Catherine Samba-Panza urges a deeper look at reasons for war and poverty in her country.
By Matthew Stoss
Catherine Samba-Panza—transitional president of the Central African Republic and just the third female head of state of an African country—spoke candidly and amiably Tuesday at George Washington University, addressing perceptions of her war-torn and impoverished country and, in some of her strongest remarks, offering advice to young women.
“Girls have to get much more interested in public matters, in international matters,” the French-speaking Ms. Samba-Panza said through a translator, “and [they must] affirm themselves by making frank, open, honest commitments in the area of the protection of women’s rights, in the area of politics and in all other sectors. Sometimes when women are questioned on this or that subject, we are less informed than the boys.”
Ms. Samba-Panza came to Washington this week to speak at the World Bank Group Fragility, Conflict and Violence Forum, a conference focused on ending violence and extreme poverty in less-developed countries. Ms. Samba-Panza appeared there Tuesday morning, then at the Jack Morton Auditorium in the afternoon, taking part in an hour-long roundtable and brief Q & A put together by the U.S. Department of State and Reuben E. Brigety II, the dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs.
“Today’s discussion reflects [Dr. Brigety’s] important commitment to increase Washington’s understanding of Africa, and his intention to create an institute for African studies by the beginning of the next academic year,” GW President Steven Knapp said during the introduction.
Joining Ms. Samba-Panza on stage were W. Stuart Symington, the deputy assistant for Central Africa and African security affairs at the State Department, and Sandra Malone, who moderated Tuesday’s event and is the executive vice president of Search for Common Ground, an organization that works to stop violent conflict.
Asked by an audience member about the portrayal of the civil war in the Central African Republic, Ms. Samba-Panza criticized the media for depicting it as driven solely by religious dissent. In the conflict, one side is Muslim and the other is Christian.
“Even this morning in my speech to the World Bank, I said it was important to undertake a study of the causes and the roots of the conflict in the Central African Republic,” she said. “There are several factors. There is poverty, exclusion of communities and regions. Those who feel excluded react.”
Ms. Samba-Panza, a lawyer and the former mayor of Bangui, the Central African Republic’s capital, was appointed transitional president of the Central African Republic by an interim parliament in January 2014 after Michel Djotodia was forced to step down. Mr. Djotodia, who had been in office only since August 2013, led a junta that deposed previous President François Bozizé.
Ms. Samba-Panza—a rare woman in power in a male-dominated country, where forced and child marriage is still practiced—put together a transitional government through a still-flaring civil war and oversaw elections of a permanent parliament and president.
She joked that it took a woman to make it happen, drawing laughs from the audience.
“I’ll soon be leaving the head of the transition, which was meant to last for three years. The first year directed by a man was catastrophic,” she said. “My next two years were much better.”
Faustin Archange Touadéra, elected in February, is slated to succeed Ms. Samba-Panza at the end of the month.
“Now, in the Central African Republic, is the time to break the cycle of suffering,” Mr. Symington said, “to align this day of opportunity with tomorrow and the day after, and the way to do it … is one day and one person at a time. Changing lives so that occupants become citizens, and citizens change their countries.”
The Central African Republic, according to the World Bank, is the third poorest country in the world, in terms of GDP. And over the past two years, nearly a quarter of its 5.3 million people have been displaced by factional violence.
Ms. Samba-Panza spoke bluntly about her country—which Pope Francis visited in November—and admitted that if anyone had heard of it, it was probably because of the war and poverty. Last month, The Washington Post published a picture-heavy story about a sprawling slum adjacent to Bangui’s airport that is home to 20,000 people.
“In short,” she said, “the Central African Republic has always been presented as a failed state.”
Ms.Samba-Panza, though, touted the progress that she and the transitional government have made in her country, which was a French colony until 1960.
She said her first priority as transitional president was to disarm the country, reasoning that if people didn’t feel safe, they weren’t giving up their guns. She also discussed building an agricultural economy and putting young people to work. Forty percent of the Central African Republic’s population is under 14 and the median age is 19, according to the World Factbook.
Overall, Ms. Samba-Panza said, the goal has been, simply, to restore order after years of fighting.
“Violence is in the mind and on the hearts of our population for many, many years,” she said. “The process of peace and pacification is a work that requires long breath, like a marathon.”