By Patricia Nangiro:
Gone are the days when the thought of a woman in public leadership sent doubt signals to men and women alike. More so, in a conflict-affected context like Central African Republic (CAR), her capacity to lead and make critical decisions on behalf of the people would automatically be put to question or dismissed. But when Ms. Catherine Samba-Panza was announced interim President of CAR in January 2014, following the resignation of President Micheal Djotodia who took over power after Islamist Seleka rebels staged a coup against Francois Bozize in March 2013, many people expressed hope and relief, but importantly thought it right, in time of crisis for a woman to lead the war ravaged country to peace and stability. Samba-Panza becomes the third African woman to become head of state during a critical moment in the evolving security of the country.
According to the Guardian, many people within, and outside of CAR share a belief that ‘it’s a step in the right direction to move away from people who seized political power through the gun to someone with popular support’. But it’s left to be seen if Samba-Panza can deliver lasting peace to CAR, if she can mend the broken communities and help them rise above the heavy weight of recurring grievance. As things currently stand, a great deal of hope rests in her as the interim President to not only restore a measure of sanity to CAR, but also deliver it to peaceful elections in February 2015, less than a year away.
While the organisation of free and fair elections is part of the solution to the leadership crisis in CAR, the question of the feasibility of this deadline is something up for discussion. For a country that has jumped from one brutal government to another, with no chance for a meaningful conversation between leaders and their people on governance processes, resource allocation and access to justice, the restoration of peace, stability and the institution of new leadership is not a one year affair. CAR has experienced diverse patterns of political crises and conflicts dating back to its independence. It has seen a series of autocratic rulers who sought to consolidate power through violent force, with long periods of military dictatorship, self-styled emperors, and rebel movements from within, and neighbouring Niger and Northern Nigeria destabilising (mostly) the north of the country. The situation is also made worse by the havoc the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels from Uganda are causing, coupled with ethno-religious political rivalries, among others. The crisis has not only resulted in nearly 2,000 deaths, but also in the displacement of over one million people within the country and as refugees. This presents a complex set of realities that must be dealt with if peace and stability is to prevail.
Like many other African countries, CAR represents a real situation of disconnect between abundance of natural resources and poverty. The country lacks basic services and infrastructure leaving many people to engage in isolated banditry and rebellious activity. Government accountability structures are either non-functional or non-existent. Such conditions, which induce desperation and violence are the result of governance failure and bad leadership. It will take a positive measure of the exercise of political power to restore systems that work for the common good.
The active presence of France in this country since its independence, in place mostly to protect French interests, aggravates the situation further. As a primary donor for both military and development aid, France plays a key role in the country’s political governance and leadership processes. In fact, it is believed that there is no change of government in CAR happening without the consent or the direct involvement of the French government, be it through elections, rebel activity or a a coup d’état. This has direct influence on the peace and security discourse in this country and may consequently determine key priorities the interim president will focus on.
While Samba-Panza is to ensure lasting peace and organise the country to meet the challenge of peaceful presidential elections in 2015, it largely depends on the level and type of conversations the interim leader, the warring parties and the people of CAR can engage in as the dust settles. Like most other conflicts in Africa, the challenge is that the civilians who should have formed the locus of support for change have become the focus of violence, the weapons of war. It therefore becomes even more difficult to engage communities in meaningful conversations for peace and stability.
Clearly, the most immediate task is to put an end to the ongoing killings and promote avenues to unite the Seleka rebels and anti-Balaka militias who continue to sustain the war. The interim government should initiate peace negotiations with the warring groups scattered all over the country to hear their side of the story. The discussions should dig deeper into understanding the cleavages between governance and leadership which initiated the conflicts in first place, analyse their recurrence, and overcome them; then, governance and leadership should together come up with and develop strategies to end the conflict.
While the interim president promises to ensure those involved in the killings are brought to justice, the contestation remains on how far and deep this justice will go to translate into sustainable peace. Real justice in any form has been missing in CAR for decades, which probably explains the unending relapse into conflict. Frameworks to deal with divisions resulting from killings, human rights abuses and violations must be set. Many crimes have been committed against ordinary people and mending these communities requires truth, reconciliation and reparation. Justice must be seen to be done, otherwise a lamenting population will emerge which is a threat to peace and security.
For CAR, a woman governing to restore peace and security breathes fresh air into an environment tensed by violent autocratic leadership. The freshness of the air may be constrained by the same institutions and interests that have hindered peace in the past. Change in this country will take time even with Samba-Panza’s total dedication to restoring peace and stability. Samba-Panza, as part of a political leadership system that failed to transform institutions to be able to deal with grievances without degenerating into conflict, has to shed a leaf or two from the previous governance and leadership regimes to succeed.
CAR has broken communities whose cohesion has been shattered by recurring conflicts. These communities must first heal before they can effectively determine who can lead them as President in the upcoming elections. Otherwise, the anticipated elections may do nothing to change the conflict context.
Patricia Nangiro is currently a fellow at the African Leadership Centre, King’s College London, where she is undertaking Post Graduate Training in Peace, Security and Development. She has worked with the International Rescue Committee and Refugee Law Project in a number of community development and human rights projects in Uganda.
The African Leadership Centre is located in Nairobi and within Kings College London – http://africanleadershipcentre.org/ – The ALC is a Pan African centre of excellence on peace, security and development in Africa. It trains and mentors young Africans with the potential to lead and to enable innovative change in their communities and in the region.