By Crispin Dembassa-Kette
Peacekeepers patrolled the streets of Central African Republic as voting began on Wednesday in a presidential election aimed at restoring democratic rule after years of inter-religious violence in which thousands have died.
Lines formed at polling stations in the capital Bangui and in the mainly Muslim PK-5 neighbourhood. UN peacekeepers staged patrols and positioned armoured personnel carriers at voting stations, witnesses said.
“We came to vote because we want to be free to get back to our professions. We want to put an end to the conflict,” said businessman Gradias Vara.
Mainly Muslim rebels from a group called the Seleka seized power in the majority Christian nation in early 2013, provoking reprisals from the Christian anti-balaka militias that triggered a cycle of religious and inter-communal killings.
Thirty candidates are competing for the presidency but in the absence of opinion polls or an incumbent, it is hard to predict a winner. Leading candidates include former prime ministers Anicet-Georges Dologuele and Martin Ziguele.
Ziguele received a boost on Tuesday when anti-balaka militias who have formed the Central African Party of Unity and Development said they would support his candidacy. Other candidates include former Foreign Minister Karim Meckassoua, and Bilal Desire Nzanga-Kolingba, the son of a former president.
The conflict has forced nearly one-fifth of the country’s 5 million people from their homes and left much of the north and east controlled by mainly Muslim groups that do not answer to the government.
The turmoil, and violence in Bangui in September, have repeatedly forced authorities to delay the polls. Some have also cast doubt on whether the election can be organised successfully.
During a referendum on a new constitution this month, gunmen attacked voters in the capital and elsewhere.
Even so, many people in Bangui said they hoped the election will bring change to the country, ruled since May 2014 by interim President Catherine Samba-Panza. She is barred by law from standing in the presidential election.
The Seleka withdrew from Bangui after their leader Michel Djotodia stepped down from the presidency in 2014 and the group’s factions have entrenched themselves in the northeast.
Some have flirted with secession and convincing them to cede control won’t be easy if the new president is deemed a threat to Muslims. The new president must also disarm militias.
The economy has struggled for years, with uranium deposits undeveloped, the cotton sector in trouble and gold and diamond mines under the control of militias.
Polls close at 5 pm (1600 GMT). Provisional results will be announced in the following days and the constitutional court must give final results 15 days after Wednesday. Hundreds of contests are also taking place for national assembly seats.