Can a New Prime Minister Save the Central African Republic?

The Central African Republic has a new prime minister, appointed by President Catherine Samba-Panza.  But will he be able to stop CAR’s death spiral?

The nomination of the new prime minister, economist and long-time public servant Mahamat Kamoun – the first Muslim prime minister in the Central African Republic since the 1960s – is a result of the Brazzaville agreement last month, and represents an effort to make the government more inclusive. When asked whether he believed his religious beliefs “would be an asset” in his new post, Kamoun displomatically responded “I don’t want to put myself in that box too much, because the religious aspect didn’t play a role in my nomination as prime minister. I think what people need today is someone around whom they can rally.”

Kamoun is no stranger to power in CAR. Not only was a key senior figure in Seleka-rebel leader Michel Djotodia’s cabinet from March to December 2013, but he has been working in CAR’s power circles for years, holding senior positions in the Finance ministry and Treasury. Kamoun and his wife are also close with Catherine Samba-Panza, the transitional head of state. While Kamoun may be a known figure in the CAR elite, he is, however, not a unifying figure among the broad Seleka movement. It appears that being Muslim is not the first and only attribute that goes into the analysis of whether Kamoun is the right person to bring unity between Christians and Muslims in the CAR. Symbolizing his complex relationship with the Seleka is an incident that took place towards the end of the Djotodia presidency, when Kamoun sought to – allegedly – dissociate himself from the government: his house was looted by Djotodia loyalists, who believed he was working against them and for France.

Given this past – and quite recent – history with the Seleka, Kamoun’s appointment has not been warmly welcomed in Seleka circles. A Seleka spokesman told the BBC that the group was very disappointed with Kamoun’s appointment; that the Seleka was not consulted by President Samba-Panza. In this context, though, it’s important to distinguish between official Seleka pronoucements, and the reality on the ground which is that the official Seleka group, with which the government is negotiating, is not representing all the various armed factions that call themselves “Seleka” throughout the CAR. The Seleka representative who signed the Brazzaville agreement, third-in-command Mohamed Moussa Dhaffane, was suspended from the Seleka leadership, accused of “non-observance of the hierarchy and high treason” for having signed the Brazzaville agreement. This raises serious questions about whether the Seleka plan to respect the cease-fire and other provisions of the agreement; at this stage, very little is holding the agreement together.

Kamoun’s appointment as prime minister is not a silver bullet, reflecting the fact that the crisis in the CAR must be understood through a lens more nuanced than a simple Christian v. Muslim dichotomy. The complexity of the conflict is embedded in a long socio-political history steeped with injustice, and the factionalized nature of the rebellious movement illustrates how a single narrative cannot be applied to this conflict. As Kamoun noted when asked about his religion, it will be more important for him, the president, and the government, to rise above their religious affiliation and represent all of CAR – not just the group from which they hail.