Uninvited To U.S. -Africa Leaders Summit: CAR’s Catherine Samba-Panza

Written by Andrew Friedman

Ever since predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels sacked the country’s capital at Bangui, the Central African Republic has been in a near constant state of civil upheaval. After chasing the country’s erstwhile autocrat, Francois Bozizé from power in 2013, the country has experienced unceasing ethnic and religious violence.

While the Seleka rebels initially captured the capital, their leader, Michael Djotodia would be chased from power himself by predominantly Christian anti-Balaka militias. The violence of the anti-Balaka groups has reached extraordinary levels, with many analysts invoking “genocide” when describing the murders and forced displacement of the country’s minority Muslim population.

It is this situation in which Catherine Samba-Panza rose to the country’s highest office. The former mayor of Bangui was selected by the country’s “substitute parliament” of “unelected rebel sympathizers, politicians, artists and others ” who, according to the New York Times, were forced to heed the call due to a “total breakdown of the state.”

Samba-Panza is currently the country’s interim President, tasked with ushering the country to elections by February 2015 at the latest.

While she is profoundly different than the rest of the list, Samba-Panza finds herself a part of “the Uninvited,” a group of African leaders who have been excluded from the upcoming US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington.

The others excluded from the guest list of the highest level United States – Africa engagement in history include Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea, Mohamed Abdelaziz of the Western Sahara and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. This is the final piece of the AFK Insider series profiling the leaders.

The differences between Samba-Panza and the leaders listed above are best demonstrated by their respective tenures.

Mugabe took power as the country’s first executive (initially as a Prime Minister before becoming President) at Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, 34 years ago. Abdelaziz has been the leader of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, the Western Sahara’s government-in-exile, since 1976, 38 years ago. Al-Bashir has been the President of Sudan since taking power in a coup in 1989, 25 years ago. Afewerki came to power at the time of Eritrea’s independence in 1993, making his rule the shortest of the four at a paltry 21 years.

With this in mind, it is not difficult to place many, while not all, of the governance and human rights problems in their respective countries at the feet of these leaders.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Samba-Panza was sworn into her nation’s highest office in January of this year in the midst of the tremendous violence, in a situation so tragic that UN Secretary-General wrote at the BBC that “desperate is an understatement,” comparing it to the genocide in Rwanda 20 years earlier. She has been asked to turn around this seemingly irreparable situation and ready the country for elections in just over a year.

The Untainted One

Samba-Panza’s own clean hands (according to the New York Times, her supporters call her “untainted” by the violence) need not mean that the United States made a mistake by excluding her from the upcoming Leaders Summit. She does, after all, represent her tumultuous country.

Via email, a White House official told The Hill that “President Obama will extend an invitation to all African heads of state or governments except those that are not in good standing with the United States or are suspended from the African Union.” Central African Republic is currently “under political sanction” from the African Union, squarely in opposition to the wishes of the American administration.

Samba-Panza has, however, caused the international community to look with hope towards the beleaguered Central African Republic.

Not only has the country’s first female President avoided participation, either active or tacit, in the tremendous sectarian violence, she also has a history of making peace. She led successful efforts to reconcile warring sides in a previous civil war within the country.

In a profile of Samba-Panza by Deutsche Welle, Paul Simon Handy of the Institute for Security Studies, a South African think-tank, espoused the opinion that “She is a president who can unite both the country and the political elite,” something that will prove immensely important if the conflict is to be put to rest.

Louisa Lombard, perhaps the United States’ only expert on the Central African Republic, also struck an optimistic chord when discussing the new leader on bloggingheads.tv, calling her “interesting” and discussing her extensive experience in both civil society and the private sector, along with her knowledge of the inner workings of government, but was cautious when asked if she could calm things down, saying “time will tell” and that “[Samba-Panza] faces a really difficult road ahead.”

Samba-Panza is an anomaly on this list. She is a new leader, unencumbered by decades of faltering rule. However, her future will prove immensely difficult due to the horrors currently ongoing throughout the Central African Republic.

Only time will tell whether she can be successful in bridging sectarian divides and bringing her country back from the brink. While she will be excluded from the US-Africa Leaders Summit, a little future engagement with the international community could go a long way to help her in this goal.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and freelance consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at afriedm2@gmail.com or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.

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