BANGUI (Reuters) - As rival gunmen tightened their stranglehold on Central African Republic during three years of inter-religious bloodshed, women like Madeleine Nzanga became, and remain, lifelines for the nation’s war-weary people.
Each day she crosses the Ubangi River to Democratic Republic of Congo to bring back essentials — even firewood and manioc, the local staple food — that have grown scarce since militias seized the countryside.
She is rarely left alone to get on with her work, a sign of how hard it will be for the country’s newly-elected president to restore stability.
“During the shooting, everything has to come across from Congo,” said Nzanga, a trader at Port Sao, a strip of sandy riverbank just upstream from the tumbledown capital Bangui.
“We are discouraged. We buy and try to sell at the market and the bandits steal from us.”
Authorities on Saturday announced the victory of Faustin-Archange Touadera in a Feb. 14 presidential run-off, a result that, if confirmed by the constitutional court, will see the former prime minister tasked with dragging his nation back from the abyss.
The elections, a period of relative peace amid the crisis, and the concession of defeat by Touadera’s opponent Anicet-Georges Dologuele, have been lauded by observers as an indication the beleaguered nation is now ready to turn the page.
But unless the new president can solve the riddle of how to wrest control of the economy back from the warlords and reverse decades of neglect and armed conflict, officials warn there is little likelihood the chaos will end.
“If we’re in this cycle of violence, it’s due to the fact that there is no credible alternative to offer to the youth,” said Dominique Said Panguindji, spokesman for the current transitional government.
Amid a decades-long disintegration of the state, once lucrative cotton and coffee sectors evaporated. Development of significant gold, diamond and uranium resources was hobbled by an endless cycle of coups and rebellions that have seen major investors give the former French colony a wide berth.
French nuclear energy group Areva pulled out of its Bakouma project in 2012 during the exploration phase after it was attacked by gunmen.
Then came 2013 when mainly Muslim Seleka rebels toppled President Francois Bozize. Their abuses provoked a backlash from Christian so-called anti-balaka militias. Thousands have died in the subsequent violence, and a fifth of the population has fled their homes.
That same year Central African Republic’s gross domestic product shrank by an incredible 36 percent.
It now lies second from the bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index with a $1.5 billion economy that is 300 times smaller than the ranking’s leader Norway, a country with roughly the same size population.
No one is under any illusions as to dire state of Central African Republic, not even those who had vied to lead it. The question is how to turn things around.
“This is no longer a country. It’s a territory. There’s no state. There’s no administration. There’s nothing left,” Dologuele, a former banker who has served in regional financial institutions, told Reuters before the election.
The scraps of an economy that do continue to exist outside of the capital have been hijacked by armed groups.
Fighters from all of the rival factions man checkpoints on roads, levying illegal taxes. Peacekeepers from an 11,000-troop strong U.N. mission escort some goods convoys, but trucks that break down are often simply left behind to be looted.
River traders like Nzanga are forced to pay anti-balaka gunmen along the Ubangi or risk being fired upon from the shore. In the past, vessels have been captured and their passengers held to ransom.
“If you don’t have money, the country can’t develop. A country needs people working. It needs trade,” she said.
A December report by a panel of experts charged with monitoring compliance with U.N. sanctions found rebel and militia commanders controlled border crossings, smuggling routes and the trade in everything from sugar and coffee to gold and diamonds.
Loosening the warlords’ grip on the economy will require disarming their men, a process that typically sees donors fund costly demobilization programs that essentially pay fighters to hand over guns.
However, eight previous failed attempts to do this over the years have not inspired confidence that this time will be any different. And faced with limited resources in a country with little strategic importance, donors are choosing their battles carefully.
“The needs outstrip funding in pretty much every development sector. So the question is where do you prioritize to have some kind of impact,” said one Bangui-based diplomat.
Already heavily reliant upon foreign aid and humanitarian agencies before the current crisis, the needs in Central African Republic are even greater now.
The international community financed 40 percent of the current transitional government’s 2015 budget, which did little more than cover running costs and the salaries of civil servants.
The new leadership will need to find the funds to rebuild the army, redeploy civil servants and begin to rehabilitate crumbling infrastructure to create conditions for the economy to start functioning again.
Jean-Christophe Carret, country manager for the World Bank which places a emphasis on supporting failed states, said any attempt to reverse decades of decline will take years but there is hope that the elections will mean a new beginning.
“The international community will not solve Central African Republic’s problems for it. Maybe with the new regime there will be an opportunity to start from scratch and try something different. We will be there ready to help,” he said.
Additional reporting by Leger Serge Kokpakpa; editing by Philippa Fletcher