As General Bala Keita, the military head of Central African Republic’s U.N. peacekeeping mission, fended off militia attacks on a polling station in a besieged Muslim enclave in the capital Bangui earlier this month, he was surprisingly optimistic. It certainly wasn’t an auspicious start to a constitutional referendum meant to pave the way for pivotal general elections. But amid the machinegun fire and incoming rocket-propelled grenades, the battle-tested Senegalese officer saw hope. “What’s extraordinary is that people are here. And we’re trying to provide security,” he shouted down a crackling phone line during the Dec. 13 referendum. “The population is saying ‘We need to vote.'”
Less than three weeks later, Central African Republic’s beleaguered people are preparing to head to the polls again on Wednesday for presidential and legislative elections to restore democratic rule under the newly approved constitution.
They hope this second round of voting will bring them a step closer to ending years of violence. But while doubts still loom over the authorities’ capacity to hold polls in a country carved up by warlords, a more important test will come after, when a new president seeks to rebuild and reunite a nation that now exists in little more than name.