BANGUI, Central African Republic — He fought his way to power in a hail of bullets in 2003 and kept it through an election. On Sunday, strongman-president Francois Bozize is expected to win another term, 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.
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.
"We need peace," said one woman in Obo named Fatou, who was fearful of giving her full name. "We are being strangled."
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.
Landlocked and remote, the country feels more like a province of its giant neighbor, Congo, than a fully fledged nation. The capital, Bangui, has the air of a rural town, its red earth roads wrapped around crumbling concrete buildings that bake in oppressive heat beside the wide, brown Oubangui River.
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.
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.
That Patasse is even being allowed to run is a measure of Bozize's confidence in victory.
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.
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, where it briefly captured the town of Birao in November before being chased out by government troops from neighboring Chad.
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.
The U.S. State Department put it bluntly this month in a statement warning its citizens to avoid travel here: "The government is unable to guarantee the safety of visitors in most parts of the country."
Pitman reported from Dakar, Senegal.