Attacks in the Central African Republic have called into question elections scheduled for December 27. UN troops have retaken the rebel-held town of Bambari but the situation remains tense.
The Central African Republic's (CAR) fourth-largest town, Bambari, which was taken by rebels Tuesday ahead of elections this coming weekend, is back in the hands of United Nations peacekeepers and national security forces, the UN said on Wednesday.
The attack on Bambari came after the government of President Faustin-Archange Touadera accused former president Francois Bozize of planning a coup.
Bozize was banned by the country's Constitutional Court from running in the 2020 presidential election because of an international arrest warrant filed by the CAR against him for murder, arbitrary arrests and torture. A former general, Bozize seized power in a 2003 coup and subsequently won two elections.
Africa expert Paul Melly from Chatham House, a London-based think tank, said it was hard to gauge the level of Bozize's involvement.
But Melly highlighted what he called the "fierce warning" issued by the international community, including the US, Russia, the UN and the EU, which specifically named 74-year-old Bozize.
"And so one wonders whether, in fact, intelligence sources have more information about his role than is out in the public space," he told DW.
Elections in the balance
The attack on Bambari triggered a two-hour gunfight with CAR troops and the United Nations' peacekeeping force MINUSCA, the UN said. The rebels were allegedly led by an armed group called the Unity for Peace in Central Africa (UPC), one of several militias contesting the government in the run-up to the December 27 polls.
The presidential and legislative elections have been gripped by tension between President Touadera and armed groups that sprang up after the country spiraled into conflict in 2012. Touadera is front runner in the poll but his government controls only about a third of the country.
The government insists that it will go ahead with the elections despite such attacks.
Hans De Marie Heungoup, a senior analyst for Central Africa at the International Crisis Group, is less sanguine.
"I personally don't see how it can be possible to organize a peaceful election in this context, particularly given the fact that the opposition have suspended their campaign until there is peace in the whole territory," he told DW.
Fear of repeating the violence of 2012
Parties in the Democratic Opposition Coalition, known as COD-2020, said this week that seven of its candidates would pull out of the election, citing the violence. The parties want the vote to be delayed, alleging poor preparations and an electoral body influenced by the president.
A delay would allow more time to work toward a national unity government, they said.
In the capital Bangui, 380 km (240 miles) northwest from Bambari, businesses closed on Wednesday and people holed up in their homes.
Residents there doubted elections could take place safely on Sunday.
"All around us, in our provinces, the rebels have taken over. How can we hold elections under these conditions? That worries me very much," one Bangui resident told DW.
Another was considering sending his family away from the capital: "I remember the horror we went through in 2012-2013," he said, referring to a period punctuated by rebel fighting and a succession of coups. "I am so afraid that this new rebel coalition will return to the city of Bangui."
Those events triggered a bloody civil war between the government, anti-balaka Christian militias and Muslim militias, known as Selekas. Thousands of people have since been killed since, though exact figures are hard to come by.
Conflict not a religious one
Along with religious leaders from other denominations, imam Abdoulaye Ouasselegue been traveling across the country preaching a message of peace since 2013. He rejects the notion of a religious conflict in the Christian-majority country.
"Religion had nothing to do with it. The main actors are politicians. They are the only ones who can give valid reasons for the situation in the Central African Republic," Ouasselegue told DW.
Some 1.3 million people in CAR have had to flee their homes, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, with more than half of these internally displaced. About three out of five people in the resources-rich country rely on humanitarian assistance.
In February 2019, Touadera's government and 14 armed groups signed a peace agreement in Sudan.
"The agreement reduced the level of violence and some combatants have been reintegrated into society," said Peter Knoope, Associate Fellow at the International Center for Counter-Terrorism, an international think tank based in The Hague.
But he stressed that the upcoming elections weren't conducive to peace as they divided, rather than united, the different groups.
Foreign influences abound
The Central African Republic country is struggling not only with internal divisions, but also with the influence of external actors. Among them, former colonial power France and also Russia are trying to protect their interests in the CAR, which is rich in diamonds, timber and gold.
Russia, which is seeking to boost its influence on the continent, is seen as a threat to France's sway over its former colony.
Meanwhile, Rwanda has also sent in troops to help the Touadera government, although Rwanda's President Paul Kagame refused to specify how many.
"Rwanda has tried to project itself as a major authority on security within the African space over the last several years, and it has contributed troops to many stabilization forces and operations around the continent," analyst Paul Melly said.
The International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has a clear message for all those stirring tensions in the hope of gaining influence.
"Anyone who commits, orders, incites, encourages or contributes, in any other way, to the commission of crimes," she said, would be liable for prosecution either by Bangui courts or by the ICC.
Ute Steinwehr, Jean Fernand Koena, Mimi Mefo Takambou, Christine Mhundwa and Zigoto Tchaya contributed to this article.