UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: IRIN special report on forthcoming presidential elections
[This IRIN report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
NAIROBI, 1 September (IRIN) - Ten candidates will contest the first round of presidential elections in the Central African Republic (CAR) on 12 September as the country strives to recover from a recent period of debilitating civil strife and overcome serious economic and social difficulties.
An estimated 1.5 million people are expected to cast their votes in some 3,000 polling stations set up in the country's 16 prefectures and the eight districts of the capital, Bangui. A second round of voting, if no single candidate receives over 50 percent on 12 September, will be held on 3 October. The candidates - incumbent President Ange-Felix Patasse, six opposition leaders and three independents - are vying for a six-year term, renewable only once.
The UN Mission in the CAR (MINURCA) and UNDP are providing technical and logistical assistance to the Commission Electorale Mixte et Independante (CEMI), the 27-member body responsible for the organisation and conduct of the elections. CEMI's budget of 1.9 billion franc CFA (about US $3 million) has been covered by a government allocation of 1 billion franc CFA and contributions from several donor countries.
Over 200 international observers are being fielded to monitor the elections, and MINURCA troops have been deployed to nine designated electoral monitoring sites at Berberati, Kagabandoro, Bangassou, Bossangoa, Bozoum, Bouar, Bambari, Nedel and Birao. The planned deployment of observers and troops at another designated monitoring site, Mobaye, had not yet taken place due to insecurity resulting from the recent influx of thousands of soldiers to that area from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
MINURCA - the first new UN peace-keeping operation to be established in Africa since the UN Operation in Somalia II in 1993 - was deployed in April 1998 to take over from the Inter-African Mission to Monitor the Bangui Agreements (MISAB), which was set up in the wake of a series of army mutinies in 1996-97.
The mutinies, essentially triggered by salary arrears and public discontent over social and economic problems, killed hundreds of people, displaced tens of thousands and resulted in widespread looting and destruction of small enterprises and factories in the capital.
The Bangui Agreements, signed in 1997 by the army mutineers and the Patasse government following mediation efforts by four African heads of state, restored peace and set out measures for a comprehensive settlement of the crisis.. All CAR political parties signed a National Reconciliation Pact the following year. However, the social and economic effects of the mutinies continue to be felt, and not all components of the Bangui Agreements have been implemented yet.
UN-monitored legislative elections for the 109-seat National Assembly held in November/December 1998 were generally considered to be free and fair. Opposition parties won 55 seats while the ruling party and its allies won 54. But the post-election defection of an opposition legislator gave the ruling coalition a one-seat majority in the assembly, prompting opposition protests.
While Patasse's victory in the 1993 multi-party elections ushered in a process of turbulent democracy, critics say his government has been characterised by exclusionary policies, incompetence, mismanagement and corruption. The opposition was unable to unite behind a single candidate to challenge Patasse, but political parties in the opposition coalition UFAP (Union des forces acquises a la paix) signed an agreement on 19 August pledging to rally behind the leading opposition candidate in the second round.
The mutinies caused CAR's gross national product to fall by about three percent in 1996 and resulted in a sharp decline in public revenue as well as the doubling of the unemployment rate in Bangui. While there has been some improvement in the country's macro-economic situation since then - including an estimated 25 percent increase in average monthly government revenue - most of the private sector and foreign investors have not resumed business. "Everyone is waiting for the results of the election to see whether to return," a civil society leader in Bangui told IRIN recently.
This July, the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), after a relatively favourable review of the economic situation, disbursed an additional US $11 million to the CAR as a second tranche of the first annual Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF) economic reform programme launched in 1998. While the fresh IMF funds enabled the partial payment of salary arrears, the country's 20,000 civil servants and army soldiers are still owed eight or nine months of remuneration. The payment of education grants for students and retirement benefits for pensioners is also outstanding.
