Rwanda Peacekeepers serving under the UN United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), together with a backup Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) protective force are on high alert in the Central African nation as the embattled country goes to polls.
Polls opened on Sunday morning as thousands of Central Africans lined up at polling stations to cast their ballots in a highly volatile atmosphere as armed groups vowed to disrupt the election in which the incumbent, President Faustin-Archange Touadera, is seeking re-election.
Photos of Rwandan forces standing guard on polling stations circulated on social media on Sunday morning, with the United Nations stating that the elections must go ahead if the conflict-ridden nation is to set its path towards peace.
MINUSCA said on Twitter that the opening polls were characterised by calmness as people lined up to cast their ballots while UN peacekeepers ensured that there was security, amid reports that rebel forces were advancing towards the capital Bangui.
The Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, MINUSCA peacekeeping force, Denise Brown, who is also the UN Resident Coordinator in CAR, expressed hope that elections would go on well and that the turnout was impressive.
“We are very moved to see the influx of people in polling stations. Voters are here to express their desire to vote, to choose those who will represent them. They are very disciplined, calm, but above all determined,” Brown said while visiting a polling station on Sunday.
“We are proud to be part of this historic moment. In spite of the threats of the armed groups allied to a few actors of the political class, the population has not given in, the National Election Authority has not given in, the international community has not given in and the UN has not given in,” Brown added.
The rebels said to be allied to former President Francois Bozize, who was deposed in 2013, are opposed to the election after the constitutional court rejected a number of candidacies, including that of Bozize, hence the attacks.
Last week, President Paul Kagame said that Rwanda had deployed additional protective forces under a bilateral arrangement with the CAR government, after rebels launched attacks, including targeting peacekeeping forces. Three peacekeepers from Burundi were killed this week.
President Kagame said that the protective force, which has different rules of engagement from peacekeepers, was deployed to ensure that the forces under MINUSCA are safe and that the election, which is a window of opportunity to peace, could be held.
President Touadera’s main contender is Anicet Georges Dologuele, a former prime minister who also contested against the incumbent in 2016 and is backed by Bozize.
The CAR government and the UN rejected calls to postpone the election, forcing the rebels to end the ceasefire and continue their advances towards the capital. It is feared that the outcome of the poll will not resolve the challenges and end the violence.
According to Al Jazeera, the election will go to a second round if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. CAR, with a 4.7 million population has been dogged by violence for many decades since its independence from France in 1960.
The opposition coalition of armed groups – the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) is behind the attacks targeting Touadera’s government.
The CPC, which is composed of several armed groups accused of war crimes, launched attacks last week and threatened to capture Bangui, with Touadera’s government accusing Bozize of being behind the charge.
The head of the United Nations Peacekeeping operation, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, said the election day was an important day for Central Africans to “take a decisive step towards peace and stability”, emphasizing that the UN Peacekeepers will continue to support the process till the winner is determined.
“Today, Central Africans will take a decisive step towards lasting peace and stability when voting in presidential & legislative elections. The United Nations peacekeepers have supported the process, and encouraged peaceful, credible and inclusive elections,” Lacroix said.
The UN has about 12,800 peacekeepers in CAR, while an additional 300 were dispatched by the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to support peace efforts.
The armed groups are reported to have briefly captured Bambari, the fourth-largest city in CAR, last week, before Rwandan and Russian forces intervened to repulse them.
On Saturday, the UN said “unidentified armed combatants” killed three peacekeepers from Burundi in attacks in the central Kemo prefecture and the southern Mbomou prefecture. Close to 60, 000 people have been displaced from their homes.