99 percent of the DRC population didn't vote in last week's constitutional referendum. Now they say they are ready to vote. (Katarina Höije/VOA)
99 percent of the DRC population didn't vote in last week's constitutional referendum. Now they say they are ready to vote. (Katarina Höije/VOA)

BANGUI - In the Central African Republic, the presidential campaign has reached the far north of the country. This past week presidential candidate Karim Meckassoua visited Ndele and Birao in a part of the country that is still under rebel control. Earlier this month a rebel group lead by ex-Seleka leader Noureddine Adam declared an autonomous region, saying elections would not take place in areas under their control. In Birao, however, the population insists they are ready to vote in the December 30 elections. 

The rebels’ claim for an independent state did not last long as the transition government in Bangui and the United Nations swiftly denounced the pseudo republic.

Meckassoua in Birao

Days later candidate Karim Meckassoua arrived in Birao, the provincial capital in the far north of the country, where the ex-Seleka rebels still have a stronghold. Descending on the tarmac where he was greeted by cheering supporters and U.N. peacekeepers, the presidential candidate declared his visit a victory for democracy. 

Presidential candidate Karim Meckassoua at a rally
Presidential candidate Karim Meckassoua at a rally in Birao, northeastern CAR, where ex-Seleka rebel factions still control part of the territory. (Katarina Höije/VOA)

Meckassoua said, "the extremists were trying to scare the people not to vote. They even called for a split of the country, however, the population didn’t let the terrorists stop them. What we see today are people who are determined to vote.” 

Birao largely forgotten

Over the years Birao has been largely forgotten by the Bangui government. The road leading from the airport into town is gravel and rocks. The airport itself had not been used in years until U.N. peacekeepers deployed here last year. Schools remain closed due to continued insecurity. The hospital only reopened this year.

Meckassoua said, "the people in Birao feel forgotten by the state. This is what allowed the rebels to take control and recruit unemployed youth before they marched on Bangui in 2013. To prevent the rebels from taking control again good schools and jobs for the youth is absolutely necessary."

A few months ago the soldiers pushed back the rebels and took control of the town, but the rebels still hold some roads and parts of the border, said trader Mahamat Ibrahim. 

"The road is a disaster. There is no security. The bandits are attacking cars coming from Sudan to Birao and steal the cargo. They’ll kill you for a nice motorbike or cell phone,” he said.

Challenges ahead

The continued insecurity and presence of armed groups is a reminder of the challenges ahead for the new government, including addressing the violence, tackling impunity and disarming the militia and rebel groups while regaining control over territory controlled by the armed groups.

On December 13, the people in the Central African Republic went to the polls to vote in a referendum on a new constitution. Voters overwhelmingly backed the changes to the constitution including a limit on the president’s time in power to two terms. The day was marked by violence. In Bangui at least five people were killed and 34 were wounded.

Voters queue outside a polling station in Bangui o
FILE - Voters queue outside a polling station in Bangui on Dec. 13, 2015 to vote for the constitutional referendum, seen as a test run for upcoming presidential and parliamentary polls.

Ahead of Wednesday's vote the country depends heavily on U.N. peacekeepers and French forces to secure voters and polling stations. In many northern towns the national army is nowhere to be seen. In Birao the sultan was reassured the rebels would allow the people to vote. 

“We will vote for CAR, against independence, and to remind the leaders in Bangui we exist,” said the sultan.