New Leader in the Central African Republic

As of today, the Central African Republic (CAR) has a new interim leader. The National Transitional Council (CNT), composed of 135 individuals representing a wide range of political, military, religious, labor and other civil society affiliations, have voted to elect Catherine Samba-Panza, the mayor of the capital, Bangui, as head of state. Well-known and well-respected, Ms. Samba-Panza’s name had been whispered in the halls of power since Michel Djotodia, the former president and coup leader, left power on January 10. Since then, the CNT developed and adhered to a rigorous selection process, supported by regional and global partners, in order to ensure that the newly elected leader would have the strongest and most legitimate mandate possible.

The CNT used a series of 17 criteria to determine candidate eligibility, including barring members of the military, of former governments, and of political parties from running. In addition, individuals associated with either of the fighting factions – Seleka and anti-balaka groups – were not allowed to present their candidacy. Based on these narrow criteria, only eight of the 24 would-be candidates were allowed to participate in the election, which took place on Monday January 20. After two rounds of voting, Ms. Samba-Panza was elected as interim leader, ushering in a new era for the Central African Republic.

Along with her solid credentials as a business and political leader, she also enjoys wide support from various parts of the political – and religious – spectrum. In her new capacity, Ms. Samba-Panza’s will have two primary objectives: ensuring that democratic presidential elections take place in February 2015, as well as fending off the growing humanitarian crisis in the country, through a combination of increased security and improved support and access for humanitarian operations. To achieve this, she will have to work closely with local leaders and leverage her impartial position to create the necessary conditions for peace to be established in the CAR. In addition, jump-starting the economy and restoring some degree of institutional capacity will be critical. Since the March 2013 coup, and in particular since the violence flared-up in early December, the state has been at a virtual standstill.  Ms. Samba-Panza will need to negotiate what conditions will allow international partners to increase the flow of much-needed financial, humanitarian and military aid into the country.

There are signs of hope for the CAR. Today, the European Union agreed to send a short-term relief force of between 400-600 soldiers to support the ongoing efforts of the AU mission (MISCA), and the French operation, Sangaris. This force is meant to be deployed rapidly – within the next 6 weeks or so – to help improve the security situation in Bangui, in particular near the airport where a makeshift displacement camp is currently hosting nearly half of the capital’s population. Ultimately, the EU mission is meant to support the transition from  MISCA to a UN peacekeeping operation within the next 6 months. In addition, funding was bolstered during the international meeting in Brussels today, meaning that the 100 day plan for the CAR is now fully funded.

With the announcement of the EU mission, and the National Transitional Council’s success in navigating a difficult transitional period and electing an interim head of state who has the credentials and the legitimacy to lead the country in the right direction, there is a sense of hope and possibility for the CAR. But the international community must also be realistic: in spite of these positive developments, the situation in the CAR is far from stabilized. Every day, news of deadly sectarian violence continues to make the headlines, and violence persists. A key upcoming milestone will be the donors’ conference in Addis Abbaba on February 1st, where new commitments will be made to help shore up not just the humanitarian response, but also the country’s badly depleted financial resources.