Caretaker President Hopes To Steer The CAR Toward Peace

The Central African Republic has been unstable for decades, but the explosion of violence after a coup in 2013 was unprecedented — even for a country prone to turmoil and rebellion. The deadly clashes pit the forces of the former Muslim-led government against Christian militia groups in a predominantly Christian country. Before this, the CAR had not known such sectarian tension; Muslims and Christians had lived side-by-side in peace. Now, the newly-elected caretaker president, Catherine Samba-Panza, the first woman to hold the top job in the CAR, must try to restore calm, reconcile her divided country and organize elections next year.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Central African Republic's new caretaker president was sworn in today. She is the first woman to hold the post and assumes control at a low point for this chronically unstable country. A coup last year led to an unprecedented explosion of violence and killings despite the presence of African and French peacekeepers.

CAR is predominantly Christian and these deadly clashes pit the forces of the former Muslim-led government against Christian militia groups. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has this profile of the country's new leader.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, erupted in cheers and applause after Catherine Samba-Panza was declared the new caretaker president this week. The 59-year-old French-trained-lawyer-turned-businesswoman and mayor of Bangui was a popular choice.

She pledged to end sectarian violence and tackle the humanitarian crisis in CAR. As its new transitional leader, governing this country prone to turmoil and rebellion is a tall order for Madam Samba-Panza. She says she is up to the task.

INTERIM PRESIDENT CATHERINE SAMBA-PANZA: (Speaking foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: Samba-Panza told the BBC, I'm a moderate and I have the knack of bringing people together. She has a record of mediating in a tricky political crisis back in 2003 when she reconciled a former CAR president and the then serving president after a long political feud. She will need those skills as a peace broker for the task she's taking on, which is infinitely more complicated and sensitive.

SAMBA-PANZA: (Speaking foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: Samba-Panza says people have been manipulated and it's an uphill job to curb the sectarian hatred that has ripped apart Central African Republic where Christians and Muslims lived side by side in peace for decades. But, she adds, we can't call it genocide or civil war. Both parties to the deadly conflict form a mainly Muslim Seleka rebels and Christian militia fighters, known as anti-balaka, i.e., anti-machete, appear ready to accept Samba-Panza's leadership.

So do Central African Republic's beleaguered civilians, including residents of Bangui who have borne the brunt of the violence that has engulfed their nation of 4 million.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: This woman says of Samba-Panza, she's neutral. She will restore peace. She's a mother. She will calm us all down, including the anti-balaka and the Seleka fighters. All we want is peace.

JOHN GING: It's a mega crisis across the whole spectrum, first and foremost in terms of the protection of the population.

QUIST-ARCTON: John Ging heads the operations of the UN's Office for Humanitarian Affairs. He says a million people and more have been uprooted by the crisis.

GING: And with that displacement, of course, you have all the humanitarian needs, shelter, food, medical care and so on. And the situation for a million people, it's already out of control. But first and foremost, it's about providing security.

SAMBA-PANZA: (Speaking foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: The new president agrees that Central African Republic needs urgent help, including more peacekeepers from the African Union, the former colonial power France, and other foreign friends to restore order after the chaos. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Accra.

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