UN Special Representative Oluyemi Adeniji has told IRIN that peace in the short-term was needed to encourage the private sector to return, thereby increasing employment and government revenue and ensuring the regular payment of salaries. "Investors, if they are convinced stability will last, will gradually come back," he said. Conversely, the country would be "in serious trouble" if cooperation agreements with the Bretton Woods institutions were to break down, he added.
The precarious economic situation prevailing since the civil strife has led to deepening poverty and deteriorating living conditions at the household level, humanitarian sources have said. Although the country is rich in largely unexploited natural resources, including diamonds gold and timber, more than 60 percent of its population are struggling to survive on less than US $1 a day, a recent UN report noted.
The purchasing power of the population has declined drastically, access to health and education services is poor, chronic malnutrition affects about one quarter of children under five years of age, and mortality rates are increasing, the sources said. The CAR is ranked among the 10 lowest countries of the 174 that are included in the most recent UNDP Human Development Index. [For additional information, see separate item on 31 August headlined: "Worsening conditions amid deepening poverty" - IRIN-CEA: 19990831]
One of the aspects of the 1997 Bangui Agreements that has not yet been implemented is the restructuring of the armed forces. The national army is weak and is viewed as incapable of stemming armed robbery taking place along roads in the interior of the country. The army remains dominated by one southern ethnic group, the Yakoma, to which former president Kolingba belongs.
Meanwhile, the better-equipped presidential guard, known as the FORSDIR, is composed mainly of members of Patasse's own northern ethnic group, the Kaba, which is part of the larger Sara group. FORSDIR is reportedly responsible for many human rights violations and is assuming law and order functions beyond its mandate, a situation that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently described as "potentially explosive."
"There is frustration on the part of the population and suspicion on the part of the opposition who see in FORSDIR a force that would be engaged against it in case it won the election," a MINURCA official told IRIN. "At the same time, the president is suspicious of the army because of its role in the mutinies," he added.
"If there are problems, the behaviour of the FORSDIR will certainly not be neutral," a security source told IRIN.
The national police force, with an estimated 1,900 officers in 1998, is largely unarmed and poorly trained. The country's police academy remained closed for 20 years until it was reopened last year by MINURCA, which is currently training some 180 officers.
Of the estimated 3,434 army soldiers, 1,374 gendarmes and 642 FORSDIR elements that constitute the country's armed forces, some 800 are to be demobilised under a UNDP project, while some 600 are due for retirement, which would pave the way for new recruits - taking into account geographical and ethnic balances - to bring the restructured armed forces to some 6,000 personnel. However, UN sources said there has been very little or no donor funding contributed towards efforts to restructure the army, demobilise and reintegrate soldiers or strengthen police capacity.
The scheduled departure of MINURCA on 15 November is compounding fears of potential renewed civil unrest and the creation of a security vacuum in the post-election period, particularly if the results are contested. "Many have forgotten that peace is very precarious. A few weeks after the departure of MINURCA, anything could happen," a diplomatic source in Bangui told IRIN recently, adding that the root causes of the 1996 mutinies remained largely unresolved.
MINURCA is composed of some 1,300 troops and civilian police from 14 countries. When the UN Security Council extended MINURCA to 15 November, it expressed its intention to follow through with "full termination" of the mission's mandate by that date.
UN Force Commander Major General Barthelemy Ratanga told IRIN recently that while there may be "bad losers" who contest the election results, "they won't go far if everyone is persuaded that the elections were transparent and well prepared." As MINURCA's departure will have a "psychological impact," the elected president would have to reassure the population and restructure the army, he said. "Without a solid army, there can be no development," Ratanga added.
Fueling fears of potential post-election or post-MINURCA unrest is the growing "ethnicisation" of CAR society, which has been exacerbated since the mutinies and exploited by the political class for their own personal interests, analysts told IRIN.
Membership in political parties - and voting patterns in the 1998 legislative elections - were largely along ethnic or regional lines, analysts noted, while a civil society representative said that Bangui residents had started to move from one area of the capital to another based on the ethnic make-up of the city's neighbourhoods. "If problems do arise, people will react on the basis of their ethnic or regional origins," she said.
