The smiling faces of two former prime ministers, Anicet-Georges Dologuele and Faustin-Archange Touadera, gaze out from thousands of campaign posters plastered across Central African Republic’s dusty riverside capital Bangui. The specter of a third man, exiled former ruler Francois Bozize, looms just as heavily over the presidential run-off vote on Sunday. With it comes the risk that the vote may change little if anything, no matter who wins it. Central African Republic, a majority Christian country rich in gold, uranium and diamonds but too unstable to mine them profitably, has been torn between Muslim Seleka rebels and Christian “anti-balaka” militias since the rebels ousted Bozize in early 2013. The violence has killed thousands, forced one in five residents to flee and led to de facto partition along ethnic and religious faultlines. Seleka withdrew from Bangui in 2014 and an interim president was named to lead a transition to democracy. But as the final vote nears, the absent ex-president still has influence as head of the largest political party. He is said to be in contact with both candidates and accused of keeping ties to some anti-balaka militias at the heart of the conflict.
“Bozize could be the real winner,” one western diplomat said of the former president, who has lived mainly in Uganda since his 2013 ouster and is currently the target of an international arrest warrant and United Nations sanctions.
A former high-ranking army officer, Bozize seized power in a coup in 2003 and won elections in 2005 and 2011. Seleka rebels, accusing him of misrule and neglect, overthrew him in 2013. Abuses by Seleka fueled the rise of Christian militias – some including soldiers from Bozize’s army – that launched ethnic cleansing-style reprisals against Muslim civilians.
The various factions of the old Seleka coalition (the name means “Alliance” in the local Sango language) control parts of the northeast while the Christian militias, known as “anti-balaka” (anti-machete), roam the south and southeast. Although a precarious calm has held during the campaign and vote, some 11,000 U.N. peacekeepers and a contingent of soldiers from former colonial master France have done little to counter the influence of the armed groups.