Security tight as volatile C. Africa set for landmark elections

Jean-Pierre Campagne and Christian Panika
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A woman walks past an electoral poster of Central African presidential candidate Anicet Georges Dologuele in the streets of the capital Bangui on December 23, 2015

A woman walks past an electoral poster of Central African presidential candidate Anicet Georges Dologuele in the streets of the capital Bangui on December 23, 2015 (AFP Photo/Issouf Sanogo)

Bangui (Central African Republic) (AFP) - Central African Republic is set to hold key elections amid tight security on Wednesday, hoping to turn a page on the worst sectarian violence seen in the notoriously restive nation.

The much delayed legislative and presidential elections follow a December 13 referendum that delivered a resounding 93 percent vote in favour of a new constitution -- signalling just how many Central Africans yearn for a return to normalcy.

The new constitution, installing the country's sixth republic since its 1960 independence from France, limits the president's tenure to two terms and reins in armed militias which proliferate in large parts of the country.

After more than two years of fighting that forced 10 percent of the population to flee their homeland, the vote will show whether the mineral-rich but dirt poor nation can slam the door on bloodshed to begin an era of peace.

Despite the presence of 11,000 UN and French peacekeepers, large chunks of the country remain out of bounds, either under the control of rebel chieftains or bandits.

There are 30 candidates vying for the presidency, including the son of former self-proclaimed emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa, whose extravagant 1970s coronation was modelled on Napoleon's.

The front-runners include Anicet Georges Dologuele, a former premier widely known as "Mr Clean" for his efforts to wipe out graft and theft.

Dologuele's main electoral planks are his pacific past and his record as prime minister.

"At age 58, I have never held a weapon," he said recently on the campaign trail.

"I am still happy to recall that between 1996 until now, the only time there was no military or political crises in the country was during my time in office," he also said.

The other leading contenders are another former premier, Martin Ziguele, and Abdoul Karim Meckassoua, who held several ministerial positions under ousted veteran ruler Francois Bozize.

- 'No to hatred' -

Central Africa has been rocked by violence since a mainly Muslim rebellion in 2013 overthrew Bozize, triggering revenge killings by Christian militia that spilled over into civilian communities.

The second round of the polls is scheduled for January 16. There are about 1,800 candidates in the running for parliamentary seats.

Almost two million Central Africans have registered to vote in a population of 4.8 million.

Pope Francis, who visited the Central African Republic in November, had made an impassioned appeal for peace, saying: "Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters."

"Together, we must say no to hatred, to revenge and to violence, particularly that violence which is perpetrated in the name of a religion or of God himself," the pope said.

The international community, which has been pouring aid into the country for over two years, was keen for the referendum and elections to take place.

The UN mission in Central Africa said it wanted the ballot to "pass off without incident ... and for every Central African to be able to vote in total security."

The unrest in the country -- which has seen six republics, an empire and several transitional governments -- has wreaked havoc on the economy.

Almost 70 percent of people live in poverty, and in 2014 the World Bank estimated per capita income at $320 (295 euros), making it one of the poorest countries in the world.

It nonetheless possesses substantial resources, including uranium, diamonds, gold and timber.