Polls open for Central African Republic elections

Thousands lined up to cast their ballots for president Sunday in the Central African Republic, though some neighborhoods saw delays because materials had not arrived on time.

In central Bangui more than 5,000 people stood patiently in line at one polling station. Election officials said polls had not opened in some areas surrounding the capital because the stations had not yet received voter listings.

Strongman-president Francois Bozize is expected to win another term in office, this time facing the man he overthrew nearly eight years ago.

Few believe the vote will bring much change to this forgotten backwater in the heart of Africa, a desperately dirt-poor nation that's suffered five coups and myriad army mutinies since independence 50 years ago.

Voting was supposed to have taken place here last year, but the ballot was delayed several times because opposition leaders complained that preparations were incomplete. As a result, Bozize's constitutional five-year-term expired and was extended.

"I am very happy to vote today to re-establish a state of rights in this country," said 67-year-old Pierrette Montaigne.

Mangaya Yves, a 22-year-old high school student said that he was hoping for change.

"I've had enough of the social programs created by the government. The president must create more work opportunities and work harder to fight unemployment," he said.

Despite the nation's wealth of gold, diamonds, timber and uranium, Bozize's corruption-addled government remains perpetually cash-strapped. Its authority is mostly limited to the capital, while armed bandits and insurgents roam the anarchic countryside.

In the northeastern village of Obo, rebel groups have made the area so insecure that farmers won't even till their fields for fear of raids.

Bozize, 65, came to power at the head of a rebel army that seized the capital amid volleys of machine-gun and mortar-fire in 2003, ousting Ange-Felix Patasse from the presidency at the same time the rest of the world was watching the invasion of Iraq.

Today, Central African Republic is among the poorest of countries in Africa, ranking 159 of 169 nations on the U.N.'s 2010 Human Development Index, which measures general well-being. Only about half the population in this former French colony is literate, and the U.N. says adults spend an average of just 3.5 years in school.

The country may be best known for the excesses of its late leader Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who ruled in the 1960s and 70s and even crowned himself "emperor" in a lavish multimillion-dollar ceremony modeled on the coronation of France's Napoleon Bonaparte.

Patasse, 74, is running as an independent and is not believed to have enough support to mount a serious threat. He only returned from exile in Togo late last year after Bozize granted him amnesty.

The strongest challenger is opposition leader Martin Ziguele, a 52-year-old former prime minister who once served under Patasse. Ziguele won about 36 percent of the vote in 2005, though, and may get even less this time around.

Also running are Jean Jacques Demafouth, 52, a former Patasse defense minister who went on to lead a northern rebel group, and opposition figure Emile Nakombo, 55.

If no candidate wins a majority, a runoff between the top two finishers is scheduled March 20.

About 1.8 million of the nation's 4.8 million people are registered to vote at about 4,500 polling stations. They will also cast ballots for 105 national assembly seats. Several hundred international observers, including those from the European Union and the African Union, are monitoring the vote.


Associated Press writer Todd Pitman in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.