Catherine Samba-Panza: New hope for Central African Republic?

A new leader promises change in a country ravaged by conflict and mired in a humanitarian crisis.

Catherine Samba-Panza is the first female leader in the country's history [AP]

The history of the Central African Republic (CAR) is a chronicle of political instability accompanied by societal violence.The causes will bedevil social and political analysts for years to come.

On 10 December 2012 a coalition of insurgents calling itself Seleka (alliance), formed by dissident factions of three former rebel groups, launched a sweeping offensive, seizing 12 towns in two weeks. Former President Francois Bozize’s poorly equipped and undisciplined national army fell back from the rebel advance in disarray, while his incompetent and corrupt government struggled to project power beyond the capital region and the country’s south.

Ultimately the Seleka, a kaleisdoscopic rebel coalition, took power. Michel Djotodia proclaimed himself as the CAR’s new president on March 24, 2013. Djotodia was endorsed on April 18 at the N’Djamena ECCAS (Economic Community of Central African States) Extraordinary Summit of Heads of State and Government, along with the enactment of a Constitutional Charter to guide the transitional process.

The eventual demise of the Seleka and its leader was already crystal clear. The broad disconnect between Michel Djotodia and the needs of the CAR’s rank and file was self-evident. Upon his assumption of power, he carved the country into small fiefdoms, each ruled by a ruthless warlord. Under the Seleka’s rule, appalling acts of carnage and egregious violations of human rights reached an unprecedented crescendo, triggering local and international outrage. Additionally, the visible disconnect between Seleka’s mostly Muslim troops and the mostly Christian local population morphed into a sectarian conflict. The Anti-Balaka (anti-Seleka) armed groups, which started as a movement of popular resistance against the Seleka and primarily made up of military defectors from the Bozize era, escalated the string of human rights violations.

Inside Story – CAR: At a crossroads of conflict

Meanwhile, the three leaders of the transition – the Head of State, the Prime Minister and the President of the National Transitional Council – had strenuous working relations. Their only common agenda was in finding ways to stay in power by delaying the elections and finding ways to circumvent the ineligibility clauses contained in the new electoral code.

Less than a year after taking power, their inability to govern the country culminated in the simultaneous resignations of Michel Djotodia and Nicolas Tiangaye, the result of peer pressure at the sixth ECCAS Summit of Heads State and Government held in Chad, from January 8 to 11, 2013.

On March 20, 2013 at a Chatham House presentation in London on the situation in CAR, I was asked if the Libreville Agreements were going to hold. I responded that there was no conceivable scenario under which the agreement was going to triumph. The Seleka takeover of Bangui on March 24, just four days later was inevitable, given the history of the country. In a report released by Freedom House, the CAR distinguishes itself as – a country where very few politicians could escape charges of corruption, incompetence and tribalism, to the point that almost no political figure can lecture another one on good governance.

The resources of political anthropology must also be summoned when reflecting upon the country’s trouble political history. The CAR has been subjected to a toxic mix of the usual suspects: a history of colonial intervention by France with a laundry list of misdeeds, endemic poverty, lack of education, political and economic corruption, successive corrupts leaders who failed to recognise the need to accommodate an inclusive political process, a country that has never had an opportunity to establish a functioning state apparatus.The country has basically been ignored by most of the world, except France, which ironcially or perhaps appropriately, given past misdeeds, has just recently played a powerful role in gathering international attention on the plight of the CAR.

The CAR has been subjected to a toxic mix of the usual suspects: a history of colonial intervention by France with a laundry list of misdeeds, endemic poverty, lack of education, political and economic corruption, successive corrupts leaders…

A new level of violence

The last twelve months are the bloodiest the country has witnessed, with sectarian bloodshed taking an even bigger role. As with most conflicts, there is no one explanation. The potential for ethnic conflict was exacerbated by religious extremists and mercenaries from Chad and Sudan. But economic volatility had already brought the country to the brink of the abyss.

Despite the exponential growth of sub-Saharan African countries in the last few years, nothing of the sort had been noticeable in the CAR, where long-overdue structural reforms had failed to materialise. The lessons of experience had been poorly understood, barely articulated, and not systematised within the governing structures.

