The selection of Catherine Samba-Panza by the Central African Republic (CAR) National Transitional Council to be interim president of the country until elections are held in March 2015, brings a glimmer of hope to the war-weary population. Jean-Pierre Nakombo-Sizwe assesses her chances of restoring peace.
The Central African Republic (CAR) descended into chaos after a mainly Muslim rebel coalition, Séléka, with the material and moral support of France, according to knowledgeable political analysts, marched on the capital Bangui and seized power on 24 March 2013, killing 13 South African soldiers in the process.
A South African military contingent had been in the country since 2007, ostensibly to train CAR forces, but there was more to their presence. They were there, analysts pointed out, to shore up the tottering government of President François Bozizé, which had been under pressure from the Séléka militia for a good few years, and also to safeguard the mining interests of some ANC members in the country.
With CAR being in France’s sphere of influence, Paris did not take kindly to the South African presence, and so in March last year, before additional South African troops could arrive after Bozizé had flown to Pretoria to ask for reinforcements, analysts say, France moved quickly to support the Séléka with military materiel to topple Bozizé’s government.
The South Africans, embarrassed by the speed of the rebel attack, were forced to pull out their forces after sustaining 13 fatalities and dozens of injuries.
The humiliating “defeat” raised a massive hue and cry in South Africa, leading to a government inquiry into how their troops got to be in CAR in the first place.
Nine months on, in December 2013, the regime that France supported in CAR began to unravel, after several months of violence between Muslim and Christian communities that has since left at least 1,000 people dead in Bangui, and many more in the rest of the country.
For what the Séléka achieved was to install Michel Djotodia as president and unleash a fury of inter-religious conflict and retribution. It also created one million refugees and displaced people, with many homes, churches and mosques destroyed.
However, to describe this as simply a sectarian conflict is somewhat wide of the mark. There are also the hands of neighbouring countries and powerful international players at work.
Chad and Sudan are accused of backing the Séléka rebels, while CAR’s southern and western neighbours – DRCongo, Congo-Brazzaville, and Cameroon – are not entirely disinterested observers in the drama.
As for international powers, as Louis Keumayou, the president of the Pan-African Press Association commented: “If we consider Chad as part of the problem, we can also consider that France is part of the problem; because since the beginning, since 1959, France has been making and unmaking the presidents of Central African Republic; and Chad is doing the same with its new power.”
Indeed, many see “the French Connection” as deliberate provocateurs in the whole imbroglio, and in fact France cannot escape blame for what has happened since the Séléka came to power in March last year. Certainly, the track record of Quai D’Orsay (the French foreign office) with regard to CAR is less than honorable.
In March 1959, the plane of CAR’s prime minister, Barthélemy Boganda (CAR was then a semi-autonomous territory), was blown up with him aboard. The French suppressed a local investigation and installed David Dacko in his place. He brought back many French companies, and reintroduced what he called “village work”, which others called “slave labour”.
Dacko must have displeased his masters to some extent, as he was replaced by a military man, the infamous Colonel Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who led a coup d’état, suspended the constitution, and named himself
emperor and president for life.
Bokassa’s time in power was characterised by brutal repression and indescribable horrors, until he was finally displaced in 1979 and Dacko was “reinstated” – with the assistance of 700 French troops brought in from Gabon.
In yet another coup d’état, Dacko was overthrown by another military figure, General André Kolingba, in September 1981. In 1986, a destitute Bokassa returned from exile in France and he was tried for murder and cannibalism. He was sentenced to death but Kolingba commuted the sentence to life with hard labour.
Kolingba held onto power until he was pressured into holding elections in 1993, which he lost to Ange-Félix Patassé. But Patassé had his own problems, especially as he could not pay the army, leading to a mutiny in 1997 in which many people died.
The French then decided to withdraw their troops from the country, but in a determined bid to retain influence, financed a group of Francophone African countries to form a peacekeeping force. That force was to become part of a UN mission, termed MINURCA.
In 1999, Patassé won a controversial election amidst accusations of fraud. But he was overthrown in yet another coup by François Bozizé. As unrest and factional fighting continued, many fled the country, particularly to Chad.
Bozizé’s government – thought to have initially had French backing – is now widely accused of a misappropriation of state funds. It was the discontented exiled youth in Chad that formed the core of the Séléka militia that, with French support, marched south on the capital in March 2013, forcing Bozizé to flee into exile.
The Séléka leader, Michel Djotodia, suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament. In August 2013 he was formally sworn in as “interim” president.
By October, the UN Security Council had approved the deployment of a 5,000-strong UN peacekeeping force to support African Union troops already on the ground and French troops controlling the airport.
But the Christian community accused the mainly Muslim Séléka fighters of continued harassment and killings of Christians, which when they did not stop, led to the formation of a Christian militia calling itself anti-Balaka that organised revenge killings of Muslims. The ensuing conflict led to the razing of mosques and churches in tit-for-tat attacks, which developed into full-scale fighting between the Séléka and anti-Balaka forces, leaving thousands of deaths in its wake.
Incidentally, after the South Africans withdrew from CAR, France stepped up its deployment of troops to 1,600 in a bid to disarm the militias, but it could not stem the tide of violence that continued to engulf the country, which is larger than France in landmass.
In January 2014, Djotodia resigned over his regime’s abject failure to stop the sectarian violence or even control its own militia forces, leaving a power vacuum that was only filled on 20 January when Catherine Samba-Panza, the mayor of Bangui, was voted in to take over as interim leader until elections are held in March 2015.
Following Samba-Panza’s election (incidentally, her closest political rival in the National Transitional Council was Kolingba’s son, Désiré Zanga-Kolingba), EU foreign ministers pledged €90m ($122m) in development assistance to CAR and to send a force of up to 1,000 soldiers to assist the new government to restore order.
But re-establishing security and a functioning economy, undertaking reconstruction and effecting reconciliation will be no easy task for the new head of state. Samba-Panza is up against powerful forces, including international commercial interests that eye CAR’s significant mineral and other resources – such as uranium reserves.
Her acceptance speech to the 129 members of the National Transitional Council, though, was widely welcomed. In it she implored the Séléka and anti-Balaka militias to lay down their arms and reconcile.
“Starting today,” she thundered, “I am the president of all Central Africans, without exclusion. I call on my children, especially the anti-Balaka, to put down their arms and stop all the fighting. The same goes for the ex-Séléka – they should not have fear. I don’t want to hear any more talk of murders and killings.”
It was a brave speech by a woman who has all the hallmarks of becoming CAR’s iron lady.