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Arise, Catherine Samba-Panza: Will This Be Third Time Lucky for the Central African Republic?

Who is the CAR's new president and what can we expect from the country's third government since January 2013?
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Internally displaced persons take refuge at Bangui airport. Photograph by EU/ECHO/Pierre-Yves Scotto.

Why did the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) force Central African Republic (CAR) President Michel Djotodia and the prime minister, Nicolas Tiangaye, to resign, opening the way for a new transition?

In 2013, the CAR collapsed: the wages of civil servants were paid by foreign donors (notably the government of the Republic of Congo); security disappeared and efforts to reinstate it could only be conducted by international forces; there is no government in place and all state services have dissolved. The European Union’s recent decision to send troops indicates that international involvement is only deepening.

ECCAS sanctioned the president and prime minister for the failure of the political transition they were meant to oversee after the March 2013 coup, led by the Séléka rebels. They were summoned to the ECCAS summit in N'Djamena, Chad, which began on 9 January. That same day, members of the CAR's National Transitional Council (CNT), which has 135 members from across the political spectrum and was set up after the coup as a temporary parliament, were hastily brought to summit in order to validate the resignations.

The Central African politicians were left with no choice. The two leaders of the transition were accused of not being able to restore order. President Djotodia’s lack of control over the Séléka fighters − who he previously led − and his frequently contradictory statements were too much for the CAR’s neighbours and for France. Informal consultation among the French authorities and the presidents of the region led to Djotodia’s dismissal.

With the deployment of the French military operation Sangaris in early December, a political solution was clearly needed but Djotodia and Tiangaye could not provide one. The duo had not worked well together since the January 2013 peace deal resulted in Tiangaye becoming prime minister. (Djotodia became president at the end of March after then-president François Bozizé was forced to flee.)

Over the course of 2013 they failed to establish an effective government administration; after the 5 December street battles between Séléka and the anti-balaka militias in the capital Bangui, the government effectively ceased to exist. The prime minister was threatened by Séléka commanders and accused of plotting; three ministers seen as hostile to Séléka were sacked without respect to legal procedure; and Séléka fighters started a brutal retaliation campaign in Bangui that left about 1,000 dead in a few days. Given the chaos in the capital, the prime minister and president lost all legitimacy with the public and the support of international actors.

What has been the process to replace them?

In N'Djamena, the CAR National Transitional Council was given two weeks to select a new president for the transition. The CNT issued seventeen criteria that, taken together, excluded many potential candidates. For example, leaders of political parties and former ministers of the transitional government could not apply for the post, and members of the transition council itself were excluded. 24 candidates submitted their names to the CNT, but only eight candidates fulfilled all the criteria. On 20 January, after two rounds of balloting, a majority of the transitional council elected Bangui Mayor Catherine Samba-Panza to be the new president.

The forced resignation of the president and prime minister, as well as the process used to select the new transitional authorities, show that the CAR is de facto under tutelage. What is called in Bangui the G5 (United Nations, African Union, European Union, France and the United States) is monitoring the process and strongly pushed for some of the criteria. In addition, the G5 convinced the president of the transitional council not to run and followed closely the statements of the presidential candidates. The G5 did not dictate the final choice but clearly influenced the selection process.

Who is Catherine Samba-Panza?

Among the eight finalists were: two sons of former presidents (Patassé and Kolingba); two mayors of Bangui (Catherine Samba-Panza and a former pro-Bozizé mayor); a prominent businessman from Berberati, Raymond Gros-Nakombo; Maxime-Faustin Mbringa Takama, the sultan of Bangassou, in the southeastern province of Mbomou, who claimed to have chased the Séléka away from Bangassou; and one trader.

The most serious candidates were Desire Kolingba and Samba-Panza (first round: 64 votes for Samba-Panza and 58 for Kolingba; second round: 75 Samba-Panza and 53 Kolingba). All the candidates had 10 minutes to present themselves and their ideas. The most articulate speech was made by Samba-Panza. She emphasised that she was born in Chad from a Cameroonian father and a Central African mother, making her the “best example of regional integration.” She stated that she will put in place a government of technocrats, with no more than eighteen members and with equal numbers of men and women. In her first speech after being elected, she urged the anti-balaka and Séléka to disarm.

Samba-Panza is the first woman to be president of the CAR. She has more of a civil-society than a political background. She comes from the business community and was part of the CAR female lawyers association and the National Council for Mediation. She entered politics during the national dialogue of 2003. She embodies the need for new thinking and the widespread rejection of the political establishment, who “ruined the country” (a phrase used by several of the presidential candidates).

