New CAR leader raises hopes of peace

2014-01-21 17:56
The mayor of Bangui, Catherine Samba-Panza, celebrates after being elected interim president of the Central African. (Eric Feferberg, AFP)

The mayor of Bangui, Catherine Samba-Panza, celebrates after being elected interim president of the Central African. (Eric Feferberg, AFP)

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Bangui - The new leader of the Central African Republic pledged Tuesday to form a government based on skills rather than religion as she sought to end months of Christian-Muslim bloodshed.

A day after Bangui's mayor Catherine Samba-Panza was elected transitional president by the interim parliament, residents said the capital was unusually calm, apart from isolated acts of looting by gangs of youths.

The city remained under nightly curfew and was patrolled by French and African soldiers.

Saying she wanted a government of technocrats free of corruption, Samba-Panza told a French radio station that she would appoint people regardless of their religious affiliation.

The public and politicians alike hailed the choice of the first woman to lead the CAR after ten months of spiralling violence between Muslim former rebels and Christian vigilantes, which has displaced a million people in the population of 4.6 million.

Residents welcomed the "resounding appeal" by "Madame Catherine" for both the Christian self-defence militias known as "anti-balaka" (anti-machete) and the Muslim fighters to lay down their arms and "show your support for my nomination".

A representative of the anti-balaka forces, Levi Yakete, told AFP that he had "passed on the ceasefire appeal to our fighters and it is being heeded up until now".

"We had a goal to attain which was the departure" of former president Michel Djototia, who overthrew the regime of Francois Bozize in March 2013, Yakete added.

Djotodia later proved incapable of reining in the mainly Muslim rebels of the Seleka coalition that brought him to power, when they triggered inter-religious conflict with their atrocities. His regional peers forced him to resign on 10 January.

People in Bangui awaited action, especially the disarmament and neutralisation of fighters and looters, which is one of the tasks of the 1 600 troops of France's Operation Sangaris and the 4 400 soldiers of an African Union force known as Misca, under a United Nations mandate.

I'm staying

On Monday, EU foreign ministers agreed to send 500 troops to help, while the UN World Food Programme warned that it was running out of supplies for a growing number of homeless people, including about 100 000 Bangui residents who have fled to a sprawling tent city near the airport, where foreign troops are based.

"Me, I'm not budging," the displaced Nathalie Kossimou told AFP at the airport camp. "I have nothing, my house was looted, I'm scared, and as long as the Seleka still have weapons, I'll be staying here."

Kossimou acknowledged that Samba-Panza's victory speech had been "well spoken. But this lady, we don't really know her. We are waiting to see what she will do during her first months."

Men have 'all behaved like bandits'

"She was rather conciliatory," truck driver Jean-Firmin Passire said. "This is a lady, she will make an effort. Since independence, we have known nothing but men and they all behaved like bandits."

Aware that the CAR faces a huge social and humanitarian crisis, the new head of state has announced that she plans to work fast, with the ultimate goal of organising an election by February 2015 at the latest, in which she will be barred from standing for office.

Samba-Panza, who has yet to be sworn in before the provisional Constitutional Court, on Tuesday told Radio France Internationale (RFI) that an interim prime minister "will be named within two or three days..., Wednesday or Thursday."

High moral calibre

She stressed that in order to bring peace and order to a poor, landlocked country that has long known political instability at the expense of developing its resources, she wanted a government of high moral calibre.

After decades of corruption since independence from France in 1960, international donors are waiting for credible people to deal with in government, having on Monday pledged €365m to help the CAR this year.

The United Nations has warned that the conditions are in place for a potential "genocide" in the CAR, where religious communities had lived together in peace, but Samba-Panza, a Christian, considered matters of faith secondary in choosing a competent team.

"I have no animosity, I am looking for skills, a government of technocrats, with strong moral probity. If I have a prime minister who meets these criteria and is of the Muslim religion, I don't see why I shouldn't appoint him," she told RFI.

Despite pressure from France to hold polls later this year, Samba-Panza declared that "the timetable foreseen in the first place for February 2015 is manageable".

She warned that "a precipitate approach could be hazardous because of [the risks] of challenges to the results" of the vote.

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