from Africa in Transition

The Central African Republic: Where Elections Could Do More Harm Than Good

February 14, 2014

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Sub-Saharan Africa


Elections and Voting


Wars and Conflict

This is a guest post by Emily Mellgard, research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program.

Elections are often seen as progress toward democracy in Africa. Elections confer legitimacy on governments, especially abroad. However, in some conflicts, conducting elections credible enough to confer legitimacy is an unrealistic goal. Instead there are “election-like-events.” These may even exacerbate internal cleavages within a society. Rushing into elections in the Central African Republic will not resolve the breakdown of order there and could make it worse.

When the CAR was a French colony, Paris left the regions outside Bangui largely undeveloped and did little to promote a common identity between the capital and its hinterland. That pattern persisted long after independence from France in 1960. In December 2012 and January 2013, when a loose coalition of rebels from the northern region, and guns for hire from Chad and Darfur came together and marched on Bangui, it was to demand more resources for marginalized communities –and for themselves. President Francoise Bozize’s government fell to these rebels in March 2013. Since then the country has been in a state of deepening chaos.

The victorious rebels (called Seleka) were disbanded, but that merely released its operatives from any semblance of government control. They thereupon resorted to banditry, rape, murder, and pillaging the communities surrounding the capital. In response to months of ex-Seleka violence, some southern communities armed themselves, forming community level anti-balaka (anti-machete) militias who protected their communities, attacked the former Seleka rebels, and carried out attacks against communities seen to be allied with them.

In January 2014, Michel Djotodia, a Seleka leader who had installed himself as interim president, was in turn forced from office by a domestic coalition abetted by some neighboring states and France. He had failed to halt the escalating violence. In the void left by his departure, anti-balaka fighters stepped up their own attacks, forcing many of the former Seleka fighters from Bangui. A massive refugee exodus has resulted.

The CAR’s neighbors, former colonial power France, the AU, and the UN are seeking a credible CAR partner to end the chaos. Catherine Samba-Panza was, on January 20, elected the new interim president by the Transitional National Assembly, itself of only limited reach and credibility. It has given her one year to restore order and to organize and hold national elections. But elections in such a short timeframe are likely to exacerbate the CAR’s internal conflicts that still show little sign of diminishing. To focus solely on electing a new president at all costs only strengthens the impression that the presidency is the sole arbiter of power and legitimacy. Accusations by parts of the UN system and some international NGOs that “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” are underway further poison the political climate among the population.

The CAR military has all but disintegrated. The peacekeepers currently on the ground in the CAR (1,600 French troops and approximately 5,500 AU troops, mostly from Chad and Rwanda) lack the numbers, resources, and mandate to restore and maintain order. They remain encamped in Bangui, while the rural areas are overrun by competing militias and bandit groups.

The previous voting registries have largely been lost or destroyed in the breakdown of order over the past year. Some regions lack any history of elections, in others elections have not been held in over a decade, and in still others, elected officials prefer to remain in Bangui rather than carry out their responsibilities in rural areas. Louisa Lombard recently published in African Arguments the proposition of working instead for local elections rather than rushing for national elections. It seems likely that only when local communities are engaged can the nation as a whole move toward reconciliation and elections that reflect a national consensus.

But, even local elections will require relative security. That reality will require international provision of more resources, likely including boots on the ground. In an era of “rhetorical enthusiasm” but “action fatigue,” will they be forthcoming?