Central African Republic interim President Catherine Samba-Panza. Can her administration resolve the political crisis inside the mineral-rich country., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Can Catherine Samba-Panza save the Central African Republic?
Dubbed 'mother courage', CAR's interim leader has pledged to bring reconciliation and respect to one of Africa's failed states
David Smith in Bangui
The Guardian, Sunday 2 March 2014 08.56
The tally of female heads of state in Africa now stands at three, and each took office only to find herself putting out fires. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had to begin rebuilding Liberia after a shattering civil war, going on to win the Nobel peace prize, while Joyce Banda inherited a Malawi mired in political and economic turmoil.
But no chalice carries more poison than that handed to Catherine Samba-Panza in January when she became interim leader of the Central African Republic (CAR), one of the continent's most failed and forgotten states. She must try to tame a hurricane of revenge killings between Christians and Muslims that has seen thousands flee the country and led the UN and others to warn of a potential genocide. And she only has a year to do it.
Walking regally into her somewhat kitsch office, with four photos of herself displayed behind her desk, Samba-Panza appeared nothing if not self-assured. The 58-year-old addressed the nation through the state broadcaster while projecting glamour bordering on bling with red nail varnish and gold and white necklaces, bracelets, earrings and gleaming adornments on a black dress. Then she chastised a French TV crew for having headlined on a gruesome lynching at a recent military ceremony instead of the speech she gave at the same event.
When asked by the Guardian about the politicians who inspire her, the French-speaking Samba-Panza made clear she was aiming high. "I take the president of Liberia, for whom I have great admiration, as a reference point," she said. "She's a woman who came to power in almost the same situation as me. She became the head of the country at a moment of great difficulty in a post-conflict period with many security problems.
"I can make an analogy between the situation in which Mrs Johnson Sirleaf arrived and my situation in the CAR. It's a very difficult situation, it's true, but I think finding a solution is not impossible. It is within our grasp and, with the will and the involvement of all the people and with the help of the international community, we can arrive at a solution."
Samba-Panza is a former insurance broker who led reconciliation efforts after a previous internal conflict and became a widely respected mayor of the capital, Bangui. She has also been active in civil society organisations, promoting women's rights in a country where men dominate government and business and most girls experience early or forced marriage.
"I've had the advantage of not having particularly suffered discrimination personally because I was always a fighter," she reflected. "I've always affirmed the rights that I know. It's important to know your rights and to want to be able to defend them so your rights are respected.
"The majority of my sisters and daughters in the Central African Republic don't know their rights so they can't defend them. But we who know our rights can help them. We must always help them: the battle is always to promote and protect the rights of women. When they are victims of violence, notably sexual violence, in the area of my activities in civil society, it was a battle I always led."
Samba-Panza's brand of feminism does not require that gender no longer be seen as relevant; instead, inevitably dubbed "mother courage", she draws attention to her uniqueness as the country's first female president at every opportunity. "I think the presence of a woman at the head of the state in today's context is fundamental.
"As you know, the politicians are fighting among themselves and it's not certain that the interests of the population are considered in this political struggle. The people express their anger at this political struggle and they wish for another kind of leadership, and this leadership could be represented by a woman."
She added: "In our community, even if we have difficulties, we do have some fundamental values that exist and among them are a respect for women. I think we've arrived at a moment when I can teach this reconciliation and respect as a woman, as a mayor and as a leader. Coming from civil society, I don't have a particular political bias. It's an advantage and I hope that I will use it for the population's interests."
But the presidential office, with its ostentatious gilded velvet chairs and sofas, one of which has a golden dog sculpted from an arm rest, recalls one of the most egregious men to rule the CAR: Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who crowned himself emperor in a Napoleonic coronation that wiped out a third of the nation's budget. History is a nightmare from which the CAR is still trying to awake.
The latest chapter, triggered by a coup last March, has set Christians and Muslims at each other's throats, with Christians now holding the upper hand through weight of numbers. Muslims have disappeared altogether from some villages, mosques have been demolished and Amnesty International has warned of "ethnic cleansing".
Samba-Panza admitted: "The fact that the Muslim community is leaving the country en masse is a real preoccupation for me and my government. They are deeply rooted in our country and most of them don't even know their [ancestors'] country of origin. They are Central African. We don't have to break the relationship that existed for many years among us and our Muslim brothers.
"Ethnic-cleansing is a bad phrase, it's not appropriate. We don't have an ethnic problem. We have problems with a community conflict with religious aspects. We are not killing an ethnic group."
But Samba-Panza herself is already under attack from political rivals. Drawing attention to the fact that she was born in neighbouring Chad to a Cameroonian father and Central African mother, the front page of one newspaper mocked last week: "Samba-Panza: the president who thinks in Chadian, speaks in Cameroonian and acts in Central African." Others claim that she is a puppet of France, the former colonial power where she attended university and which eased her into office.
Johnson Sirleaf has attracted growing criticism in Liberia over nepotism and a failure to tackle poverty, while Banda's re-election campaign in Malawi this year could be derailed by a corruption scandal. No one imagines that Samba-Panza can turn the CAR around without major international support, given the moribund state of the national army and never-existent state institutions. Elections are due next year and, as interim leader, she is not allowed to run.
"I must remind you that I've only been in power for a month and you can't expect that I will solve all the problems of the state that have been around for many years in one month," she said. "I think we have to go slowly but surely. There are some urgent situations that we must respond to urgently but we must also look into the future and look at what over the next 12 months we can give to the CAR.
"We have to act and revive the machinery of government. As you know, I don't have the right to stay here forever. I only have 12 months for this transition towards the elections so that politicians can come back to live in a situation of democracy – clearly and transparently."