Voters in the Central African Republic (CAR) headed to the polls on Sunday in an election expected to turn around a chronically unstable country.
But in the build-up to the vote, armed violence escalated in the mineral-rich yet impoverished country.
Incumbent President Faustin Archange Touadera, who is seeking a second term, has accused his predecessor, Francois Bozize, who returned to CAR in 2019 after years in exile, of a coup to topple the government after a court rejected his presidential bid.
The court justified its ruling on the basis that the former President, who seized power in a coup in 2003, is under UN sanctions and subject to a government-issued arrest warrant for his alleged role in murders, kidnapping, arbitrary detention and torture, accusations which Bozize denies.
Violence arose in several parts of the country and militia briefly seized the country’s fourth biggest town, Bambari.
In addition, Russia and Rwanda sent military personnel to help secure the electoral process.
The pre-election violence sent many fleeing to neighbouring countries including Cameroon.
Simplice Sarandji, the former Prime Minister of CAR who is special adviser to President Touadera, was on campaign in a neighboring town but was forced by the unrest to cross over to Garoua Boulai, a border town in Cameroon.
Gregoire Mvongo, Cameroon’s governor of the East region that borders the CAR, and some top military officials visited him on Sunday. He then returned to his hometown to continue campaigning .
However, thousands of other CAR citizens remain in that country. In addition, a Chinese community of 200 people, which was forced out of CAR, has been in Cameroon since the violence erupted.
Reports say at least half a dozen civilians have been killed since the violence erupted last weekend but the United Nations has confirmed just one death and 12 injuries.
The UN mission in the country (Minusca), deployed since 2014, has stepped up military operations in support of the government, and additional foreign forces have arrived to assist.
The United Nations human rights office said it was “deeply alarmed” by the escalating violence “stoked by political grievances and hate speech,” and warned it could present a serious risk to the safety of civilians and the exercise of the right to vote.
“Clashes between armed groups and security forces have taken place across a wide area, including neighbourhoods close to the capital, Bangui,” the rights office said.
But the United Nations (UN), African Union (AU), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) have opposed any postponement of the elections and called on protagonists to cease hostilities tending to jeopardise national peace and reconciliation efforts.
“ICGLR urges parties to avoid taking power by force,” the chairperson of 11-member regional integration mechanism and Angola’s head of State, João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço said in a statement on Thursday.
He called on the parties to engage in the process and ensure the vote takes place according to constitutionally established deadlines, “in a peaceful, credible and transparent environment”.
Some 1.8million voters will be choosing from 14 candidates in the race for the top job.
Touadera, 63, is seen as a favourite for a second term. Anicet Georges Dologuele, an economist and former prime minister who is being backed by Bozize is the incumbent’s closest rival, according to media reports.
CAR is rich in minerals but is rated the world’s second-poorest country, after Niger, on the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Index. The country has a history of chronic instability since gaining independence from France some 60 years ago.
CAR has witnessed continuous fighting of varying intensity for decades and has been in a protracted crisis since 2013, according to the International Crisis group (ICG).
In that year, a mostly Muslim rebel coalition known as the Seleka, from the country’s north east, rose against Bozize’s government and briefly held power until regional countries pushed it to stand down.
Thousands have been killed while more than a quarter of the country’s nearly five million citizens have fled their homes.
Nearly 700,000 are in neigbouring countries including Cameroon and Congo and were disenfranchised from Sunday’s vote.
Although some stations opened late in Bangui because of a lack of voting materials, senior election officials told AFP they would stay open later to make up for it.
“It’s very important for me to be here, as a citizen. I think this vote will change our country, whoever the president will be,” teacher Hortense Reine said.
Polling stations began to close at 5pm (1600 GMT) with partial results expected on January 4 and the final totals on January 19.
A runoff will be held on February 14 if there is no overall majority in the first round.
Momokoama Theophile of the National Elections Authority (ANE) told AFP at the end of the day that turnout had been good “despite minor security concerns in some places”.
Meanwhile, thousands of people had not received their voter cards because of the dire security situation, according to local and UN officials who all requested anonymity.
“How do we vote when we don’t even have our voter cards,” Robert, from Boali 80 kilometres north of Bangui told AFP by phone — explosions audible in the background.
“Everyone is fleeing at the moment. I’m holed up at home.”
Experts and opposition figures have already asked what legitimacy the president and 140 MPs to be elected will have, given the obstacles to holding a free vote.