The Central African Republic on Monday pinned its hopes on the idea that the mayor of the capital city, Bangui, a woman who prior to entering politics worked as a proponent of women’s rights, can lead the country out of its current chaos and into a more democratic future.
Catherine Samba-Panza won out over seven other candidates before the National Transitional Council (CNT) to become the first woman to lead the Central African Republic. In doing so, Samba-Panza replaces former rebel and interim president Michel Djotdia, who stepped down two weeks ago amid regional pressure. Djotdia’s record as leader of the strife-ridden country sets a low bar for improvement, given his inability to control his former cohorts in the umbrella group of rebels known as Seleka, which he officially disbanded in September. In the time since, the country has spiraled downward as the majority Muslim former Seleka fighters unleashed a wave of violence against civilians, leading to the rise of Christian militias known as the anti-balaka. The two groups have for the last three months been exchanging attacks in a cycle of reprisals and violence against civilians.
For now, Central Africans seem encouraged by Samba-Panza’s appointment according to reporters on the ground. “She, as a woman, can bring people back together,” a resident told the BBC’s Thomas Fessy. That sentiment had been seen for at least the last month, according to Reuters reporter Bate Felix. “‘Men got the country (#CAR) into this mess. It would take only a woman to get us out.’ A displaced man told me in Bangui in Dec,” Felix tweet out on Monday.
“Everything we have been through has been the fault of men,” Marie-Louise Yakemba, the head of an interfaith civil-society organization, told the New York Times following Samba-Panza’s appointment. “We think that with a woman, there is at least a ray of hope,” she said. Samba-Panza herself echoed those sentiments in her first interview as interim president, telling Voice of America that she thinks having a woman leader for the CAR will help “calm down those who have hatred in their hearts.”
Djotdia named Samba-Panza the mayor of Bangui soon after he took power, a position that proved to be a challenge. “As soon as I arrived, I realized that all the vital services have been completely looted,” she said soon after her inauguration in June. “It is difficult to work in such conditions.”
Her past experience points to why Samba-Panza proved appealing to the CNT, winning the support of the “unelected rebel sympathizers, politicians, artists and others” who compose it. Prior to her appointment as the leader of Bangui, according to Journal D’Afrique, she was active with the Association of Women Lawyers in Central Africa (AFJC). “The AFJC is specialized in the fight against female genital mutilation and other forms of violence against women victims in CAR,” the site writes. Samba-Panza also served as a human rights trainer with Amnesty International’s Africa program. When François Bozizé assumed power in 2003, she served as the co-chair of the national dialogue arranged to organize a new constitution and arrange elections. Bozizé ran in those first elections, then delayed the 2010 election indefinitely before fleeing the approaching Seleka last March.
The optimism seen following Samba-Panza assuming the interim presidency comes in the face of a daunting challenge in the form of the continuing fighting both in the capital and throughout the country. Despite the deployment of more than a thousand French soldiers to help restore peace and U.S. efforts to prevent the fighting from reaching the level of a genocide, the situation still remains so insecure that trucks carrying food aid are refusing to venture across the border. The European Union agreed over the weekend to authorize a peacekeeping force, pending a United Nations Security Council greenlight, to aid the French and African Union forces attempting to hold the country together. More than 1,000,000 Central Africans meanwhile remain displaced from their homes and in need of humanitarian aid.
Samba-Panza’s appointment has already been welcomed among the anti-balaka, leading to a chance the new president — who is a Christian — can reign in the militia groups. “The atrocities carried out by the ex-Seleka can in no way justify the brutal attacks we’re seeing now. The new government must act immediately to ensure that everyone in CAR, Christians and Muslims, enjoy basic security,” said Joanne Mariner, Senior Crisis Adviser at Amnesty International, said in a statement on Monday on Samba-Panza’s appointment. Mariner’s statements came just hours before a new Amnesty report detailing the way the anti-balaka have been forcibly displacing Muslims throughout the country, highlighting the uphill climb that Samba-Panza now faces as she organizes new elections and tries to restore peace to the state she now leads.