Polling Station Number 5, Center 012 Martyr School, Lakouanga Neighborhood, Second District of Bangui, Central African Republic

  • Nicolas Teindas

Her wrinkled face resembles those that have not slept for long.

Too fast, too little. Badly as well. She had a short night and this can be seen through the trace of sheets on her cheeks. It is too warm under her mosquito net. Her neighbors play loud music since the return to peace and quiet. She is very stressed because she has barely slept. This morning of February 14, Sylvette is the Polling Station Number 5 president for the third time, in Center 012 of the Martyr School, Lakouanga Neighborhood, Second District of Bangui, Central African Republic.

The Central African Republic: it has the face crumpled of those who had a difficult childhood. The borders all in sinusoids, unusual curves and furrows of languid rivers or mountains forgotten on a continent brutally divided by the rule of the Berlin Conference of 1884. It seems small, crushed by its neighboring giant nations of Chad, Sudan (since divided into two) and Congo. Congolese from the large Congo River, of course. It seems small, and well in the center of Africa, the Central African Republic. A name thrown in the pasture to people of the Oubangui-Chari, consequence of an excess of zeal of the last administrator of the colonies.

She is tired, Sylvette; she knows that the day will be as long as her night was short. That she will have to explain patiently to some voters that they will not be able to vote. That she will face the dissatisfied. That she will risk her life, too. She heard the testimony of her cousin over there, somewhere in the Nana-Mambéré, who was forced to allow dozens of constituents to vote in the referendum under threat to see her polling station ransacked. And the promised security forces that never showed.

In the early morning of February 14, she does not think too much about Valentine’s Day. The destiny which married her country, all the suspicious references between the electoral process and the country entering into matrimony, she cares very little. She just hopes that it will go well, and it will be a lot. It is 5:30 am and she is already on a war footing, two feet in peace. Polling Station Number 5, Center 012 of the Martyr School, Lakouanga district, Second District of Bangui, Central African Republic, the election officials entirely female. Her eyes, still foggy of sleep, contrast with the precision of the gestures that she knows to accomplish: reception of ballot boxes, inventory of the sensitive equipment they contain. Deployment of the cardboard stand that will serve as a voting booth. Affixing of the hour of opening on the Minutes. Installing the seals on the ballot boxes, presented empty to early rising voters. She puts on the waistcoat of an election official and her responsibilities at the same time. In front of her polling station, she taped up the large poster, “the Path of the Voter”, which shows in illustrations the process of casting one’s vote. She smiles when I say that IRI provided the posters to the National Election Authority: “Yes”, she said, “I’ve seen them”. During the awareness raising campaigns in the neighborhoods [sponsored by IRI] prior to elections, people took the posters to hang in their living rooms!

Sylvette is relieved: today, she has received enough ballots for both the presidential and the legislative elections. Previously, for the first round of elections held on December 30, the ballots delivered to her polling stations incorrectly listed the candidates for Member of Parliament. These misprinted ballots prevented the legislative vote and voters only voted for the future president. The indelible ink, which will cover the tip of the index finger, evidence of duty done, arrived with the ballots. She is relieved, too, because MINUSCA* is there. The Blue Helmets will be able to come to her rescue in the event of a problem. At least, she will not be alone like her cousin down there.

Election Day has arrived, everything is ready: at the Martyr School, tables covered of graffiti were stored at the back of the room. The beautiful booth to the symbols of the Central African Republic is in place in the back too, in-between the stacked tables. In the center of the cleaned-up room stand the ballot boxes. On both sides, political party agents and the rare domestic and international observers will take their place at a few tables left for this purpose. The government of the Central African Republic, a ventriloquist of the international community, ensures it will comply as much as possible with international standards. Not sure that it will be so in every corner of the country drained of blood, in the poorly controlled Vakaga, High Mbomou or Baningui-Bangoran.

But here in Polling Station Number 5, Center 012 of the Martyr School, Lakouanga District, Second District of Bangui, Central African Republic everything is ready. And under the eyes of the first admitted in the dimly lit room, the three officials of this polling station are voting. Sylvette goes first. Then Béatrice. Then Gervaise. They sign their names on the provisional voters list. The one that was used too often on December 13 and 30 to allow the IDPs whose names were not on the voter register for the polling station to vote. Sylvette, Beatrice and Gervaise know that, this time, they can no longer use this list to this effect. They each take two ballots (for the presidential and legislative elections) and disappear behind the voter’s booth. They stamp the candidate of their choice, fold their ballots. “Has voted”, yells, Sylvette, when Beatrice, then Gervaise slide their ballot in the ballot box. The Electoral Code requires officials to comment on the act of voting “loudly”. And, to mark the moment, in a burst of authority, she smacks the ballot box. This is not in the Code, but no one will hold it against her. A few steps to sign the voter list, her finger in the ink and it is done. She voted.

The day can begin. Ten hours without interruption, says the Electoral Code. And after the effort, more effort: Sylvette, Beatrice, Gervaise, and the other 16,623 officials of the 5,441 polling stations will open and count the ballots, tired of their working day, under the attentive eyes of observers, journalists and  political party agents. The day will then, finally, come to an end. This morning at the stroke of dawn, however, we are not yet there. But Sylvette already dreams of the better tomorrows that will unwrinkle her face in a country no longer broken.

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