Can the meek professor or ‘Mr Clean’ save the Central African Republic?

Form an orderly line. Reuters

After no candidate received more than 50% of the vote during the first round in December 2015, the presidential election in the Central African Republic is now headed to a runoff.

Anicet-Georges Dologuele, the former head of the Development Bank of Central African States between 2001-2010 and known as “Mr Clean”, came first with 23.8%. He was tailed by a relatively mild-mannered maths professor and outsider, Faustin Archange Touadera with 19.4%. Both men have been prime minister at different times: Touadera served for five years in the national unity government of president Bozize in 2008 and Dologuele was prime minister under president Patasse, who came to power in free elections in 1993.

The first round was remarkably peaceful given the recent upheaval within the Central African Republic. And there’s some cause for optimism still. With nearly 2m of the country’s 5m or so people eligible to vote, turnout in the presidential and parliamentary elections reached a high 79%. The election is seen as a potential turning point away from sectarian violence that has blighted the country for the last few years.

Rescheduled five times due to inter-communal violence, the elections will finally produce a new government to succeed interim president Catherine Samba-Panza. She has been tasked with running the show since the collapse of Michel Djotodia’s government in 2014, but has limited credibility and support and has generally been unable to curb the country’s lawlessness.

Whoever succeeds her will find the challenges as immense as ever.

On the ropes

The Central African Republic has never been governed well. The French looted it; the self-styled independent “Emperor Bokassa” who ruled from 1966 to 1979 took the country to a hellish extreme of kleptocracy and borderline insane dictatorship. There have since been five coups and several armed revolts, and the general population lives in both poverty and fear.

The country is rich in diamonds, gold, oil and uranium, but also has one of the world’s poorest populations. It remains divided between an economic and political elite based in the capital Bangui and the mass of the population. The average annual income is around US$320 and life expectancy is one of the lowest in the world, hovering around 50.

Keeping the peace in Bangui. Reuters/Stefano Rellandini

The current troubles began in earnest in December 2012 when the mainly Muslim Séléka alliance began pillaging its way south. Three months later its forces overthrew president François Bozizé, a former army chief of staff who seized power in a coup in 2003. Christian so-called “Anti-Balaka” (literally “machete-proof”) groups then retaliated against the country’s Muslims, who make up around 15% of the population, and the violence has claimed lives and divided communities ever since.

But the lead-up to these elections was calmer. It even included a visit from Pope Francis, his first to a war zone, during which he paid his respects at a mosque. His message of peace and reconciliation has been invoked by politicians throughout the process.

Faint hope

It is hoped that a newly elected government can restore some government credibility and be able to extend authority beyond the capital. The interim government believes that a legitimate government, even with a flawed electoral process, is the only hope for the country to recover from years of upheaval.

The country has a very long way to go. Much of it is still under the control of rival and fragmented armed groups. In December 2015, an ex-Séléka faction that has clashed with UN peacekeepers previously briefly declared an independent state in the north-east only backing down after pressure from neighbouring Chad.

The Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army is still active in the south-east, and a plethora of armed groups run lucrative operations ranging from road blocks to smuggling diamonds, gold and coffee.

All the while, a shaky peace is maintained by more than 11,000 peacekeepers, but even they have become highly controversial, with accusations of sexual abuse by both UN peacekeepers and French soldiers.

Whoever wins the run-off at the end of January will inherit a heavy weight of expectation for democracy in Africa, but also a country that has been subject to systematic abuse since independence in 1960.

More immediately, they will inherit a government that has little writ beyond Bangui, a non-existent state security sector, and a shifting landscape of communal and lawless groups consisting of young rebels with no education, no jobs and no prospects – but lots of opportunities to make a living by picking up a gun.