Can the Central African Republic's First Female Leader Fend Off Genocide?

Catherine Samba-Panza takes office amid violence that has displaced a fifth of the population.

Catherine Samba-Panza sits prior to her swearing-in ceremony at the National Assembly in the Central African Republic's capital, Bangui. (Siegfried Modola/Reuters)

On Thursday, the Central African Republic swore its first female president, Catherine Samba-Panza, into office, with the interim leader vowing to “safeguard the peace” and “strengthen national unity” without “any ethnic, regional, or religious considerations.” It’s a selection that, coming on the heels the European Union’s decision to deploy troops to the country, has prompted speculation that the humanitarian disaster that has plagued the heart of Africa in recent months may be drawing to a close.

“Since independence, men have always run the country and they have failed at the job,” a university student told the AP. “Now, we're going to try something else with a woman and see how that goes.” (The Washington Post has even cited research showing that the economies of countries with high “ethnic fractionalization” perform better under female leaders.) But such optimism may not be entirely warranted—a point underscored by the UN’s warning, only a day before Samba-Panza’s inauguration, that the Central African Republic was at a “high risk of crimes against humanity and of genocide.” Here’s a brief primer on where things stands.

What’s happened so far?

Since the Central African Republic gained independence in 1960, it has been riven by rebel groups, coups, and violence. In 2003, for instance, François Bozizé took power in a military coup, remaining president until the most recent coup in 2013.

In March of last year, Michel Djotodia overthrew Bozizé with the backing of the Seleka, a confederation of predominantly predominantly Muslim “rebels, bandits, and guns for hire,” as The Guardian put it. The Seleka, unsurprisingly, have proven difficult to control and nearly impossible to disarm. Their attacks against Christians have prompted the rise of the anti-Balaka, mainly Christian militias that conduct reprisal attacks against Muslims.

The violence between the two groups has left more than 2,000 people dead and displaced nearly a million others, or over 20 percent of the country’s population. In response to this crisis, Djotodia relinquished power on January 10. But his resignation has done little to change the rate of violence in the country.

What has changed since Djotodia stepped down?

On Monday, the European Union decided to send up to 1,000 soldiers to help stabilize the country—marking the EU’s first “major army operation” in six years (France and the African Union have also deployed forces to quell the violence). In addition to committing troops, donors at the meeting allocated nearly half a billion dollars in humanitarian aid.

That same day, national transitional council chose Samba-Panza as the country’s interim president. A corporate lawyer and the mayor of Bangui, the capital, she participated in reconciliation efforts following the 2003 coup that brought Bozizé to power. “I call on my children, especially the anti-Balaka, to put down their arms and stop all the fighting,” Samba-Panza stated after her selection. The same goes for the ex-Seleka—they should not have fear. I don’t want to hear any more talk of murders and killings.”

A Chadian soldier, part of the African Union peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, keeps guard in the capital, Bangui. (Siegfried Modola/Reuters)

What happens now?

Though these recent developments are promising, the crisis in the Central African Republic is far from resolved. Just Thursday, the same day the country’s new leader was sworn in, 16 people died in clashes in the capital.

Samba-Panza is charged with arranging national elections before the end of 2014, a task that will be extremely difficult given the extent to which violence has destroyed government property and capacity. Disarming the rebel groups won’t be easy either, as they have proven to be as resilient to changes in leadership as they are ruthless.

Past reconciliation efforts, such as the 2003 ‘National Dialogue’ that Samba-Panza participated in, have proven ineffective in producing long-term cooperation and trust within the Central African Republic. Legitimate reconciliation will require more than just international support or a change in the gender of the president. It will require a caliber of leadership unparalleled in the country’s history and a new approach to addressing divisions within the country.

This post is part of a collaboration between The Atlantic and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.