Her election was well-received by foreign donors and CAR civil society but may not be appreciated by the armed groups. Some anti-balaka leaders gathered in support of another candidate, the pro-Bozizé former mayor, and in the coming days tension is expected in Bangui. French and African forces have already intensified their surveillance of the city.

What can we expect from a new transition?

This is the third transition in the CAR since January 2013. The first was a coalition government made up of the Bozizé camp, the Séléka and the political opposition. The second transition started after the Séléka coup on 24 March 2013 with a government made up of the Séléka and the political opposition.

Everybody is now wondering who will be in the third transitional government, knowing that stability and effectiveness will depend on its composition. Given that the selection process for the president faced criticism, the new government will have to incorporate the main political forces. If not, the heads of the political parties, who were excluded from the presidential race, will seek to destabilise the Samba-Panza government. Pro-Bozizé politicians, for instance, would not hesitate to mobilise in the streets and use anti-balaka fighters to put pressure on the new authorities.

The new administration’s first governance test will be security in Bangui, including protecting the tens of thousands of displaced in formal and informal camps. Since Djotodia’s dismissal, the Bangui security problem has been suspended but not solved. The risk of fighting between Séléka combatants and the anti-balaka militia remains high. The Séléka are gathered into four military camps in the city, where they are under guard, but what will be done with these fighters remains unclear. An effective disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration program – one that avoids such past mistakes as simply bringing ex-fighters into new police and military units — needs to be a high priority for international peacekeeping, whoever is in the lead. Anti-balaka militia representatives have stated that the militias will not disarm as long as the international forces (the AU-led mission, known as MISCA, and France’s Sangaris mission) have not disarmed the Séléka fighters.

The second security problem in Bangui concerns the popular anti-Muslim sentiment that is causing violence and population displacements. Solving these two security problems will require clear and strong cooperation between the new transitional authority and the international forces.

What are the respective strengths of the Séléka and anti-balaka forces?

The main body of Séléka fighters is presently cantoned in Bangui under international supervision, its fate as yet undetermined. It is impossible to know how strong Séléka-like forces are outside Bangui.

The anti-balaka fighters come from rural areas, carry traditional weapons and home-made guns, and wear grigri (magical charms) to make themselves invisible and bullet- and rocket-proof. Most are illiterate teenagers whose families have been killed and villages burned by the Séléka fighters. They basically lost everything and came to Bangui for revenge. They want the Séléka to be disarmed and leave Bangui and the neighbouring provinces. They call the rebels “Arabs” and consider them foreigners. Every day in Bangui one hears of Muslims being killed in the city and in the provinces. Numerous demonstrations in the city end with hunting Muslims; two were lynched on 19 January, in the city centre.

This is a confrontation between two very different components of the CAR population. The Muslim people of the far north have now ventured to the territories of the people of the west and south and have revived memories of enslavement by Muslim traders. This is a significant cultural trauma. The ten anti-balaka groups are organised by region but most of them come from the west and south, and the Gbaya people (Bozizé’s tribe) make up the majority.

Politically, the anti-balaka groups have recently split into two movements: the Front de résistance (majority) and the Combattants pour la libération du peuple centrafricain (minority, pro-Bozizé). The split came after the resignation of Djotodia: while the majority wanted to negotiate with the AU, UN and France, the Bozizé people want to carry on fighting.

Out of ten anti-balaka groups, three decided to form the Combattants pour la libération du peuple centrafricain, run by a former MP in the Bozizé camp in connection with the movement created in France by Bozizé (Front pour le retour à l’ordre constitutionnel en Centrafrique, or FROC). The fighters belong to the Gbaya people from Bossangoa, the fiefdom of Bozizé. The Combattants pour la libération du peuple centrafricain are better equipped than the other anti-balaka and are led by former military personnel related to Bozizé. There is no doubt that Bozizé wants to use the anti-balaka to come back to power. In the meantime, he will use them to put pressure on the new transitional authorities and make sure his movement is represented in the new government.

None of these problems will go away just because a new government is in place. Only after restoring Bangui’s security fully will the new government be able to focus on security in the provinces – including cooperation with international peacekeepers protecting the major internally displaced persons encampments in key cities — and look to the political and development roadmap made by the previous government. This roadmap was of course not implemented at all; it highlights the reconstruction of key state functions as a priority. If the new transitional authority kick-starts this reconstruction with the support of international actors, it will end the perception of a power vacuum in the CAR. Otherwise, the third transition risks quickly being considered another failure.

This article was originally published here by the International Crisis Group.

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