable could even drive CAR back into widespread violence.

Armed groups across the country face little resistance and continue to terrorise civilians. The peace process, especially its crucial disarmament component, is moving at a snail’s pace. Yet international diplomats led by France and the International Contact Group on the CAR demand elections now.

There is still time make a course correction and postpone the elections, but this window is closing quickly.

The external push towards elections has left local leaders, armed groups, and ordinary Central Africans behind. Grassroots consultations around the country culminated in May’s Bangui Forum, which provided an important avenue for citizen participation and was widely recognised as a success. But there has been no meaningful follow up and it is likely the Bangui Forum’s 400 pages of recommendations will be stranded on the shelf of good intentions – not because it was a bad strategy, but because it will never be put into practice.

The story in Bambari

The CAR, which is ranked 185 out of 187 on the Human Development Index, was thrown into turmoil in March 2013 when the Séléka rebel alliance ousted then President François Bozizé. Responding to widespread killings and lootings, local militias known as the anti-Balaka rose up against the Séléka.

The Séléka alliance was largely Muslim and the anti-Balaka mostly drawn from the CAR’s majority Christian population. And although many Christian and Muslim communities lived as friends and neighbours before the war, the conflict became coded in religious terms and vicious inter-communal violence between Christian and Muslim groups broke out.

French soldiers and African Union forces finally deployed in December 2013 and gradually contained the deadly cycle of revenge killings though violence continues.

Now, a nearly year-old UN peacekeeping mission is still seeking to stabilise the country and lead the political peace process. But its deployment has been slow and the mission struggles to control areas outside the capital city Bangui and other major towns.

While Bangui has stabilised somewhat, the situation outside the capital remains volatile. Fragmented authority in CAR’s third largest city Bambari, for example, reflects both the underlying tension in the country and its main structural political problem – the relationship between centralised power in Bangui and the threadbare state that stretches across 16 prefectures.

Government officials – most of them untrained political appointees – are now timidly trickling back into Bambari after fleeing Séléka attacks in December 2012. While they never had much power, these stranded bureaucrats hold absolutely no sway over rebel strongman Ali Darrassa and his Unité pour la paix en Centrafrique (UPC), the dominant faction of the Séléka in Bambari.

Darrassa, a Muslim and ethnic Peul of unknown national origin, maintains firm control over the taxing of a lucrative trade in coffee, cattle, gold, and diamonds that runs through a corridor up to Sudan or south to Bangui – money that should be going into government coffers.

Darrassa’s dominance does not sit well with Bambari’s other armed groups, which are divided along ethnic and religious lines. For instance, ethnic Goula members of Joseph Zoundeko’s Séléka faction, the Front populaire pour la renaissance de Centrafrique (FPRC), await the unfolding peace process, but are frustrated by its slow pace. They sustain themselves with sporadic cash influxes from Bangui elites and by occasionally selling protection to trade convoys.

Across Bambari’s main bridge meanwhile, anti-Balaka militias occupy the city west of the river. They resent what they see as unfair treatment by the government and international forces. Despite the deployment of Congolese peacekeepers and French soldiers, they note that Darrassa’s business interests are thriving and armed Séléka fighters roam Bambari freely.

Against the backdrop of these tensions, Bambari is relatively depopulated, and the presence of armed fighters deters many from coming home. While trade in the Muslim quarter is visibly rebounding, the concrete stalls of the city’s large Christian market are all but empty. Outside Bambari in Ouaka Prefecture’s rural villages, some farmers are returning to their destroyed villages and fallow fields to take advantage of the crucial growing season. But much of the population remains displaced in the bush where they have been since February. In some villages, the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières is finding that severe malnutrition of children under five is reaching 24% – far beyond emergency thresholds.

