Muslim worshipers from the PK5 district in Bangui leave a local Mosque after Friday prayers in June. U.N. investigators say that talk of genocide or ethnic cleaning in the Central African Republic is premature, but that evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity exists on both sides. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

Elections are crucial to peace processes in post-conflict countries, but their organization before sufficiently addressing the root causes of conflict — and ensuring the serious political commitment of former belligerents — can jeopardize the achievement of sustainable peace and successful democratic transition.

On Jan. 28, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 2134 to address humanitarian, security and political concerns in the Central African Republic after a military coup and civil war, which had accelerated state collapse. Resolution 2134 called for the holding of elections “as soon as possible, but no later than February 2015 and, if possible, in the second half of 2014,” giving barely a year to the then-interim government and all the parties (or belligerents) involved to create trust among parties, reorganize the disintegrated administration, disarm factions, ensure security and create a credible electoral management body.

If most observers now believe that post-conflict elections are unlikely to be held in the Central African Republic in February, given the current political developments, it was possible to anticipate this earlier, at the adoption of the Security Council resolution. After decades of political decay and recent civil war, CAR is considered a “phantom state” (International Crisis Group) or a “failed state” (Freedom House). Everything that defines a modern state is almost nonexistent or exists in an elementary form. This includes the rule of law, political order, basic security, central authority ensuring territorial integrity, and a centralized public administration able to deliver basic services. This state collapse exacerbated the profound social, ethnic, economic and regional divisions, and offered the opportunity for a political manipulation of religious divisions. Until the recent crisis, most Central African Republic presidents, with the exception of David Dacko in 1960 and Ange Felix Patassé in the first free elections in 1993, came to power in a coup, namely Jean-Bédel Bokassa in 1966, David Dacko in 1979, André Kolingba in 1981, François Bozizé in 2003 and Michel Djotojia in 2013. The acting president, Alexandre-Ferdinand Nguendet, and transition president, Catherine Samba-Panza, were not elected through universal suffrage.

Policymakers broadly present post-conflict elections as critical steps to terminate a war, restore security, democratize countries and sometimes rebuild failed states in Africa. For example, after a decade-long civil war in Liberia, post-conflict elections crystallized the peace process, and institutionalized the organization of political competition and participation around democratic institutions rather than through war or economic predation. Liberia’s advantage was its responsible interim government that contributed to building institutions favorable to peace and democratization, which ultimately lead to credible elections.

Successful stories like the Liberian one have generated electoral enthusiasm in the international community, sometimes leading to impatient decisions about the timing of elections. If elections are critical tools for conflict resolution and democratization, they should be organized in a conducive environment including the serious political commitment of former belligerents to peace, political competition and participation. In fact, in numerous post-conflict countries, the political situation has degenerated into violence after contested elections, as the root causes of the initial conflict were not sufficiently addressed.

In Mali, the longstanding and deeply rooted integration challenges between the Touareg community mainly in the north and the Malians of the south culminated in a military coup in March 2012, by Capt. Sanogo, who toppled the then-head of state Amani Toumani Toure. The Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA) and other armed groups of the north declared their independence, thus jeopardizing the integrity of the Malian state and democracy. The Ouagadougou Preliminary Agreement was signed in June 2013 and presidential elections were held one month later. Newly elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is struggling to find a political solution with the rebels. The situation remained volatile with attacks in Kidal in May that Keita considered a “declaration of war.” Malian government authorities have indeed declared on numerous occasions that the international community could not ask a legitimate government to negotiate with armed groups. The two parties cannot be put on an equal footing.

In South Sudan, where government troops and those loyal to former vice president Riek Marchar have been involved in a deadly war since December, President Salva Kiir said he is willing to negotiate with the other party but also argued that he is a democratically elected president of the South Sudanese. Meaning that the elections provide him with the needed cover to avoid engaging constructively in any peace process.

The recent experiences of other post-conflict African countries should raise caution as the world readies for elections in the Central African Republic. Sustained peace will be more likely if before organizing free, fair, transparent, credible and meaningful elections, policymakers create an environment with inclusive political institutions, which would ensure equal representation, participation and competition. So what can the CAR transitional government and international community do to increase the likelihood of sustainable peace?

The termination of the civil war in Liberia and its successful post-war economic and democratic development were possible because its government, with the help of the United Nations’ Mission in Liberia, restored basic elements of a peaceful and constitutional political order, and engaged in post-conflict reconciliation, state-building, reconstruction and democratic development, processes highlighted by Marie Olson Lounsbery and Frederic Pearson.

The CAR transitional government could draw from the Liberian experience and focus first on the imperative of state-building as presented by Francis Fukuyama, Ashaf Ghani and Clare Lockhart or Roland Paris and Timothy D. Sisk. Scholars broadly agree that state-building can be achieved if a transitional or post-conflict government, with the support of the international community, can reconstruct and build trust in public institutions, ensure disarmament and reconciliation, rebuild a public administration able to provide basic services such as security to its citizens, create a credible electoral management body, and build conditions for successful organization of the elections and return to a constitutional order with strong basis for democracy.

Unfortunately, the failure to disarm and control the circulation of weapons has greatly contributed to the recent chaos in CAR. Future deterioration might be avoided if CAR implements a successful disarmament, demobilization, reintegration and repatriation campaign alongside security reform. Given CAR is a failed state, these reforms will require the full political support, financial resources and technical expertise of national, regional and international actors, including neighboring countries.

A senior U.N. official directing humanitarian operations said the international community has “so far failed the people” of CAR. Previous U.N. missions in CAR did not succeed because of their narrow scope, the lack of tangible and intangible resources necessary to successfully implement their missions, the unintended effects of the everyday politics of international intervention, and the manipulative behaviors of domestic political leaders.

The newly created U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), represents an opportunity to avoid repeating mistakes, build a sustainable peace and help domestic leaders create a conducive environment for democratic elections and transition. With a broader scope than previous missions, MINUSCA will start implementing its mandate on Sept. 15. The CAR government and MINUSCA’s many tasks include: mobilizing and integrating various international and domestic peacekeeping efforts; reorganizing CAR security forces; disarming rebels; restoring rule of law and public institutions; and most important, ensuring a viable transition process in which to hold democratic elections. All of these will take time. Delaying elections to build a sufficiently stable environment in which to hold the elections has a better shot at sustainable peace and can set the basis for future successful democratic development.


Landry Signé is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, fellow at the Stanford University’s Center for African Studies and chairman of the Global Network for Africa’s Prosperity.

Grace Kpohazounde is a political affairs officer at the Office of the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations.