Central African Republic Gets New Leader

Catherine Samba-Panza is the country's third leader in just over two weeks

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Jerome Delay / AP

Internally displaced people wait for their rations at a World Food Program distribution point, one kilometer from the airport where an IDP makeshift camp is set up in Bangui, on Dec. 13, 2013.

The Central African Republic’s parliament elected Catherine Samba-Panza the country’s new interim president on Monday, its third leader in about two weeks.

Samba-Panza, the mayor of Bangui, takes the reins from Alexandre-Ferdinand Nguendet, the head of the National Transitional Council who was tapped on Jan. 10 to lead the country until today’s vote. Nguendet replaced Michel Djotodia, the former Séléka leader who installed himself as president early last year after his ranks overran Bangui to oust the president in the country’s fifth coup.

The mayor won the assembly’s first round of voting but fell one vote short of the 65 needed to avoid a second round. Soon afterward, the lawmakers voted again between Samba-Panza and Desiré Kolingba, son of André Kolingba, who was president from 1981 to 1993. She won 75 of the votes to become interim president.

Candidates for the job had to prove they had no link or allegiance either to the disbanded Séléka coalition of mostly Muslim rebels or the anti-balaka, the armed groups of Christians that rose up last fall after months of looting, arson and killing by the Séléka. Eight of the 24 candidates were shortlisted on Jan. 19.

Monday’s election comes six weeks after the landlocked nation of 4.6 million people plunged into chaos, pitting Muslim rebels against Christian vigilantes and spawning an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. More than one million people have been displaced by violence, including 500,000 in Bangui.

(MORE: With Three Leaders in Two Weeks, Can This Country Rebound?)

Samba-Panza’s immediate challenges will be to restore order and security—bringing calm after more than a year of bloodshed and easing access for aid groups to provide basic needs for the displaced—and guiding the country to democratic elections before February 2015. Only one Central African Republic president has come to power through an election rather than a coup since it gained independence from France in 1960.