BANGUI, Central African Republic – Voters cast ballots for president on Sunday though the vote was likely to keep the nation's strongman leader in power in Central African Republic, one of the world's poorest nations that is being destabilized by an array of rebel groups.
President Francois Bozize, who seized control in a coup nearly eight years ago, is now facing off against the man he overthrew and several other candidates. Few believe the vote will bring much change to this forgotten backwater in the heart of Africa, a desperately poor nation that's suffered five coups since independence from France a half century ago.
In the capital, more than 5,000 people stood patiently in line at one polling station on Sunday. Election officials said polls had opened late in some areas and that some people had not found their names on the list, but added that polling stations would stay open later so that everyone could vote.
Voting was mostly calm, though chaos broke out in one polling station in eastern Bangui when a legislative candidate brandished a weapon and threatened his challenger. The two men fought in front of voters, journalists and observers.
The electoral commission had not released an official statement specifically addressing the melee, but spokesman Rigobert Vondo referred to "minor incidents that we are trying to calm down."
Opposition leader Martin Ziguele, a 52-year-old former prime minister who is considered Bozize's strongest challenger, expressed concerns about the reported voting irregularities.
"The start of these elections was problematic, notably the omission of names of certain voters," Ziguele said. "I informed the electoral commission of these major incidents for a credible ballot."
The election was supposed to have taken place here last year, but the vote was delayed several times because opposition leaders had 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 voter 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.
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, and only about half the population is literate.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he hoped the election would improve the country's chance at stability. The nation's woes have been compounded by its proximity to other conflict-ridden states.
The northeast borders Sudan's war-wracked Darfur region, and rebels and refugees have crossed both sides of the porous frontier. Uganda's notorious rebel Lord's Resistance Army has also taken advantage of the weak state to take refuge here — attacking and abducting civilians with near-impunity.
"It is important that these elections are credible, transparent and inclusive and that the results are respected by all candidates and parties in accordance with the code of conduct," said a statement issued by Ban's spokesman.
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.
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. That Patasse is even being allowed to run is a measure of Bozize's confidence in victory.
The strongest challenger is the opposition leader Ziguele, 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.
Bozize managed to win elections in 2005, held two years after he seized power. But the opposition cried foul and in the years since, he has faced multiple low-level rebellions that have shattered security in the north. Government forces hunting rebels have ruthlessly destroyed and burned mud huts across the north, displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
In 2008, most of the rebel groups made peace with the government. But one — the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace — still haunts the northeast.
Associated Press writer Todd Pitman in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.