Is Vote Too Soon in Diamond-Rich Central African Republic?

  • Capital Bangui suffering worst violence since early 2014
  • Conflict that began in 2013 has left country 'in pieces'

Central African Republic’s presidential and parliamentary elections next month may deepen the crisis in the diamond-producing country as armed militias occupy large areas and as much as a fifth of the population won’t be able to vote.

The capital, Bangui, is facing the worst outbreak of violence since early 2014 after the murder of a Muslim taxi driver in September triggered revenge attacks in which about 100 people were killed, according to the government. The army has disintegrated, while armed groups have partitioned the nation of 5 million people and battle to control the gold and diamond trade. “The country is in pieces,” the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report.

Protest in Bangui
Protest in Bangui
Photographer: Herve Cyriaque Serefio/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

“It’s a recipe for disaster,” Tatiana Carayannis, deputy director of the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum, which advises the United Nations, said by phone from New York. “You have about half a million refugees, you’ve got a sectarian conflict, you have armed groups, and a United Nations presence that is supposed to help run the election but seen by most sides as partial.”

Pope’s Visit

Pope Francis plans to visit a refugee camp in Bangui on Nov. 29, the first-ever visit to the country by a pontiff. He’ll find a nation that’s been gripped by violence since mainly Muslim rebels overthrew President Francois Bozize in March 2013. The takeover was marked by the widespread killing of civilians, prompting Christians to set up a rival militia known as anti-balaka.

The election is scheduled for Dec. 27, four days before a transitional administration appointed last year is due to end. Two earlier deadlines to hold a vote this year were missed. The UN has more than 10,000 soldiers and police in the country, while former colonial ruler France deployed 1,200 troops last year to help end the bloodshed.

MAP: Central African Republic
MAP: Central African Republic

Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza said in a speech Nov. 2 that the country is “on the right track” to hold the vote and that critics of the elections are trying to stoke “disorder.”

At least 10 people have said they intend to run for president, including former Prime Minister Martin Ziguele, anti-balaka militia leader Patrice Ngaissona, and Desire Kolingba, a former finance minister and the son of ex-President Andre Kolingba.

Diamond Ban

Trade in Central African Republic diamonds was banned in May 2013 after the Kimberley Process, which seeks to halt the sale of gems from war zones, said there was no way to determine whether so-called conflict diamonds had been eliminated from shipments. The country was ranked as the world’s 10th-biggest diamond producer by value in 2012, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The continued fighting shows that “sectarian grievances have yet to be resolved, small arms are plentiful in Bangui, and international peacekeepers are seriously challenged when it comes to civilian protection,” Lewis Mudge, researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mail. “This makes for a bad combination in the run-up to contentious elections.”

About a fifth of the population has fled, either across the border or within the country. The interim parliament in June banned refugees from voting, excluding almost half a million Muslims, according to the UN Refugee Agency. The decision was overturned by the Constitutional Court a month later. Cameroon alone hosts a quarter of a million people who fled the Central African Republic.

Since independence from France in 1960, Central African Republic has had one democratic handover of power, in 1993. Most of its leaders took office after coups or foreign interventions.

‘Criminalized’ Militia

It’s essential to start disarmament before an election, Thibaud Lusueur, Central Africa analyst for the ICG, said by phone from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Most armed groups don’t have a centralized command, and the anti-balaka militia is increasingly “criminalized,” he said.

“Even if it isn’t ideal, the mandate of the interim government can be prolonged,”  Lusueur said. “If the elections aren’t credible, it will just exacerbate the problems.”

The election will give France political cover to withdraw its soldiers, who were originally meant to leave in September 2014, according to Carayannis and Lusueur.

French Withdrawal

“The French are quite anxious to get out of Central African Republic so they’re pushing for an election that will have very little meaning,” said Carayannis.

There’s no connection between the vote and the presence of French troops, and the military mission is determined solely by the security situation, a senior French official said in Paris. The elections aren’t being rushed, the census of voters is complete and voting materials have been delivered, the official said.

“In Central African Republic, we are in a phase of transition,” French President Francois Hollande said Nov. 5. “The situation there these days is particularly tense. Our objective is to hold fair and transparent elections as soon as possible.”

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