Friday January 31 2014

Samba – Panza, the first female president of car

Catherine Samba Panza receives a shield and sword

Catherine Samba Panza receives a shield and sword from a tribal chief during her swearing-in ceremony. AFP PHOTO 

By Jonathan Adengo

Ever since 1960 when Central African Republic gained independence from France, the country has had a record of political instability. It has witnessed many wars, coups, attempted coups and mutinies with no significant democratic elections as the guns seem to dictate the next ruler of the country.
The divisions within the country have led to frustration and in-fighting amongst its people that has seen the country go turmoil most of its life.

Now however, the failed state might have the hope of becoming a peaceable nation, in a person they believe can lead the country to peaceful elections. This hope is in the new interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza. She is widely seen as a beacon of hope that will unite the different rebel groups and religious factions in the failed state.

According to The Guardian newspaper, Samba-Panza joined politics in 2003 after then president Ange-Felix Patasse was overthrown in a coup by Francois Bozize (who was also ousted by Djotodia last March). Bozize made her the vice president of a national reconciliation conference in 2003.

The paper further reports that Samba-Panza made her mark in that post by reconciling former president David Dacko (ousted in a 1981 coup) and his sworn enemy since independence, then Prime Minister Abel Goumba. This unexpected achievement put the spotlight on her, drawing the attention of Djotodia who appointed her Mayor of Bangui after seizing power in 2012.

Her entry into politics
And such was the beginning of Samba-Panza’s political life, an affable mayor of Bangui who was elected Mayor in May last year, and was unanimously voted into office by both the disputing factions – the Christian Militias called Anti- Balaka and the Muslim fighter group Seleka rebels who form about 20 per cent of the population that is primarily Christian dominated. She beat her rival Desire Kolingba who is the son of the former president, 75 to 53 votes in the second round of voting by the interim parliament.

She is the first woman president of the Central African Republic. Though the 59-year-old is Christian, she is said be neutral. It was one of the reasons she was accepted by both sides when she was proposed as Bangui’s mayor under the interim administration.

According to the BBC, Samba- Panza said she was confident she would be able to reconcile the country’s different groups.

“I am known for that. I have always been a moderate person; I have always been contributing to bring people together. At this moment we need a person with those qualities,” she told the BBC.

Even with her past reputation and optimism, Samba has a major task of uniting the Muslims and Christians in the country that has seen horrific interreligious violence in recent weeks.

Videos have been making the rounds of Christian youths killing Muslims and in one particularly disturbing one, a man eats the lynched Muslims.

An estimated 1,000 people have died in the Capital Bangui since the violence broke out, following the 2012 coup that brought Djotodia, a Muslim to power.

However, the Muslims under the Seleka group continued committing atrocities against the Christians who retaliated under their Anit-Balaka group. Even with the French intervention, animosity between the two groups is still high. Samba says the violence between the Muslims and Christians has roots in poverty and that is another challenge all by itself.

CAR is one of the poorest countries in the world with a GDP of 4.1. If the violence and poverty are linked, then Anit-Balaka has her work cut out for her.

Her origin
In the meantime, she has called upon the two groups to put down their weapons and stop the fighting.

Born to a Cameroonian father and a Central African mother on June 26, 1954, The Women in and Beyond global website says Catherine Samba moved to CAR when she was 18 years old.

She studied Corporate Law in France and then returned to Bangui where she joined an insurance brokerage firm before finally establishing her own.

According to AFP she found that doing business and attracting investment were made difficult by the prevailing climate of graft. People close to her say that from her experience, she developed a deep-rooted hostility to corruption.

The Women in and Beyond Global website says Samba Panza comes across as a gentle, affable woman with a ready smile, but those who know her in Bangui caution that she is “very exacting” in her work and life and “does not readily bend to authority”.

The married mother of three adult children two of whom live in France is widely seen as a new emblem of the country’s religious diversity, which in the past was not a source of conflict.

She is expected to guide her country to the first elections, which are set to be held in 2015.
Whether she will be the leader under whose leadership CAR will finally forge a new path of peace and stability remains to be seen.