By Jean-Pierre Campagne, AFP/Bangui
There are hopes that Sunday’s election can bring an end to brutal sectarian unrest in the Central African Republic – but many voters are also looking for a president who can improve their precarious daily lives.
Central Africa has been rocked by violence since a mainly Muslim rebellion overthrew longtime Christian leader Francois Bozize in 2013, and Sunday’s much-delayed election is seen as a potential fresh start for one of the poorest countries on Earth.
A pre-Christmas truce holds in the capital Bangui, where the city centre bustles with campaign motorcades as merchants peddle plastic Christmas trees and toys, many “made in China”.
“But I have no money for Christmas gifts for my kids,” said Meric in his boat on the banks of the city’s Ubangi River, where he tries to make a living extracting sand for the rare construction starting in the shattered capital.
The sole client at one stand eyes a big, blonde doll in a wedding dress for her daughter “but at 25,000 CFA francs (€40, $43) it’s too expensive”, she said, opting for a cheaper model at 8,000 CFA “which, before, would have cost no more than 5,000”.
Sales, meanwhile, are racking up for toy whistles, which at only 150 CFA suit many budgets.
Central Africans have an array of 30 presidential candidates to choose from – although only a handful have the cash to advertise on billboards or run motorcades.
“I just want some bread,” shouts one of several young men asked about the vote as they block a potholed road in Bangui’s Fatima neighbourhood.
Fatima lies at the entrance to flashpoint Muslim-majority district PK-5, stronghold of the machete-wielding Seleka fighters who have been locked in tit-for-tat violence with mainly Christian “anti-balaka” (anti-machete) fighters since Bozize’s overthrow.
But a neighbourhood truce appears to have taken hold here too in the run-up to Christmas, allowing cars to cross from Fatima into PK-5.
Anicet Georges Dologuele, a presidential frontrunner, made use of the lull to campaign in the heart of the enclave.
A non-Muslim, he ventured as far as the Baya Donguia neighbourhood where five people were gunned down by opponents of the electoral process earlier this month.
On Monday, electoral officials said voters had backed a referendum on a new constitution for the notoriously unstable former French colony, paving the way for Sunday’s parliamentary and presidential polls.
The resounding 93% support for the new constitution – which limits the president’s tenure to two terms and reins in armed militias – signaled just how many Central Africans are yearning for a return to normality.
Known to many by his initials AGD, banker and former premier Dologuele chose blue as his campaign colour, splashing it across everything from his cap and flowing robes to his huge election posters.
“It’s the colour of peace that we all want,” said neighbourhood youth president Jean Charles Ngmamou Abdel Kader.
Dologuele’s emphasis on unity has found many supporters after a wave of unrest believed to have claimed thousands of lives.
“He’s a man of peace, he’s decisive,” said Brigitte, a Christian teacher who works nearby. “He reunites the people. He can rebuild.”
“And he’s never embezzled” public money, she said – an impressive achievement for someone seeking power in CAR, say voters.
“Swear to us, AGD, that you will give us – we who have been stigmatised for so long – the same rights as other Central Africans,” PK-5’s youth president shouted through a megaphone to crowds of Dologuele’s supporters. “Jobs and justice!”
Walking into the crowds, Dologuele assures his supporters that “at age 58, I have never held a weapon”.
And he spoke of his hopes for a return to better times in PK-5 – a thriving commercial and entertainment hub before the conflict where, as a boy, he came to “dance, watch movies and play cards”.
In the nearby “92” neighbourhood, dozens of children waited at a football pitch under the scorching sun to see another presidential frontrunner, evangelical preacher Theodore Kapou.
Kapou’s candidacy is “motivated by a call from God”, one of his parishioners said. “It’s a mission, we need to liberate the population.”
Karim Meckassoua, another prominent presidential hopeful, went with a slightly more cautious motto: “Pathways of hope.”
Martin Ziguele, another frontrunner who has been disparagingly labelled by other candidates as the favourite of former colonial power France, chose the upbeat slogan “United, we will win”.
Jenny, a waitress at the New Texas bar in the Lakouanga neighbourhood at the end of two newly paved streets and near a banner vaunting the merits of Ziguele, still “likes Bozize”, who is banned from running, but said that she just hopes the winner improves life for all.
In the few days left before the vote, “I will go to the cathedral to ask God to bless my country. No more weapons, no more tears, a country in peace where people can eat”.
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