Saturday, February 8, 2014

Genocide-mongering does nothing to help us understand the messy dynamics of conflict in the CAR

After Michel Djotodia’s removal from the presidency of the Central African Republic (CAR) on the 10th January, speculation and rumours about his successor were rife. Would it be Josué Binua, who had been a minister under Djotodia but was previously a confidant of the ousted Jean-François Bozizé? No, it soon became clear — members of the newly-resigned government were excluded from consideration. This was fortunate. The choice of Binua, an evangelical preacher, at a time when religion has become politicized in new ways in the CAR, would not augur well for building trust after the past year’s violence. The strictness and extensiveness of the presidential criteria left some joking that they would exclude almost everyone.

Almost, but not quite. On Sunday night, members of the National Assembly elected Catherine Samba-Panza, Mayor of Bangui and a businesswoman and lawyer. Diplomats and aid workers knew Samba-Panza as a founder of the Association des Femmes Juristes Centrafricains (AFJC), an organization they tripped over each other in a race to fund. Unlike many other civil society organizations, the AFJC had developed its own capacity to manage and develop projects, all supporting the rights of women.

Whether Samba-Panza’s election will be a silver lining to these months of strife is still unknown. Someone with her background would never have been elected in other circumstances. Recent elections in CAR have been far from free and fair, and they accord a huge structural advantage to the incumbent, so relative outsiders like Samba-Panza find it hard to develop constituencies.

Samba-Panza is the first woman to lead the CAR, a country in which powerful women face particular challenges. To give just one example of the complicated, little-studied workings of gender and power in the CAR: the HIV rate among professional women is one in four, as compared to about one in sixteen in the population as a whole, or one in four among men in the security forces.

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