On Monday, 20 January, the 59-year-old Catherine Samba-Panza was elected the new interim president of the Central African Republic (CAR). This followed the resignation of her predecessor, coup leader Michel Djotodia. Also this week, the European Union (EU) announced that it would send 500 troops to the war-torn country to help French peacekeepers there.
Stephanie Wolters, Programme Manager of the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division at ISS Pretoria shares her insight on these new developments.
Catherine Samba-Panza was elected to lead the CAR until new elections in 2015. What do we know about her?
She was the former mayor of Bangui, but she is not someone who has spent a lot of time in politics in the country. She is not linked to any of the current political parties or to any of the past presidents, which gives her a measure of legitimacy. It is quite an unusual situation, because almost everybody in the Central Africa politics has a past affiliation with one regime or another and she doesn't. She has been very active in civil society and has worked on issues such as the fight against female genital mutilation.
Samba-Panza is a Christian. Does that influence her capacity to reconcile the different factions who have been divided along religious lines?
Over 80% of the population of the CAR are Christian, so the odds of having a Christian president are fairly good. I don't think that being a Christian is necessarily an issue. I think if she had been a Muslim that would have been a far more difficult situation to manage. The sad thing is, as we all know, the cleavage along religious lines in CAR is a new phenomenon, but it has now become so entrenched. I think anyone in that position will have to try and reconcile these communities. She will also have to be very hard on the anti-balaka, these [Christian] militias who have sprung up in reaction to atrocities committed by the Muslim Séléka. She will have to do this to allay fears among the Muslims, who have been a huge target in the last few weeks.
Can she really influence the security situation, or is it now beyond the control of the government?
The problem is that she doesn't really have any institutions at her disposal; neither an army nor a police force that can go out and enforce her decisions. That is why there are French and African forces on the ground in the CAR. Her appointment does address an important issue in the very immediate term: replacing the president. There was so much anger over [Michel] Djotodia, who presided over this whole year of looting and raping and killing and was incapable of stopping that. He was also perhaps not willing and incapable to do so, because he wasn't controlling the Séléka. His departure is something the anti-balaka had been asking for. In this situation it was important to get rid of such a polarising figure and [he] had been seen to have a negative influence. So, replacing Djotodia is about a fresh start. It is about putting someone there who doesn't come from one or the other camp and who can lead in a neutral fashion. Her presence seems to be a reassurance, and hopefully it will be a key confidence-building measure in a place where people are living in such fear that they hardly dare to sleep at night.
Are the French and African forces making a difference on the ground?
There is a critical mass at this stage and we have seen the scale of the killings slow down in Bangui over the last few weeks since the French have been deployed. It is also thanks to the new Burundian and Rwandan elements joining the MISCA force. MISCA now has 4 000 troops and will hopefully be up to 6 000 over time. So, securing the situation from a military perspective is key - and this is being done by African and international forces.
Does it matter that Samba-Panza is a woman?
Her election is certainly something new. There's never been a woman at the head of the CAR. That, together with the fact that she is a civil-society activist with no clear links to any party, will probably help her to be seen as more neutral and working for the good of the country, and not for furthering her own political career. Perhaps people have more confidence in a woman.
Her election has been welcomed by France and the United Nations (UN), but the CAR is still suspended from the African Union (AU) following the coup d'état in March last year. Will she be invited to next week's AU summit in Addis Ababa?
I think she should be invited to the summit, because she didn't play a role in the Séléka or overthrowing [former president] François Bozizé. The transitional government that she heads is an instrument of peacebuilding in the aftermath of the coup. So in theory recognising her isn't tantamount to recognising Séléka; it's recognising the fact that there needs to be another transition before an election. This recognition would be important, because it opens space for engagement with that new government, which is meant to be a new start for the CAR.
What else should the AU do to help solve the crisis in the CAR ?
There is the debate over whether the AU mission (MISCA) should become a UN mission. As we know the UN is quite happy to do that, but Chad is opposing it. If it does become a UN mission, Chad will have to withdraw its troops because one can't have troops from neighbouring states in a UN mission. The AU could try to find the other 2 000 troops for the CAR, but they might hope that the mission will be taken over by the UN sooner rather than later. I also think there is more work to do in addressing the role of Chad, and to a lesser extent Sudan, in destabilising the CAR. I don't think that will be on the agenda at this summit because of the sensitivity of the issue, but on the long term that is certainly an element of bringing real stability to the CAR.
Earlier this week the EU announced that it will send 500 troops to the CAR to boost the 1 600 French troops already on the ground. What difference will this make?
It's not an insignificant number. The idea is that the European troops will be deployed at the airport, which is currently being secured by French troops. These French troops can then be freed up to move into the countryside and on the key highway to Cameroon, which is crucial. At this point it looks like it is going to be troops from Estonia, Poland and Belgium. So, 400 or 500 are not enough, but it is better than nothing. At the end of last year when France and President François Hollande first asked for assistance from the EU it looked like they would have to go it alone. France is under huge pressure at the moment domestically and Hollande personally as well, so this announcement will be seen as a boost for the French effort.
Q & A conducted by Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant