Voters in Central African Republic have cast their votes in a closely watched presidential election that many hope will usher in stability after years of bloodshed.
Two ex-prime ministers – Faustin-Archange Touadera and Anicet-Georges Dologuele – contested Sunday’s presidential run-off which will determine who will be charged with the challenge of restoring peace and reuniting the impoverished nation.
Central African Republic was pitched into crisis in 2013 when mainly Muslim Seleka fighters toppled President Francois Bozize.
Christian militias responded to Seleka abuses by attacking the Muslim minority community. One in five Central Africans has fled, either internally or abroad, to escape the violence.
Touadera portrayed himself as an anti-corruption stalwart, while Dologuele pledged to revive the economy and draw in investors hesitant until now to exploit significant gold, diamond and uranium deposits.
Authorities were also trying to re-run a first round of legislative polls which were cancelled over irregularities.
Voting for unity
As voting stations closed around 4pm local time (15:00 GMT), poll workers at a school in central Bangui immediately emptied ballot boxes and began counting votes.
Observers and elections officials praised the organisation of the vote, a marked improvement from a December 30 first round when ballot materials arrived late, or not at all in many areas.
In Bangui’s PK5 neighbourhood, the capital’s principal remaining Muslim enclave following ethnic cleansing, some voters arrived before dawn to queue at the main polling centre.
Alima Zeinabou Shaibou, 32, who, like most Muslims in the southwest, has been forced to leave her home, crossed the road from the mosque where she now lives with her five children to be among the first voters.
“I want there to be a change. I want Christians and Muslims to live together as before,” she said.
The voting centre in PK5 witnessed violent attacks by local militia during a December constitutional referendum.
Though the situation has remained largely calm during the election period, Sunday’s vote was held under heavy security.
Armed soldiers from MINUSCA, the country’s 11,000-strong UN mission, guarded polling stations while attack helicopters circled in the skies over Bangui.
Armoured vehicles from a 900-soldier French military contingent patrolled the streets.
The first-round turnout of nearly 80 percent was largely viewed as a popular rejection of the violence, which has left the northeast under the control of Muslim rebels while Christian militias roam the southwest.
“I wish a happy Valentine’s Day to everyone,” Dologuele said after casting his vote. “I would like Central Africans to consider [voting today] an act of love for their country.”
Both Dologuele, a banker, and Touadera, a mathematics professor, have made the restoration of peace and security the centrepiece of their campaigns.
Both candidates are Christians.
They both have close ties with deposed leader Bozize, a fact that has raised concern among some diplomats and observers who worry that the election result risks changing little.
While the polls should reinstate democracy after three years of unpopular interim administrations, analysts have said the election is only the first step in the long process of stabilising the Central Africn Republic.
“It’s cheaper to buy a grenade in Bangui than it is to buy a can of Coke. That’s how bad it is here,” said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch.