, BANGUI, Central African Republic, Mar 30 – The Central African Republic’s new strongman Michel Djotodia vowed Saturday to hand over power at the end of the three-year transition he declared after his coup a week ago, and not contest the 2016 elections.
Djotodia spoke at a rally of up to 3,000 supporters in the riverside capital Bangui, as the United States condemned his “illegitimate seizure of power” and called for a rapid return to democracy.
Shots were fired into the air as joyous supporters paraded through Bangui in support of the putschists, a week after the Seleka rebels ousted president Francois Bozize.
“I ask God Almighty to give myself and my prime minister the strength and intelligence… to manage the Central African Republic well over the coming three years,” said Djotodia.
“We will hand over power to whoever comes to succeed us.”
The latest in a long line of coup leaders, Bangui’s new strongman said the rebels had come to power not through “political ambition but through national duty.”
“I hope to be the last rebel chief president of Central Africa,” Djotodia told the crowd.
Since independence from France in 1960 the Central African Republic has had a slew of coups and strongmen including the eccentric leader Jean-Bedel Bokassa who declared himself emperor in 1976 until his ouster three years later.
“We have suffered so much since Bokassa,” said shopkeeper Theodore Gangui. “We Muslims have only suffered, now the game is over. We are all equal.”
Christian student Gratien Elmon, 18, was also at the rally. “It’s joyful, the dictatorship is over, the power of the Bozize family is over. Life is going to change,” she said.
Religious tensions have risen in the largely Christian country since Djotodia, a Muslim, became president. Bozize often accused his followers of being fundamentalists.
After days of looting and chaos which followed Sunday’s bloody coup, rebel soldiers have largely secured the capital with the aid of a regional African force.
However fuel shortages and a lack of water and electricity in some areas mean life remains difficult in parts of the capital.
Jittery Central Africans are now waiting for a new government to be formed to lead the three-year transition.
Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye who was appointed as head of a unity government under a January peace deal has said he will stay on in the job.
Djotodia launched a rapid-fire assault on the capital last weekend to oust Bozize after the peace deal collapsed as the rebels claimed he did not honour its terms.
Seleka had first launched a rebellion in December over Bozize’s failure to honour earlier peace pacts, which brought them within striking distance of Bangui and led to the signing of the latest deal.
The coup was largely welcomed in a city tired of Bozize’s unfulfilled promises to rebuild the nation by harnessing its stores of oil, gold and uranium, and years of civil discontent.
However fear quickly set in as swarms of armed men and gangs of looters roamed the city in the wake of the coup.
The Red Cross said Friday it had found some 78 bodies in the streets of Bangui since the coup. South Africa lost 13 soldiers in the fighting last weekend.
The United States condemned the rebel takeover and said it was deeply concerned about the serious deterioration in the country’s security situation.
“We strongly condemn the illegitimate seizure of power by force by the Seleka rebel alliance, Michel Djotodia’s self-appointment as president, and his suspension of the constitution and National Assembly,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
The statement said Washington continues to recognise the national unity government led by Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye as the “only legitimate government” in the country.
Earlier this week, the United States warned it could freeze some $2.2 million in US aid to the Central African Republic in the wake of the coup.
The United Nations meanwhile has warned tens of thousands of people in the chronically unstable country face severe food shortages.