The Central African Republic’s National Transitional Council (NTC) elected Catherine Samba-Panza as interim president on January 20. She has been serving as interim mayor of the Central African Republic (CAR) capital, Bangui. (Those multiple “interims” are a sign that formal government has almost entirely broken down.)
Though she is a Christian, Samba-Panza has no links with the warring Christian and Muslim militias. An insurance broker born in 1954, the media reports that she is widely respected and essentially politically neutral. The media also reports that she is popular because of her gender; many hold the succession of male politicians as responsible for the current mess.
And a mess it remains. Killings by Christian and Muslim militias continue. UN officials are talking about the potential for “genocide.” The situation in the CAR does not appear to fit the legal definition of “genocide,” though the killings are extensive and horrific. There are even reports in the media of ritual cannibalism in downtown Bangui. In addition to the conflict there are also major ongoing issues regarding access to basic necessities. A truckers’ strike is interrupting relief deliveries. The World Food Program announced that it is running short of food.
The CAR now appears to be getting the attention of the international community. The European Union foreign ministers have voted to send five hundred European Union troops to the country. This would be in addition to the 4,000 African Union troops and 1,600 French troops already on the ground.
Interim president Samba-Panza’s job description appears to be to put the lid back on the cauldron, to get the violence down and steer the country toward plausible elections next year. This is a tall order. There are only two other African female heads of state: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia and Joyce Banda of Malawi. Banda’s succession in Malawi was orderly, while Johnson-Sirleaf in effect had to pick up the pieces of a failed state. She benefitted from significant international assistance. Though her performance has not been flawless, overall, she has been remarkably successful under the circumstances. The same is to be hoped for Catherine Samba-Panza. But to have even a chance of success, the UN, AU, France, and the CAR’s other allies will need to rally around and support the Central African Republic.