New Central Africa leader faces country in ruins

2016-02-25 07:35
President Idriss Deby of Chad (R) shakes hands with Central African Republic new elected President Faustin Archange Touadera (L) at the presidential palace in N'djamena on Febuary 24 2016. (Brahim Adji, AFP)

President Idriss Deby of Chad (R) shakes hands with Central African Republic new elected President Faustin Archange Touadera (L) at the presidential palace in N'djamena on Febuary 24 2016. (Brahim Adji, AFP)

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Bangui – After a surprise election win, the former maths teacher now Central African Republic's president-elect, Faustin-Archange Touadera, faces the daunting task of setting back on its feet a nation crippled by three years of sectarian violence.

The three-year spiral of violence between Muslim and Christian militias that left thousands dead and displaced more than 400 000 people disrupted farming, transport and public services in one of the planet's poorest nations.

"The hardest task comes now, the rebuilding of the country in unity, peace, for sustainable development," his onetime rival Enoch Derant Lakoue told AFP.

Touadera in a recent speech told Central Africans he felt the weight of their expectations on his shoulders.

"Your confidence encourages me urgently to take the actions needed to pick up our country, so that it becomes a prosperous, just and brotherly state," he said.

"Please believe that I'm assessing the weight of the task that you have just confided to me."

A teacher-turned-politician who won over 60% of the vote against ex-premier Anicet-Georges Dologuele, Touadera himself served as prime minister during the 10-year reign of Francois Bozize, whose ouster in 2013 triggered the latest strife.

The 58-year-old takes over a country rich in natural resources but mired in biting poverty from a transitional regime supported by international peacekeepers, notably deployed by former colonial power France, and the United Nations.

Despite its mineral potential, including gold, CAR "lost its state revenues which were siphoned off by armed groups who effectively turned themselves into customs agents and tax officials and whatever else," Lakoue said.

'A balancing act'

Armed groups have long been entrenched in parts of the nation, remnants of many a conflict, and the new leader has little room for manoeuvre, observers say.

"He's facing a balancing act on the security front and rebooting the economy will be a titanic task," said Achille Nzotene, an economist.

The most pressing issues include restoring security, disarming fighters from various rebel forces and overhauling the national administration, Nzotene said.

"If he's not good at Mikado (the pick-up stick game), pulling on the safe ones without making the others fall... the return to where we started will be fatal," Nzotene warned.

Like his predecessors, Touadera will be largely dependent on foreign assistance to provide security and to ensure that the state can pay wages each month.

The UN has 10 000 troops in the country, while the French mission is about 900 strong.

"An emergency plan is strongly recommended, involving a charm offensive towards international donors. The country is cruelly short of money," Lakoue said.

One of the new leader's biggest challenges will be the return of its 7 000-strong army, the Central African Armed Forces (FACA), who are back on Bangui's streets after being kept inside barracks during the conflict, when they were no match for militias.

But a decision by interim defence minister Joseph Bindoumi to bring them back has raised some concern.

'I'll support the new president'

"It's too early, the conditions for a professional and ethnically balanced army have not been met," said the Gabonese head of the UN mission in CAR, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga.

The UN Security Council meanwhile has extended an embargo on arms and military training to CAR until early 2017, arguing that priority goes to the rebuilding of the state.

That itself will be a mega task with GDP nose-diving amid the conflict in a country where almost 70% of the 4.8 million inhabitants live in poverty. In 2014 the World Bank estimated per capital income at $320.

Touadera's principal asset is the desire of the Central African people to see peace restored, a wish expressed by many voters as they cast their ballots.

Dologuele denounced "massive fraud" in the second round of the vote, but conceded defeat and promised not to appeal to the Constitutional Court which validates results.

Even people who voted for Dologuele say they are ready to support the new head of state provided he has a policy to bring back peace.

"God provided for what has happened and we can only submit to his good will. I chose Dologuele but he wasn't elected and that's not a motive for discontent, nor insurrection," said trader Marthe Yakongele.

"I'm going to support my new president, while of course making sure that he takes the right path," she added.

Said student Eric Nguia Tamale: "the country is flat on the ground and nobody is going to pick it up if it isn't for we Central Africans."

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