Samba-Panza postpones polls as fresh fighting fractures CAR peace

Saturday October 10 2015

Catherine Samba-Panza, Head of State of the

Catherine Samba-Panza, Head of State of the Transition of the Central African Republic. PHOTO | AFP 

By TREVOR ANALO

With only a week to the expiry of her mandate, Central African Republic interim President Catherine Samba-Panza faces the difficult task of organising elections in a nation torn apart by sectarian violence.

The country was expected to go into a general election on October 18, but the myriad humanitarian and security challenges make it nearly impossible to hold a free and fair election.

President Samba-Panza announced an indefinite postponement of the elections following renewed violence that left dozens of people dead in the capital Bangui.

“It is a decision that must be taken with the entire political class, with all the Central African actors, so that together we see, by the end of 2015, on what date we can organise the…presidential and legislative elections,” she said.

More than a dozen armed groups roam the countryside, terrorising civilians with little resistance from authorities in Bangui.

This has forced about a million people (or 20 per cent of the population) to flee to neighbouring countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Cameroon and the Congo Republic.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has called for the prosecution of top CAR warlords, saying “The most notorious leaders, with much blood on their hands, are not being arrested, let alone prosecuted, tried and convicted.”

About 6,000 Central Africans have been killed in two years of fighting since President Francois Bozize was toppled in 2013 by the largely Muslim Seleka rebel group.

Seleka singled out Christians for attacks, who in turn formed anti-Balaka militia to fight back, fuelling one of the worst religious conflicts in the region.

Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court has opened investigations into crimes committed during the fighting, and the government is trying to prosecute less serious cases, but the country’s judicial system is barely functional.

Analysts warn that holding elections in this environment could drive the country back to civil war, unless some political and security issues are resolved, key among them being provision of adequate resources to the severely underfunded electoral body and disarming the armed groups.

President Samba-Panza heads a wobbly coalition whose members, with links to the two rival armed groups, are only kept from going at each other’s throats by French troops, African Union forces and a UN peacekeeping mission.

Even as she prepares the country for the elections on October 18, how realistic are these plans and more importantly, why is the international community pushing for elections in such a political environment?

Speaking to The EastAfrican, Prof Christopher Day, who writes on Central African issues and teaches political science at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, US, said ordinary Central Africans want to have elections given their history of authoritarian rule since 1960s.

“In principle, most Central Africans would like to see free and fair elections. But, given the current situation, the country is not ready for these elections,” said Prof Day by e-mail. “Democracy and elections are required in CAR — they cannot have a transitional government indefinitely. However, October is a dangerous and premature date for these elections.”

But Kasper Agger, a researcher with the Enough Project — an NGO working to bring rights abusers to justice — told The EastAfrican that there are “much more important and urgent issues on the table that should be dealt with before elections take place.”

The country was supposed to hold a constitutional referendum on October 4, which would then be followed by the presidential poll two weeks later, and legislative polls on November 22.

But the National Elections Authority (ANE) was unable to organise the referendum because it had yet to even establish a voters list and distribute voting cards.

With just about 50 per cent of its budget released by the end of July, ANE was required to roll out a voter registration exercise across the country, organise three elections less than two months away and still pay its staff – who went on strike for two weeks over delayed salaries.
Senior government officials are also beginning to express doubts whether elections can be held in the current climate. Speaking to Radio France International (RFI), Ferdinand Alexander Nguendet, who served as the acting president of the transitional council in January, said the proposed “dates were not tenable.”

“Today, there is no electoral register. By what miracle can we now organise elections?” he asked.

Minister for Territorial Administration, Modibo Walidou Bashir, also told RFI that he does not rule out postponement of the polls, but that the new dates should not be after December 31, the date that the mandate of the transitional council set by the international community expires.

Reports show that the government may postpone the elections by a month, which would buy ANE more time to prepare, but this could affect plans by Pope Francis to visit Bangui in November.

Another challenge that must be addressed is disarming the thousands of militia men — estimated at around 100000 — roaming the country, terrorising civilians and pillaging defenceless villages.

“Disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration of all of CAR’s armed groups should be the priority right now,” Prof Day said.

“This will also require the consolidation of security throughout the country by international forces and the gradual handover to the CAR’s own military, which also requires reorganisation.”

The UN, which signed a disarmament deal with armed groups in the country back in May, has been unable to do much because of funding limitations.

Babacar Gaye, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative and head of the UN peacekeeping mission in CAR (Minusca), recently said most of the signatories would like to disarm “but recent political developments have raised doubts, in particular among the ex-Seleka,” uncertain of their own security in the event a new government takes charge.

The anti-Balaka has a significant presence in the country’s north, while in eastern CAR, the ex-Séléka continues to have a significant military presence. In addition, the Lord’s Resistance Army continues to operate in the south-east of the country.

On why the international community is pressuring CAR to hold elections in conditions of chronic insecurity, Mr Agger said this is “a classic case where the international community believes that having multiparty elections indicates progress and that the situation is improving.”

“It’s not the case,” he said, adding that the international community, led by France, “is pushing for elections as a strategy to show progress because Paris is seeking to draw down their costly involvement in CAR.”

Prof Day agreed, saying the French “wish to withdraw their troops because of their own domestic political pressures.”