As she faces the press, new CAR leader is confident that she can end the bloodshed – with a little help from European Union troops
With the country descending further into chaos amid warnings of genocide, it must be the most unenviable job on the planet. But Catherine Samba-Panza, interim president of the Central African Republic, seems to be taking it all in her stride.
At the recent European Union-Africa summit held in Brussels she was forthright in her view that despite the grave difficulties facing her country, she was well placed to bring about peace and reconciliation between the warring parties.
Speaking in a calm and measured tone, she told reporters, ‘Being a woman and head of the Central African Republic (CAR) at this moment is in fact a great advantage. As a woman, I inspire respect from the population. And I can speak a language of peace. I also have the advantage of being a woman without any political party affiliation or any political ambition.’
She added, ‘My only ambition is to see the success of a transition that will allow the country to come out of this violence and head towards the path of development. I think this position, despite the difficulties, despite the challenges, helps me to remain optimistic towards a solution for the Central African Republic.’
CAR has been plagued by instability since independence from France in 1960 and has suffered several coups, including the overthrow of the notorious self-declared emperor, Jean-Bedel Bokassa in 1979.
Decades of strife escalated into unprecedented sectarian violence in December 2012 when an alliance of rebel groups called Séléka seized control of key towns throughout the north of the country, accusing President Francois Bozizé of failing to comply with the terms of a peace treaty signed in 2007. In March 2013, they captured the capital, ousting Bozizé.
Séléka leader Michel Djotodia, a Muslim in a predominantly Christian country, stepped in as head of state, preaching peace and reconciliation but further inflaming the situation by suspending the country’s constitution and dissolving parliament. This led to a security vacuum, with rebel forces going on the rampage and Christian, anti-Séléka militias emerging to defend themselves.
By the end of last year, an estimated million people had been displaced and many thousands killed. Warning that the country was on the verge of a genocide, the UN, France and AU intervened militarily, at the same time forcing Djotodia to step down.
Samba-Panza, a French trained lawyer and former mayor of Bangui, the CAR capital, was appointed interim president in January. Her comments to the press came after last month’s Brussels summit agreed to put together a European force known as Eufor to support French and African Union troops already on the ground.
In response to a question from NewsAfrica about whether the deployment of the new force might hold back the process of reconciliation and confidence-building among the various ccommunities in CAR, she said, ‘The presence of Eufor does not prevent reconciliation and dialogue. Quite the contrary in fact, this process can begin even when conditions are quite low.’
Samba-Panza agreed that the reconciliation plan would prove difficult, given that the majority of Muslims have fled the country. But she said, ‘Dialogue is not only between the Christians and Muslims. It must first begin within the communities themselves … regardless of their religions or ethnicities.’
Nevertheless, she acknowledged that the situation in the country was ‘very, very difficult’. She said, ‘I have found a country in a state of total collapse, I have found a country in chaos, I have found a country which has been suffering a crisis on numerous levels – security, social, economic and humanitarian.’
The immediate priority was to re-establish the rule of law, not just in Bangui but in the interior, with the ultimate aim of creating the right environment for dialogue and reconciliation and disarming the combatants.
Comprising some 80 heads of European and African states, this was the fourth European Union-Africa summit. Its theme was ‘Investing in People, Prosperity and Peace’ and inevitably CAR became a subject of urgent debate.
Christians in CAR now hold the upper hand through sheer weight of numbers. At the end of April African and French peacekeepers brought he last remaining Muslims out of Bangui. More than 1,300 had been trapped for months in their neighbourhood by Christian militants.
This article appears in the May 2014 edition of NewsAfrica magazine