"We've had enough of civil wars, coups, and corrupt leaders. Now we are registering to vote for our president. A legitimate president," says Abdul Youssouf, a trader lining up at the voters census station No.1 in Bambari, a major city in the Central African Republic (CAR). Youssouf pauses and considers the idea for a moment. "The problem is, I don't know if any one president can be legitimate for everyone in CAR. People are still divided here, and fighting," he despondently adds.
A few meters away, under the shade of a tree, a young man intently watches the line of people waiting to be registered on the voters' list. Leaning against the trunk, dressed in civilian clothes, he is an informer for the Muslim Seleka rebels, Youssouf tells me in a hushed tone.
Not that it is a secret: the armed group's leader lives just behind the town hall, on the other side of the lawn where registration is taking place. Across the river, anti-balaka, Christian militias fighting the Seleka, are in control of the city's left bank.
Divided along ethnic and religious lines in a de facto partition of a country still dominated by armed groups, CAR is due to hold presidential elections on October 18. But preparations have been slow, and with renewed violence destabilizing the country once more, religious leaders and local activists have called for another delay.
"We fear the guns will get to vote, not people," said Imam Oumar Layama, the president of CAR's Islamic Council, during a recent press conference in Bangui, the country's capital. Religious authorities from all faiths have echoed Layama, warning that rushed elections could have a devastating effect on the fragile nation.
Peacekeepers and pressure from world powers have failed to halt more than two years of violence in CAR, sparked by the emergence of the Seleka insurgency and then heightened by reprisal attacks by the anti-balaka. The last four days has seen some of the worst violence in more than a year, despite a peace agreement being signed by armed groups and the government in May.
On Wednesday, two more people died in clashes in the CAR capital of Bangui, and officials say at least 39 people have been killed since Saturday, despite relative calm on the streets today.
"I fear that if this violence is not rapidly contained, targeted attacks based on ethnicity and religion inevitably risk increasing and leading to a real civil war," Marie-Therese Keita Bocoum, UN independent expert on the country, told the UN Human Rights Council today.
'Armed groups still control big swathes of the country. It means that if they don't like the outcome of the elections, there could be renewed violence'
The CAR was engulfed in a nationwide conflict in 2013 after the Seleka, rebels originating from the predominantly Muslim northeast of the country, took power and ousted then president Francois Bozize. Indiscriminate killings and looting by the Seleka led to the resignation of their president Michel Djotodia under international pressure, Violence escalated when the anti-balaka formed to carry out revenge attacks on Muslims.
Following Djotodia's resignation, an interim government led by Catherine Samba-Panza was created in January 2014 to oversee a peace process and political transition. Presidential elections due to take place on October 18, only the second democratic election in CAR's history since independence, are being touted as the miracle solution to the country's ongoing crisis. But under the current circumstances, holding elections risk sparking more violence.
Related: The Human Cost of War in the Central African Republic
"One of our recommendations was that elections should not happen without the disarmament of armed groups. If there are elections in October, people in Bambari, for example, will not vote," said Gervais Lakosso, the coordinator of Mouvement Citoyen, a Central African coalition of civil society organizations.
In late August, Seleka and anti-balaka troops clashed in Bambari, killing 20 people and displacing nearly 6,000 despite the presence of a UN peacekeeping force in the city. A month later, these people were still not back in their homes, but they could register to vote, alongside armed group combatants.
"Armed groups want to appear legitimate, they want to look like they are playing ball because their leaders will be candidates to the elections. So people can register, but when voting will take place, they will be intimidated. They won't be able to vote freely," Lakosso said.
MINUSCA, a one-year-old UN peacekeeping mission, is seeking to stabilize the country, but its deployment has been slow and the mission struggles to control areas outside the capital city and other major towns. It has been criticized for its lack of proactive engagement and its incapacity to effectively deal with armed groups.
Worryingly, presidential candidates in the upcoming elections are the same actors that have been at the center of the CAR crisis for decades. Former president Bozize is seeking re-election. Martin Ziguele, a prime minister in an ousted government before Bozize came to power is also campaigning. Anti-balaka and Seleka leaders are seeking parliamentary seats, raising a worrying question: what happens if all these people refuse to agree to recognize the election results?
"Armed groups still control big swathes of the country. It means that if they don't like the outcome of the elections, there could be renewed violence," said Christopher Day, a CAR analyst and assistant professor of Political Science at the College of Charleston.
With more than 470,000 Muslims still living in refugee camps in neighboring countries, and with vast areas of CAR missing from the electoral map, hundreds of thousands of Central Africans eligible to vote will not be able to cast their ballot.
Father Justin Nary, a Catholic priest in Carnot, who heads the logistical team organizing elections in the area, says he was given insufficient equipment and support to organize voters registration, even in this well-connected district close to Bangui.
"It's hard, it's slow, and sometime it's frustrating," he said. "We are all awaiting elections like an exit door. But it's as if some people are pulling in the other direction. I have 42 census centers under my watch in very remote areas, but we are given no means to reach them."
Nary, Lakosso, as well as many analysts and human rights activists fear that people will dismiss the elections as illegitimate if they don't feel they were given a chance to participate, leading to another crisis to come. "All this is very sloppy," said Nary.
Follow Melanie Gouby on Twitter: @melaniegouby
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