Catherine Samba-Panza’s position as the first female President of the Central African Republic (CAR) is a ray of hope for the country. As a woman, Samba-Panza’s gender is viewed as having a positive impact over the reconciliation process in the CAR. Will it be possible for her to follow in the footsteps of President Sirleaf in ensuring that violent crimes against women are actually punished?
While many are hopeful, they express doubt in the longevity of Samba Panza’s impact on peace in the same breath. Their doubt is hinged on the presumed lack of continued international support. Although the longevity of international interest is rather important to the CAR attracting and retaining international donors to support its economic system, another issue has been overlooked: her short tenure as president.
When Samba-Panza was sworn in as “interim” president on January 23, 2014, there was an excitement around the world for change in the CAR. It seems that no one paid attention to the word “interim”. As interim president, Samba-Panza’s term will only last a year, with elections to be held in February 2015. As interim president, she is not allowed to run for office after the February 2015 elections. This begs the question: with a term only lasting one year, what real changes or reconciliation can President Samba-Panza bring about? From an American perspective, it usually takes a sitting president at least one four-year term to implement change in a country. American presidents even experience a period during their term in office known as the “lame duck” years, where their general effectiveness is stalled because they are on their way out. With this perspective, it seems that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Samba-Panza to turn a country around that has not experienced real stability since it became independent from its colonial power– France in 1960. Not only will Samba-Panza need international support, but she will also need time.
Samba-Panza’s CAR does not have a “trained army or trained gendarmerie or trained police force” to enforce the peace her and her interim government is so desperately seeking. This fact is the most troubling because the hope surrounding Samba-Panza does not come with the practical means of sustaining the change and peace that is needed. If Samba-Panza intends to create a Truth and Reconciliation Committee, it could take years, if not decades, for true reconciliation to take place. Her tenure might even be sustained if she was allowed to run for election. Her placement in an election would allow the people of the CAR to decide if her past performance should warrant a second chance at leading the country on a more permanent and stable basis.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, the first female President of Liberia and on the African continent at the time, faced a similar set of circumstances when she took office in 2005. She inherited a country that had been ravaged by war by male leaders and militias. President Sirleaf was able to turn Liberia from a war-torn country at the center of the blood-diamond trade, to a country that has begun to earn the respect of western countries like the United States. But this achievement by President Sirleaf was not accomplished overnight. Rather, it took years and much opposition within the country for Liberia to get back on the road to recovery. Her gender was regarded and could be seen as an advantage, but the hard truth is that she had more than a year to make an impact.
Alternatively, it might be possible for Samba-Panza to turn the CAR in the right direction within a year given the popular support she has received from the people. Perhaps if enough of the CAR’s citizenry stand up and pour all of their support into turning their country around, Samba-Panza’s tenure will at least be a start to leading the CAR in the right direction. Even this idea is utopian at best. The violence that started in the CAR in 2012 still plagues the country. Violence marred the swearing-in of President Samba-Panza with murders in the capital city of Bangui occurring between Muslim Central Africans perceived to be associated with Seleka and Christian supporters of the Anti-Balaka movement.
Additionally, Samba-Panza will also have to deal with the possible International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation of “potential war crimes or crimes against humanity.” The increased frequency and intensity of the violence that occurred in recent months has garnered the attention of the ICC’s Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda. A preliminary investigation by Bensouda and the ICC will indeed be a complication to Samba-Panza’s hopeful presidency. There is still a possibility that Samba-Panza will be able to at least bring those who have been responsible for the violence to justice. Yes, there is a possibility, but with what resources? An investigation by the ICC occurs because the country or region where possible war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity have occurred is unwilling or unable to stop the violence and prosecute the responsible parties.
While a woman’s touch might be welcomed by the international community, other African countries, and the CAR, a woman’s touch does not translate into a woman performing a miracle that can only be accomplished with time and resources.
Article by: Melanie D. Sanders, Esq.