Too much too soon

In spite of these real human challenges, ordinary Central Africans tend to support the idea of elections in a country where political authority has typically been a form of kleptocratic autocracy. Since independence in 1960, CAR has only had four multiparty presidential elections, most of questionable character and interspersed by military coups and rebellions. Yet over time, the machinery of regime politics in Bangui has changed little, only occupied by different sets of elite operators that view access to the state as a way to attain privilege and accumulate personal wealth. The current Transitional Government has slotted nicely into this pattern, with President Samba-Panza stocking her government with close associates, recycled elites, and members with ties to the Séléka and anti-Balaka.

However, with the exception of France, which seeks a politically expedient exit from CAR, almost no one wants elections this October. To begin with, the sheer logistics of operating within this timeframe are categorically unrealistic.

The country’s national election authority (ANE) is woefully understaffed and faces a budget shortfall of nearly half. Furthermore, while the ANE was able to register 320,000 Bangui residents in July, the process sputtered towards the end as registration supervisors went on strike over the fact they had not been paid for two weeks. With less than two months before elections, the ANE must now train and deploy registrars to places like Bambari during the rainy season, which renders barely accessible roads even less so. Add to that the status of CAR’s 461,000 refugees. While their right to vote was (correctly) upheld by CAR’s constitutional court against the objections of the Transitional Council, no one has a real plan for them.

Besides a risky electoral timeline and obvious logistical challenges, the biggest elephant in the room is that it will be essentially impossible to implement any meaningful disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) programme in the two short months remaining.

The office of the Prime Minister and the UN mission are leading the DDR efforts, but UN officials are realising that the clock is ticking and are now seeking $10 million from donors for a “pre-DDR programme” to target 8,000-10,000 combatants. The programme will unfold in three stages: 1) Registration of combatants in roughly 50 towns across CAR; 2) Provision of food for those registered; 3) Collection of arms in a container with a double locking system (with one key held by UN peacekeepers and the other by an armed group commander). The goal is to complete the pre-DDR before the elections and then kick-start a full DDR programme, with integration of eligible combatants into a reformed national army and community income projects for those that do not qualify.

A dangerous gamble

Bambari is a microcosm of CAR’s myriad armed groups. Without DDR, these groups will maintain the capacity to disrupt the elections if they don’t sway in their favour. In addition, fighters have high expectations. Many were lured into armed groups with the promise of DDR packages and hope this will be a life-transforming event for them. But resources are limited and the army cannot absorb all the country’s different fighters.

To be sure, well-executed and timely elections in CAR could provide the opportunity for real democratic representation. A potential downside of postponing them therefore would be that it would draw out the current transition, which only serves to maintain the position of unelected elites who seem more interested in jockeying for lucrative sinecures than developing a national strategy. Moreover, it is possible that treating the imposed October deadline as a fait accompli could compel CAR’s political players to act now instead of delaying indefinitely.

However, most people in towns like Bambari are incredulous at the planned date, and few believe the elections will happen on time. Above all, the fear of election violence eclipses any fear of instability associated with their postponement. It is crucial to make substantial progress on disarmament and to foster local reconciliation before people go to the polling stations. Just last week, more than 20 people were killed in Bambari in clashes between Séléka and anti-Balaka members.

Elections before DDR represent a major gamble. Fighters will hand over some of their arms, but not all. It is unlikely they are willing to surrender control with uncertainties surrounding their own security, particularly when they are unsure about who will be leading the country after October. Furthermore, elections open up the political space for renegotiations and provide an avenue for contestation of the country’s already fragile power structures.

It is still possible to postpone. Disarmament before elections should be the guiding principle. The international community – particularly France and the UN – must back off, allow for a more realistic timetable, and instead focus on security, stability, and the restoration of state authority. Bringing the CAR back from decades of misrule and the country’s most violent conflict to date requires patience and broad-based development efforts. No one can afford to gamble on the future of the CAR for the sake of the international community’s need to show progress through speedy elections.

Kasper Agger is a Field Researcher with the Enough Project based in Central Africa.

Christopher Day is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the College of Charleston and Non-Resident Senior Fellow with the Enough Project.