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Free and fair elections alone cannot solve CAR’s myriad problems

The Central African Republic needs to go through a thorough process of reconciliation.

Published by Al Jazeera on January 17, 2021.

Anti-balaka militias in Gamba in south-east CAR in 2017. (AFP/Alexis Huguet)

Since hundreds of rioters stormed the Capitol building in Washington DC to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, much of the international community’s focus has been on the United States and its democratic shortcomings.

The US, however, is not the only country that started the new year with a deadly episode of electoral violence. Thousands of kilometres away in Africa, the result of another fiercely contested presidential election also led to violent clashes and raised questions about the democratic future of a deeply-divided nation.

Protests are underway in the Central African Republic (CAR) in response to the December 27 presidential polls that saw the re-election of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra with some 53 percent of the votes.

The election was marred by violence and reports of voter-intimidation, which resulted in an influential opposition coalition calling for its annulment. International observers noted the vote in the capital, Bangui, went well, but admitted that violence prevented many from voting in other parts of the country, despite the presence of peacekeeping soldiers and reinforcements sent in by Russia and Rwanda after pre-election attacks.

On January 13, rebel forces launched a coordinated attack on Bangui, presumably to invalidate the election result and assume control of the country. They were eventually pushed back by a coalition of UN peacekeepers and Central African forces.

Today, in their attempts to make sense of the ongoing violence and divisions in CAR, most observers are focusing on the factors that led many to question the fairness and legitimacy of the election. Many hoped that if all players in CAR’s political scene can agree to participate in and respect the results of a free and fair election, this would be a major step towards peace. But, in fact, the disputed election is not the source but merely a symptom of CAR’s myriad deep-rooted problems.

A deeper problem

Free and fair elections are undoubtedly an important tool for democracy, but they do not single-handedly hold the key to security and stability in any given country.

The real source of unrest in CAR is the profound disconnect between rural populations and the government in Bangui.

CAR has faced deadly intercommunal fighting since 2013, when predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power from President François Bozizé, who had assumed power in a 2003 coup, after long claiming marginalisation. Despite Bozizé’s ousting, fighting resumed between the Seleka and militias called “Anti-balaka”, often seen as Christians, resulting in hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons and warnings about a looming “genocide”.

After being led by a UN-backed transitional government for two years, the country eventually held presidential elections in 2016, as a result of which Touadéra came to power. In February 2019, Touadéra’s government singed a comprehensive peace deal with 14 armed groups, officially bringing an end to CAR’s protracted civil war.

Two years after the signing of the landmark agreement, however, communities across the country are still enduring the consequences of the conflict. The government failed to gain the trust of rural communities, convince them that it will take constructive action to address their many day-to-day grievances, and deliver justice for past and present crimes. As a result, many young Central Africans, disillusioned with the democratic system, joined armed groups to take matters into their own hands.

Last year, researchers from the peace-building NGO I work for, Conciliation Resources, spoke to young members of the Anti-balaka, in the city of Bossangoa.

Nearly all fighters told the researchers that they joined the armed group either to defend their community against attacks from the Seleka, or seek revenge for past crimes against their families and communities.

Until these youths can be convinced that the government can keep them and their communities safe, and it can provide justice for the past crimes against them, no election can bring sustainable peace to CAR.

The 2019 peace agreement was very comprehensive and it provided the government with a clear road-map to determine and address the needs and wishes of communities. But the government now needs to commit to implementing the conditions of the deal in full and turning words into actions.

The agreement, for example, foresaw the formation of implementation committees in each province to help resolve issues that are essential to the peace process, such as safe return of internally displaced persons.

While the establishment of these committees was a much welcome development and an important step towards peace, as the government failed to allocate the necessary resources to support them, they have been unable to make much progress.

Working for peace

Reconciliation takes time and more often than not, it cannot be secured by the government alone. To bring peace to CAR, regional bodies such as the Economic Community of Central African States and the African Union, as well as the United Nations Mission MINUSCA and international and national NGOs, will need to support and actively work with the new Touadéra government.

With the help of its regional partners, the CAR government needs to bring different groups and communities together and find ways to address their shared concerns such as security, accountability and fair management of natural resources. It should also hold provincial-level consultations with communities and armed groups to better understand their specific needs and desires.

Only if the new government succeeds in gaining the trust of these diverse communities and supports open dialogue across conflict divides, can the country move away from conflict and towards sustainable peace.

Until then, no election, however fair and free, will guarantee Central Africans come together and start building a common future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Head of Conciliation Resources NGO in CAR

Caesar Poblicks leads peacebuilding NGO Conciliation Resources' work in the Central African Republic.

© 2021 Al Jazeera Media Network.

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