The Central African Republic is a culturally and environmentally-diverse country with incredible natural resources holding new presidential and general elections this week. But hope is cautious amid widespread poverty and three distinct violent conflicts, including an armed intervention by neighboring Chad. What is at stake in the election? And what are these three conflicts undermining national unity?
First of all, the election, despite its fears of corruption, is somewhat good news. Two of the three rivals for the presidency are former enemies. President Francois Bozize came to power after a 2003 coup against former President Ange Felix Patasse. Now they are on the ballot together. Former Prime Minister Martin Ziguele competes for the Presidency as well. Many news analysts believe Bozize will be re-elected despite his failure to save the country from war and poverty and his decree to extend his term by delaying elections. But the fact that he is at least transforming symbolically from rebel to democrat while in office sets a positive precedent.
The president will face a complex, and let’s face it, bizarre, series of challenges. The Central African Republic, like so many other Edens in Africa, has the kind of soils, ores, and vegetation, the kind of cultural diversity, and the kind of gorgeous natural environment that should not only provide it with strong markets but also room for a substantial tourist industry. However, just as adventure travelers continue to sneak in to see wildlife in the west of the country, the northeast and southeast suffer confusing violence and forced displacement.
In the northern region of Vakaga, around the town of Birao and near the Sudan border, the CAR government has been holding its ground with air and ground support from ally Chad against rebels of the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP) alliance.
Meanwhile, the region is under alert for fear of apolitical armed gangs known as Zaraguinas which ransack villages for resources. Some believe that the northeastern regions have been so damaged by rebel fighting over the years, allegedly including proxy fights between Sudan and Chad, that many youth have grown up believing that the mercenary industry is their only way out of poverty.
Last but not least, the Ugandan rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, continues to use southeastern CAR as a base for recruiting supporters and stealing resources. Overwhelmed, CAR forces have been unable to protect villages from attack. Aid agencies throughout the country have called for more resources for diplomacy as well as humanitarian response.
A complicated twist on CAR is that the UN protection force deployed along the northeast of the country to respond to the influx of refugees from Darfur, Sudan, was ordered to withdraw without addressing the ongoing conflict between Chad-backed CAR forces and rebels.