For Central Africans, first female leader brings ray of hope

The question now is whether the international community will step up.

Siegfried Modola/REUTERS
New parliamentary-elected interim President of the Central African Republic Catherine Samba-Panza (r.) talks to French Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius prior to her swearing-in ceremony at the National Assembly in the capital Bangui January 23, 2014.

The views expressed in Africa Monitor are the author's own. 

The Central African Republic's long-suffering citizenry has good reason to celebrate Thursday’s inauguration of Catherine Samba-Panza as the country’s interim president. It was remarkable, but not surprising, that every faction of this starkly divided country cheered her election.

In a country where political parties often represent little more than their president, and where high political office is often a means to financial wealth, Ms. Samba-Panza is different.

She is a member of a prominent political family who nevertheless eschewed politics and became the country’s first and most successful businesswoman. However, her great passion was always civil society. Trained as a lawyer, she was a long-time leader of a women’s legal association that represented poor women battling for their rights.  

Along the way, Samba-Panza built a reputation both for integrity and for being level-headed. She rose to national prominence in 2003 as the widely-applauded co-president of the national reconciliation forum that followed Francois Bozize’s arrival in power. Her performance there led to a quasi-permanent role in national conflict mediation.    

As much as her resume offers, however, it is Samba-Panza’s personal style that stands out. I frequently saw her in action during my time as US ambassador to the Central African Republic (CAR). She has a gift for combining hard-headed practicality with a warm inclusiveness that disarms her critics. People also listen to her because they know she has no hidden agendas – no thirst for power or additional wealth, just a genuine desire to improve her country.

To be sure, Samba-Panza is not alone in her integrity and desire to serve her country. I know many other courageous and dedicated Central Africans. Unfortunately, they were largely sidelined in the rent-seeking atmosphere of the Bozize and Seleka regimes. In fact, many observers feared to the end that money and deals might cynically take control of this week’s presidential election.

The fact that Samba-Panza not only won, but won convincingly, demonstrates that the Central African people understood that the stakes were very high.

The new president faces daunting challenges.

First is restoring order, wresting the country away from the spiraling cycle of revenge, and refocusing the population on reconstruction.

Second is convincing the international community to provide desperately needed assistance.

The president's election by itself is by no means enough. However, it does suggest that the new government she will shortly name will be filled with people like her – of personal integrity and technical accomplishment. That will give the people and the international community alike a much-needed sense of hope.

Samba-Panza’s acceptance speech after the election set the tone. Her voice was clear, strong, and compelling. Her words called everyone together for the task ahead.

Although Central Africans have rarely seen prominent female politicians, the society does accord enormous respect to strong matriarchs. The new president played that role adroitly, calling on her “children,” including the anti-Balaka fighters, to lay down their arms and join the reconstruction.

At least initially, the relative decrease of violence since her election suggests that Central Africans are eager for her vision.

I last talked to Samba-Panza in the spring, just after she had accepted then-President Djotodia’s request to be Bangui’s mayor. I asked why she had agreed, given the seemingly thankless task of running a city with no revenue and with Seleka fighters roaming the streets.

Why didn’t she just leave for France as so many others had done?

She agreed the challenge was daunting. But then she added that she could not just throw up her hands and give up. The townspeople needed help. As mayor she would be in a position to make a difference.  

That is the nature of CAR’s new president. It is why she may be the single Central African best positioned to pull the country out of its downward spiral. Yet, it will not be easy.

The question now is whether the international community will step up to the plate. The country’s situation is desperate.  Even once minimum security is established, the government will still be broke, the economy flattened, and the humanitarian crisis likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Once the new president names her government, it will be urgent for the international community to provide the comprehensive support the country desperately needs.

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