The porous nature of its borders also fuelled instability, inviting rogue organisations such the the infamous Joseph Kony’s Lord Resistance Army (LRA) and other armed groups to set up bases in the country’s hinterlands, making the CAR a de facto powder keg and a festering sore of instability at the heart of the continent. This threatened to engulf an entire region if not properly addressed.

Throughout this recent period of escalating violence and instability, France had maintained a military force of about 400 soldiers in the country, confined to protecting French assets and people and ensuring the national airport in Bangui remained open. When the violence reached a new crescendo in early December of 2013, France decided to intervene more wholeheartedly, deploying 1,600 troops to quell the unrest. Prior to that, France played a powerful behind the scenes role, putting the CAR crisis on the agenda at the UN Security Council.

Without France’s intervention on the ground and behind the scenes, the situation in the CAR would undoubtedly have been even worse. However, one has to wonder why the 400 French troops stationed in Bangui as in March 2013 failed to intervene more forcibly to reduce the human costs of the conflict. We have learned from experience that war is more expensive than the cost to maintain peace.

Another positive force for intevention was the ECCAS, which mobilised resources and security forces to confront the situation while hosting six extraordinary summits to attempt to resolve the situation using political diplomacy. The United Nations’ new leadership in the country also played a role in changing the course of events. The Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, (SRSG) Babacar Gaye, quickly developed a stabilisation strategy which was endorsed by the fifth ECCAS Summit and subsequently reflected in the National Roadmap of November 2013, and which still guides the National Transitional Government.

On the path to stabilisation

The CAR’s credibility deficit on the international stage has always been linked to the perennial issue of its paucity of principled leadership. Hence, the January 20 election of Catherine Samba-Panza, as new Head of State of the Transition, is a giant leap forward for the restoration of law and order and a ground breaking event for the status of women in the CAR. Samba-Panza appears to truly represent the people, and her election has been welcomed by a broad spectrum of the country’s political parties and other stakeholders.

Her election also put the last nail in the coffin of the Seleka’s short-lived and bloody “revolutionary enterprise”.The fact that Ms Samba-Panza won in spite of the “check-book politics” of her opponents, suggests that the impending nomination of a prime minister, if peaceful, will put CAR on the path to stabilisation.

The fact that Ms Samba-Panza won in spite of the “check-book politics” of her opponents, suggests that the impending nomination of a prime minister, if peaceful, will put CAR on the path to stabilisation.

Against the background of European Union foreign ministers’ recent agreement to send additional troops to help stabilise the country and pending a UN Security Council authorisation, Samba-Panza now has the necessary security umbrella to carry out the transitional agenda.

A note of caution is required. This is a collective endeavor and there is no providential Messiah. A constant throughout the CAR’s political past has been a declared commitment to establish efficient, transparent and inclusive governance, in order to enable the country to enjoy the development that its natural resources and relatively small population should allow. Unfortunately, it has also been a constant that such a commitment has not been honoured by any previous leader. Instead, mismanagement – with the ubiquitous corruption – has been endemic, the state administration has been rendered weaker, public coffers emptied and basic services to the population have become virtually non-existent.

Each change of leadership has, thus far, only served to drag the country further down. This is not a trajectory that will be easy to reverse. That being said, Ms Samba-Panza has what it takes to do the job. It’s now up to the international community to support her in a difficult task. To maximise her chances for success, she ought to address, among others, in the mining sector three issues related to the country’s natural resources: a) a regulatory system to manage the sustainable development of the country’s wealth of natural resources ; b) a tax and royalty regime that ensures the revenues generated from the exploitation of minerals serve as an effective development catalyst and; c) a Mining Code and National Security force that reduces smuggling activities, building on the Kimberly framework and preventing conflict diamonds from further fanning tensions in the country and across its borders.

Simon P Alain HANDY is a policy analyst and specialist on issues of peace, post-conflict reconstruction, mediation and international security. He’s a former visiting fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS, Paris in 2009).