Central African Republic: Rebel Groups Eager to Stall CAR Poll Exercise

Zambian peacekeepers from the UN mission, MINUSCA, on patrol in the Central African Republic.

Bangui — A peace deal signed by the government and numerous rebel groups in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2019 was anticipated to be the foundation on which peaceful and credible elections would be built.

Termed the Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation (APPR-RCA), it was set to usher in a new era of everlasting stability for the benefit of the more than 4,7 million citizens.

Days before general polls are conducted, such hopes have been dashed as the country endures its worst political crisis in months.

An onslaught by rebel groups, which control a majority of the country, has not only hampered preparations for the poll but also made a credible outcome highly unlikely.

In fact, it remains to be seen if the elections go ahead on December 27, with the atmosphere not conducive.

The security situation in the northwest of the Central African nation particularly is rapidly worsening.

Matters came to a head last weekend when multiple clashes and attacks rocked the town of Bossembele, 150 km from the capital Bangui.

The region of Mbaïki, some 107 km from the capital, has also been the scene of heavy fighting in recent days.

At a national level, skirmishes have impacted on the deployment and distribution of electoral material, including the distribution of voters' cards by the National Elections Authority.

Armed rebel groups, namely the Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation (3R) and fellow Muslim extremist Patriotic Movement for CAR (MPC) as well as the Christian anti-Balaka are behind the escalating tensions.

Exactly a week before elections leaders of some Christian-aligned rebel groups announced a coalition called the 'Coalition of Patriots for Change' (CPC).

The groups are backing former president, François Bozizé, whose disqualification has agitated the militants.

Also raising claims of electoral fraud, they are thus against the holding of elections.

At the time of publishing (Wednesday), Bangui retained calm after authorities deployed additional security forces to counter a march by the rebels to overthrow the administration of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra.

However, fears persist the situation could destabilize if the armed militants proceed to the city, which is set to be the nerve centre of the polls, the first to be held five years after insecurity characterized the last exercise.

The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the CAR (MINUSCA) said peacekeepers were on high alert.

This is part of the mandate to protect civilian populations and secure elections.

Meanwhile, the recurring insecurity has resulted in the suspension of humanitarian activities in certain parts of the country.

This is a major setback considering that aid organisations have forecast that in the coming months, 2,8 million Central Africans - more than half of the population - will need humanitarian assistance and protection.

Thus hoping for peaceful elections appears to be hoping against hope.

MINUSCA and the G5 +, which is a group of states and international institutions that are partners of the CAR, retain such hopes.

"MINUSCA calls on the population not to panic and to provide the necessary support to the national security forces and peacekeepers," the UN mission, deployed in 2014, stated.

The G5 + said it considered that the elections "must" be held on December 27.

António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General said he was "following closely and with concern" reports of rising tensions in the CAR.

More than 1,85 million Central Africans have registered with the intention to vote.

Among these is Marie Ngaba (34), a mother of three children.

She is a supporter of the incumbent, Touadéra, who won the 2015-16 election, and is seeking a second term.

"The president has done well since his election but this fighting is one that prevents him from delivering us from poverty," Ngaba said.

She spoke how the young family had been forced to flee the town of Obo in the east after clashes between opposing militant groups.

That was despite the peace deal signed last year.

"I have lost count of the number of relatives we have lost. It's much safer in Bangui because the presence of peacekeepers is larger," Ngaba said.

Touadéra is one of 17 individuals whose candidatures the Constitutional Court accepted on December 3 for the presidential election.

His main rivals have emerged as former Prime Minister Anicet-Georges Dologuélé, Catherine Samba-Panza, who was interim president from 2014 to 2016, and another former Prime Minister, Martin Ziguélé.

Another ex-Prime Minister, Mahamat Kamoun, is also in contention.

Bryce Issa, a staunch supporter of Bozizé, is against the holding of polls.

"The disqualification of our leader makes the process unfair before it even starts. I won't be voting," he said.

Bozize is disqualified because of UN sanctions against him and an international arrest warrant for alleged serious crimes around his overthrow in 2013.

Serge Abakar, the political analyst, forecast a tightly-contested poll.

"This itself could be the source of conflict, particularly if any of the contestants feel the exercise was not credible," Abakar said.

"Add to that the current upheaval caused by the militia opposed to the holding of elections and the situation looks dire for CAR," the analyst said.

He said the winner of the poll faced a mammoth task reuniting the country.

"One although foresees some rebel elements throwing spanners in the works. The divisions along ethnic and religious lines are also too deep to deal with," Abakar said.

CAR is predominantly Christian (89 percent of the population).

Touadéra's reign has met mixed fortunes.

Apart from the landmark peace deal with rebel groups, incessant conflict has impacted on efforts to build CAR's economy despite its vast mineral resources, such as uranium reserves, crude oil, gold, diamonds and cobalt.

However, economic growth has outpaced the regional average in Central Africa. It grew by 4,8 percent in 2019.

Poverty remains high as around 71 percent of the population lives below the international poverty line ($1,90 per day), according to the World Bank.

Speaking on Monday, he urged his compatriots to participate in the election despite the threat by rebel groups.

"Now that we have recovered constitutional order, we must recover democracy. Unfortunately, some people are engaged in violence," the incumbent said.

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