Attempts to foster reconciliation in Central African Republic could be derailed if refugees who fled to neighbouring states after a 2013 coup are unable to cast votes in the upcoming presidential election, billed as a major peacebuilding milestone.
Around 470,000 Central Africans, some 10 percent of the population, live as refugees in Cameroon, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
CAR’s constitutional court overturned parliament’s earlier decision to exclude the refugees and ruled in July that all citizens should be allowed to vote in the 18 October election, whether they reside in the country or elsewhere. But eight weeks later, there are still no measures in place to allow the estimated 198,000 eligible refugee voters to actually cast their ballots.
Chad is the only country of asylum among the four to have signed an agreement with the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) and the CAR government allowing operational measures such as voter registration to be put in place. DRC has said it will not sign the document. Congo-Brazzaville has yet to give an opinion. Talks are still under way in Cameroon.
“Excluding them (refugees) from the process would be not only excluding 10 percent of the population, but also reinforcing the misunderstanding, or the branding, that these people are not actual nationals who can partake in political affairs here in CAR,” Charles Mballa, UNHCR’s deputy representative for protection in CAR, told IRIN.
The March 2013 coup saw president Francois Bozize toppled by a coalition of rebel groups from the predominantly Muslim northeast of the country, where a deep-seated sense of marginalisation had long fuelled insurgencies. Attacks on civilians by these Séléka rebels led to a proliferation of self-defence units known as anti-balaka, which conducted waves of vigilante retribution, much of it targeted at the wider Muslim population.
The majority of the refugees – as many as 93 percent in Cameroon, for example – are Muslims. Many see their inclusion in the electoral process as a key to building stability in CAR.
“Allowing us to vote shows that our country is ready to fix the damage that has been caused by different parties,” said Augustin Dolly-Debat, head of the refugee population in Guiwa Camp Two, in eastern Cameroon
“We are happy about the (court’s) decision, but are still waiting to see how it (voting) will be possible,” he told IRIN.
For the UNCHR, “advocating for their (refugees’) inclusion is showing a strong gesture that the current government is ready to accept that these people who are still living abroad are nationals of this country and making sure process is inclusive,” Mballa said.
Some in CAR were less convinced.
"They are the minority,” Bangui resident Victorien Belet said of the refugees. “Their votes will not affect the results.”
Magloire Ngodji, a butcher in the capital, said: “We Christians, we outnumber them. They cannot change the election results.”
Despite the court’s ruling, interim President Catherine Samba-Panza, who steps down after the election, has said she is opposed to allowing the refugees to vote because of the organisational and logistical difficulties it would involve.
Possible, but not an easy process
The notion of refugees participating in elections while abroad isn’t something new, but external voting does pose challenges.
The UNHCR and the Malian government, for example, facilitated the participation of more than 19,000 refugees, who had fled to Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger, in Mali’s presidential elections in 2013.
But even this was just a small percentage of the estimated 73,000 Malian refugees who were of voting age.
“External voting operations are first of all complex and pose considerable challenges in terms of planning,” Marcel Onana, a political analyst and researcher at Yaoundé University One, told IRIN, citing the greater financial costs and logistical efforts required.
In Cameroon, for example, around 60,000 of the refugees live among seven UNHCR camps. The remaining 180,000 are scattered among host communities, which makes it even more difficult to issue voter registration cards and set up polling stations, especially with only one month to go until voting day.
Many of the refugees left behind legal documents proving their nationality when they fled. Other identification papers have since been destroyed during the rains or lost along the way.
Additionally, many of the refugees have been cut off from the latest news in their native country and are not well-informed about the candidates or their platforms. The Cameroon Red Cross estimates that about 80 percent of the refugees are illiterate and have little to no previous experience participating in political processes.
“Giving someone the right to vote is not enough,” a Red Cross aid worker, who wished to remain anonymous, told IRIN. “This right must be accompanied by other prerequisites, [such as informing refugees of the election dates and candidates], so that voters can… make informed choices.”
Voting results from abroad are also more likely to be challenged.
“The freedom and security of the votes of their citizens cast abroad may be questioned, especially if the results abroad deviate greatly from the one in CAR,” Onana told IRIN.
‘We want to vote too’
Despite the challenges, many refugees are eager to take part.
“We want to vote too,” Clay-Man Youkoute, a leader in Guiwa Camp One, told IRIN. “If we can be allowed to participate, this will show that although in exile, we are still recognised as CAR citizens.”
He explained that many of the refugees in the camps do not yet know if there will be voting. They have just heard rumours from some people who say they heard about the decision to include them.
“Maybe this will be… an opportunity for us,” 45-year-old Mustapha Idris, a refugee in Garoua-Boulai, said. “I will be glad to vote.”
The mayor of Garoua-Boulai, Esthere Ndoe, told IRIN that the political process in CAR really did interest the refugees.
“They talk about it all the time,” he said. “Unfortunately, the political situation is not favourable for them to go home and participate. The local authorities have learnt about this decision (to allow them to vote), but no official order has been issued yet from the (camp) authorities (to proceed with polling preparations).”
(Additional reporting by Freddy Ouilibona-Nzah)