A political analyst agreed, saying: "The manipulation of the population by the political elite is taking a dangerous turn." The ethnicisation problem "will take decades to eradicate," he added.
The country's estimated population of 3.5 million is composed of some 90 ethnic groups.
Ange-Felix Patasse, the 63-year-old incumbent president, was first elected in 1993, after having been an unsuccessful candidate in 1981. A period of economic recovery during the first years of his term enabled the regular disbursement of civil servants' salaries as well as the payment of previously-accumulated arrears, but salary payments started to fall behind again in 1995. Patasse, an agricultural engineer, had served as minister and prime minister under former president Jean-Bedel Bokassa. He was subsequently forced into exile during Kolinga's presidency. Patasse's party is the Mouvement de liberation du peuple centrafricain (MLPC), which last year received 47 seats in the National Assembly and has strong support in the north.
David Dacko, 69, served as minister of the interior under the country's first president, Barthelemy Boganda. After Boganda died in a plane crash, Dacko became president in 1960 at the age of 30, and he brought the country to independence the following year. He was ousted in a military coup led by Bokassa on 31 December 1965, but was reinstated in the 1979 French-supported 'Operation Barracuda' and served as president until the head of the armed forces, General Kolingba, took over in 1981. He was an unsuccessful candidate in the 1993 elections. Dacko is president of the Mouvement pour la democratie et le developpement (MDD), which holds eight seats in the National Assembly and has strong support in the west.
Andre Kolingba, 63, is a career military officer who served as CAR ambassador, including in Canada and Germany. Opponents say Kolingba's 1981-1993 tenure as president following the ousting of Dacko was characterised by dictatorship and "favouratism" towards his own ethnic group. Kolingba was an unsuccessful candidate in the 1993 elections, receiving only 11 percent in the first round of voting. His party is the Rassemblement democratique centrafricain (RDC), which has 20 legislators in the assembly and is popular in the east.
Abel Goumba, 74, a veteran opposition figure, is a professor of medecine who has lived in France and in Benin, where he worked for the World Health Organisation (WHO). Goumba came in second in the 1993 elections, losing to Patasse in the second round of voting with 45 percent. A leftist, he was elected to the National Assembly last year along with six other members of his party, the Front patriotique pour le progres (FPP), which is popular in central areas.
Jean-Paul Ngoupande, 51, was elected in last year's legislative elections. He is president of the Parti de l'unite nationale (PUN), which has three seats. He served as minister of education under Kolingba, as prime minister under Patasse and as CAR ambassador in Cote d'Ivoire and France.
Enoch-Derant Lakoue, a 55-year-old economist, is a former minister and prime-minister. He was an unsuccessful candidate in the 1993 elections. A dissident MLPC member, Lakoue created the Parti social democrate (PSD) in the early 1990s. His party has six seats in the National Assembly, but Lakoue himself was an unsuccessful candidate in last year's elections.
Charles Massi, 47, served as minister of mines and of agricultural under Patasse before he formed his own party, the Forum democratique pour la modernite (FODEM), in 1997. He was then fired by the government and temporarily placed under house arrest. Massi was one of two FODEM members elected to the National Assembly last year.
Henri Pouzere, 56, is a human rights activist who was elected to the National Assembly last year. He has been practising law in Gabon. Although Pouzere is an independent candidate, he has signed the UFAP pledge to support a joint opposition candidate in the second round of voting.
Joseph Abossolo, a 54-year-old US-trained economist, is a businessman who has been living in France. He served as High Commissioner for Civic Action under Kolingba and is an independent candidate.
Fidele Ngouandjika, 45, has presented himself as the "candidate of the youth." An independent, he has sharply criticised CAR political parties as mere "ethnic/tribal associations". A telecommunications engineer, Ngouandjika is president of the national karate federation and holds a karate black belt.
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Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 1999
Editor: Dr. Ali B. Ali-Dinar, Ph.D
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