New president takes Central Africa reins

New parliamentary-elected interim President of the Central African Republic Catherine Samba-Panza sits surrounded by African Union (AU) peacekeeping soldiers prior to her swearing-in ceremony at the National Assembly in the capital Bangui January 23, 2014. (REUTERS/Siegfried Modola)

BANGUI: Central African Republic’s new interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, was sworn in Thursday, tasked with ending horrific sectarian violence and tackling an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.

Samba-Panza, the first female president of the poor, landlocked nation, faces the daunting challenge of stemming inter-religious hatred and reviving a paralyzed state.

She takes over from Michel Djotodia who resigned under international pressure after failing to rein in the mainly Muslim rebel Seleka group, which brought him to power in March 2013.

Months of atrocities by the Seleka prompted Christians to form self-defense militias known as the anti-balaka (anti-machete), stoking a revenge cycle of hatred and bloodshed that has claimed thousands of lives. The United Nations has warned of a potential genocide.

Samba-Panza was sworn in by the interim constitutional court in a ceremony attended by Gabon’s President Omar Bongo Ondimba and Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister of former colonial power France.

She vowed to “work only in the national interest” and not for personal gain.

She held a meeting with Fabius shortly before the ceremony in which she thanked him for France’s intervention in December under a U.N. mandate.

“Without the intervention of the [French] Sangaris force, I don’t know where the country would be today. I am deeply grateful to France,” she said.

Samba-Panza is expected to appoint a prime minister as soon as Friday in the hope of forming a government early next week to begin tackling the nation’s vast challenges.

French and African peacekeeping troops Thursday patrolled the capital Bangui, a day after fresh violence between the Christian and Muslim fighters claimed 10 lives.

About 400,000 people, or half of Bangui’s population, are still displaced. A quarter of them live in a sprawling refugee camp near the airport and the foreign troops’ bases, too afraid to go back to their homes.

Most of the interior of the CAR is under the sway of warlords, according to Bangui’s Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga and the chief imam, Oumar Kobine Layama, who pleaded for further international help Wednesday in Paris.

The state has virtually ground to a halt, partly due to the strife and also because government workers have not been paid for months. The state coffers are empty and Samba-Panza’s government will be totally reliant on promised foreign aid.

She said Thursday foreign troop numbers were “not sufficient to regain order in Bangui,” in an interview with French daily Le Parisien.

The African Union plans in coming days to boost its force, MISCA, to about 5,200 men, with a longer-term goal of deploying 6,000 soldiers on the ground. The EU has pledged to send 500 troops to Bangui.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 24, 2014, on page 11.




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