Voters went to the polls on Sunday in the Central African Republic in presidential and legislative elections, amid a warning from the UN that ongoing violence was threatening citizens' security and their right to vote.
Incumbent President Faustin Archange Touadera, who is seeking a second term, was the front-runner. Voters were also selecting a new parliament. Partial results are expected on January 4, with the final tally due on January 19.
People came out in large numbers in the capital, Bangui, but fears of rebel violence kept some voters away from polling stations in other parts of the country. Some polling stations remained open late to allow more voters to cast their ballots.
Fears of election violence
"When we woke up this morning, the first thing we heard was gunshots, then phone calls," a resident of the central city of Bambari told DW. "People were scared. Then, shortly after, we were informed that the polling stations were open."
The city was seized by rebels and returned to UN peacekeepers last week.
"They [armed groups] walk around openly with weapons, they live inside the community," he added. "But [UN] MINUSCA soldiers have positioned themselves in strategic places, especially at the port, and have set up checkpoints, for example, at intersections."
Meanwhile, in the western city of Bouar, polling stations did not open due to the fear of violence.
"In Bouar, no one has voted," a resident told DW. "The polling stations are not open. This morning at 4 o'clock, there was shooting from the rebels. People are staying at home, everyone is inside. I'm also at home, inside, since the morning. I didn't move from here."
"There is no one out in the whole city: neither the relevant authorities, nor the people from the electoral authority, nor the voters," he added.
Poll follows weeks of hostilities
The election came after a weeks of turbulence. Militias hostile to Touadera stepped up attacks across the country earlier this month after the constitutional court rejected several candidates, including former President Francois Bozize.
Touadera has struggled to control large areas of the resource-rich country since he was first elected in 2016, three years after a rebellion that ousted Bozize. He has accused Bozize of stirring the violence that has most recently beset CAR.
"He's the one who's organizing this," Touadera told DW. "They [the opposition] are the ones who provoked this violence. They mobilized the armed groups. They brought back violence ... and now they want to burst in to [the capital] Bangui to destabilize."
Touadera's main challenger is the former head of government, Anicet Georges Dologuele, who is backed by Bozize. The election will go to a second round if no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote.
A French military intervention together with MINUSCA, the UN peace mission, has temporarily stabilized the country since a peace accord was signed in 2019, but violence continues to flare up. According to the UN, rebels in the country are being supported by Bozize, and the recent attacks on peacekeeping forces were aimed at stopping the election process.
"Today, it is troublemakers such as Bozize who want to sabotage the elections process, because he is not permitted to be elected. They foment fear in the population," Mankeur Ndiaye, the UN special representative for CAR, told DW. "We must fight for a credible election."
The recent increase in fighting prompted Russia and neighboring Rwanda to deploy troops to the country.
When asked by DW about the presence of Russian military consultants in CAR, Touadera responded: "We are friends."
"Our relations with this country [Russia] date back to the 1960s," he said. "The Central African Republic is a fragile, post-conflict country. So here ... we want our cooperation with our friends to be complementary."
Security and reconciliation 'priority'
Paul-Crescent Beninga, spokesman for the Civil Society Working Group (GTSC), told DW that the first priority of the newly elected president must be security, peace and reconciliation.
"Part of the CAR is controlled by armed groups … This is an extremely delicate and complicated situation…" Beninga said, adding that Bozize is "at a dead end."
"This gentleman is an egocentric, he thinks that the CAR is all about him and his family. I find that reprehensible," he said. "President Bozize has led this country for almost 10 years, he should use his experience to help the country get better. Instead, he goes back to rebellion… He is proving that he has no true love for the CAR and for Central Africans."
Beninga said the future president must focus on a reconciliation which is "based on truth," "does not exclude justice" and "takes into account the social and anthropological realities" of the country.