Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1181, (23 - 29 January 2014)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1181, (23 - 29 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Panza’s bonanza

Gamal Nkrumah considers the tasks ahead of Central Africa’s first woman president

Al-Ahram Weekly

Interim, she may well be. But Catherine Samba Panza was on Monday elected by members of the country’s transitional parliament as the new interim president of the war-torn Central African Republic. As mayor of Bangui, the country’s capital, her political experience is not particularly protracted. Yet the relative newcomer to politics was viewed by her compatriots as the choice person to lead the country in this most testing of times.
Panza’s presidency will presumably prompt much soul-searching in the Central African Republic. She has made headline-grabbing gains already. As the country’s first female president, she has a daunting task ahead of her. On Sunday, the election bureau of the country’s parliament whittled down a list of 24 would-be candidates to just eight and the lawmakers convened a high profile and public election with the paparazzi and bigwigs in attendance. But Panza was unperturbed.
In her inaugural address she demonstrated much political acumen, and in full swing alluded tongue-in-cheek to her title as mayor meaning both the elected head of the capital’s municipality and mother, in French, the Central African Republic’s official language.
“I have been the mayor [or mother] who is close to the population, and if you think I can be the mother who can bring people together, the mother who can relieve the sufferings of this country’s children and the mother who will fight to bring the Central African Republic out of chaos, then brother and sisters vote for me,” she told parliamentarians amid loud applause and obvious approval.
Panza knew that the precise wording of her inaugural speech would determine the fortunes of her credibility.
Her main rival, Desire Kolingba, son of former president Andre Kolingba, faltered. He addressed the parliamentary election committee in Sango, the most widespread spoken Creole language in the country, but one associated with the predominantly Christian south. The country has been torn apart by confessional strife with the Christian majority pitted against the Muslim minority.
Panza won 75 votes and Kolingba 53. A current of rivalry had coloured the two candidates as they competed for the same constituency. In the end, the presidential contest involved far more than the simple issue of semantics, or language for that matter. Ultimately it became the centrepiece of a wider struggle for dominion over the hearts and minds of the long-suffering people of the Central African Republic.
Panza’s realm now encompassed not only Bangui, but also the entire sprawling country.
As a town hall insider, Panza has experience in dealing with difficulties. In a city that tilts to the chaotic, Panza did not just watch the dismal spectacle of Bangui passively. She worked behind the scenes to calm the situation and kept her options open. She has no illusions that the religious and political tensions in her country will be swept away overnight.
Straddling the mighty Ubangui River, a tributary of the Congo, Bangui is a city that has increasingly become prone to violence and insecurity during the past decade and it takes guts to run such mayhem. Panza, as a “mayor-mother”, was capable of cooking up a compromise and placating competing rivals.
The presence of Panza, a new force to reckon with and one who has no militias, will test the Central African political scene and culture of violence. Her central task in the months ahead will be to be the “mother” of the nation, keeping protagonists at bay lest things fall apart.
Panza’s genius was to hold on to her position at a most trying time. As a woman, she breaks a post-independence Central African taboo. And, her greatest challenge will be to ride the momentum, the mandate given to her by her people. War, and machismo, has been a salient feature of the political culture of the impoverished nation with rich mineral deposits and agricultural potential.
Panza joins women presidents in Africa such as Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirlleaf and Malawi’s Joyce Banda. In the case of Sirlleaf, she came to power after her own nation Liberia was ravaged by war. She was elected precisely because Liberia needed healing and Sirlleaf as a woman was seen as better able to provide peace. In much the same vein, Panza is expected to pacify her warring countrymen.
From “mayor of Bangui” to “mother of Central Africa” is a serious challenge in a country where policymaking is a hopelessly complicated matter. Yet, there is reason for hope.
The Central African Republic has vast reserves of uranium, petroleum, gold and diamonds, not to mention timber and untapped hydropower potential. There is absolutely no excuse for it to have one of the world’s lowest Human Development Index figures. It is a classic post-colonial nation with unscrupulous politicians squandering the nation’s resources.
Many will wonder if Central African parliamentarians know what they are doing in selecting Panza for the top job. Panza’s priorities are well known. She needs to rein in warmongers and political leaders who incite violence and hatred. Surely, she must bring warlords such as the leaders of militias like Seleka to book, but she must also by the same token be careful not to alienate, but rather to appease, Muslims.

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