Can the Central African Republic’s Samba-Panza hold it steady until the polls?

The recent flare up of violence in the CAR forced elections to be postponed. But pressure is still on to organise polls before the transition’s mandate ends.

President Catherine Samba-Panza at a UN Women celebration. Photograph by UN Women/Catianne Tijerina.

President Catherine Samba-Panza at a UN Women celebration. Photograph by UN Women/Catianne Tijerina.

Since a five-day wave of violence killed more than 60 people in the capital Bangui at the end of September, President Catherine Samba-Panza’s transition government has been caught between a rock and a hard place.

On the one hand, the interim government faces the challenge of organising elections within the next few months. The renewed fighting in Bangui, triggered by the death of a young Muslim motorcycle taxi driver, led to the postponement of elections that had been scheduled for October. But the government is still under international pressure to hold polls before its mandate expires on 31st December.

On the other hand, however, the renewed fighting highlighted the ongoing insecurity in the country, a situation that is only likely to be further tested by the holding of elections. Samba-Panza faces challenges to her presidency on various fronts – including from rebels and militias – and it remains to be seen for how long she can maintain order whether elections take place in time or not.

New attack, same old enemy

President Samba-Panza has been in office since January 2014. Her rise to power came after the former president, Michel Djotodia, was forced to step down amidst international pressure, particular from neighbouring Chad and France. Djotodia himself had only been in office since August 2013 when the north-eastern Séléka rebel alliance, which he led, had ousted President Franí§ois Bozizé.

Since the start of her presidency, Samba-Panza’s administration has struggled to keep law and order. Much of the conflict in the country has been intercommunal and coded along religious terms, with Christian communities pitted against Muslim. However in responding to the latest bouts of violence, Samba-Panza claimed they had their roots in a deliberate attempt to derail the elections and launch a coup. Blaming the anti-balaka– self-defence militias groups which originally emerged to combat the Séléka rebel forces – for instigating the violence, the president claimed the attacks bore the hallmarks of former President Bozizé.

Bozizé, who was in power from 2003-2013, announced an election bid in August, but may be ineligible to run given that he faces an international arrest warrant relating to violence in 2013. He is also believed to be the funder and leader of the anti-balaka forces who comprise villagers, rebels and urban youth militias known as the Cocora and Mouvément Kité as well as former CAR military personnel.

During the recent violence, elements of the anti-balaka are thought to have made contact with senior members of the presidential guard and government officials with whom Bozizé is known to have ties. Some of their attacks on the national radio station and the presidential palace seemed like strategic power moves. Guy Mazimbélé, an anti-balaka general and former leader of Bozizé’s presidential guard, was killed during fighting. Although Bozizé’s allies deny the claims of an attempted overthrow, it cannot be ruled out that the former president – who came to power via a coup in 2003 – was behind the events.

However, Bozizé and CAR’s array of restless militias are not the only ones challenging the transition government. Central Africans have occasionally protested at the interim regime’s continuation, and some rebel-backed political parties have accused the government of trying to hold on to power.

Recently, city residents planned to march against the transition and the ongoing presence of international peacekeepers in the country. Although the protest was cancelled, it could be a sign that civil society is growing frustrated with a government they say has overstayed its term and failed to guarantee security and justice. Child sex abuse scandals involving UN and French peacekeepers have meanwhile further stirred citizens’ anger.

According to Gervais Lakosso, an activist behind the planned demonstration, people are impatient for elections which they believe represent the possibility of change and a chance for CAR to move on after years of conflict.  However, at the same time, it is notable that some of the Muslim community in Bangui’s PK5 district marched in support of the transitional government after the recent round of clashes.

Divided by violence 

In an effort to encourage reconciliation and social cohesion, Samba-Panza has called for a national dialogue. The government has just begun consultations and the president hopes a broad engagement with civil society, armed rebels and politicians will address the issues at the heart of the continuing violence. The overthrow of Bozizé by the predominantly Muslim Séléka alliance in March 2013 led to intercommunal violence between Christian and Muslim communities, and after Séléka’s fall, huge groups of Muslim residents fled Bangui amidst reprisal attacks.

Although sectarian clashes have significantly reduced, divisions persist. According to a report by International Crisis Group, some refugee camps in Bangui are divided between Muslim and Christian sections, while in Bambari, the river that runs through the city is said to now act as a divide between previously united communities.

Nevertheless, the roots of CAR’s polarising conflict are political, and the tale of a terrifying Christian vs. Muslim battle is an over-simplified narrative which armed groups have exploited and international media has sometimes misunderstood. Religious identity and ethnic difference are very fluid markers that are played on by both ex-Séléka and anti-balaka to corral supporters. If Samba-Panza’s proposed dialogue hopes to get to the cause of CAR’s recurring violence then, it must look into the ways groups continually exploit these sectarian differences to create an “us” and “them”.

A risky, fated deadline

Although Samba-Panza has been accused of being sympathetic to the ex-Séléka, she faces threats from some in that faction too. For instance, Noureddine Adam – the deputy to former president Michel Djotodia – has been linked to the violence  and previously threatened to march on Bangui. General Ali Darass meanwhile has threatened to take up arms because, he claims, the transition government ignores Muslims.

Aware of the many threats to her regime, Samba-Panza recently ordered all militias to immediately disarm through voluntary means or use of force. She has also called for a more robust mandate for the UN peacekeepers, and although the UN has also pledged to strengthen the mission’s mandate and increase humanitarian funding, it’s difficult to see how Samba-Panza’s call can be enforced. Given the UN’s bureaucracy and slow pace in establishing the CAR peacekeeping force in the first place, it may take time to pass a strengthened resolution. As it is, the UN’s voluntary demobilisation programme began in August and only a few factions of the ex-Séléka had begun to submit their weapons before a lack of funding and political will led progress to stall.

It would be dangerous for CAR to go to elections without an active disarmament programme in place, more so for Samba-Panza whose tenure hangs in the balance. With international funding and patience wearing thin, Samba-Panza has the unenviable task of steering CAR to relatively free and fair elections before numerous political actors armed with different, and sometimes dangerous, agendas try to stake their claim in the country’s future leadership, again.

Tendai Marima is freelance journalist and researcher. Follow Tendai on Twitter @i_amten.

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