Meet Catherine Samba-Panza, Central African Republic’s New Interim President

The former mayor of Bangui is the first woman to lead the country

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As far as good days go in Central African Republic, Jan. 20 was perhaps one of the best in recent years. The European Union agreed to send in a multinational force of around 500 soldiers to assist the struggling French and African Union factions, half of the original plan but its first major operation in six years. International aid organizations and governments pledged almost half a billion dollars toward easing the unprecedented humanitarian crisis. And, for the first time, its leader is not part of the problem but could be part of the solution.

Catherine Samba-Panza, mayor of the capital Bangui, was sworn in on Thursday, three days after beating seven other candidates to become the country’s third interim president in about two weeks. “I strongly call on the fighters to show patriotism in putting down their weapons,” she said in her inaugural address. “The ongoing disorder in the country will not be tolerated.”

She took over from Alexandre-Ferdinand Nguendet, head of the National Transitional Council, who was tapped to temporarily steer the state until lawmakers could replace Michel Djotodia, the rebel commander who installed himself as president early last year. He resigned on Jan. 10 amid mounting regional pressure.

Months of pillaging and killing committed by the Séléka, Djotodia’s coalition of mainly Muslim rebels, led Christians to retaliate and form vigilante groups known as the anti-balaka. The tension peaked in early December when hundreds were killed in targeted attacks, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes and throwing the spotlight on a crisis that analysts and aid groups had warned all year was quickly spiraling out of control. Samba-Panza’s lack of ties to either militia—along with known efforts in conflict reconciliation—gave parliamentarians enough confidence to vote her in. “I am the president of all Central Africans, without exception,” she said in her first speech, moments after her win.

(PHOTOS: Bloodshed in Bangui: A Day That Will Define Central African Republic)

Samba-Panza’s rise comes during one of the country’s most pivotal moments since it broke away from France in 1960. More than half of its 4.6 million people are in need of assistance, the U.N. reports, and after insecurity closed local markets, an estimated 90 percent are eating only one meal a day. There is no infrastructure, schools are closed across the country and security services rely on international troops. “The state has essentially collapsed politically, legally, economically,” says Evan Cinq-Mars, a research analyst at the New York-based Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. 

The new interim president was born in Chad to a Cameroonian father and Central African mother. The 59 year old studied corporate law in Bangui, then in Paris, and founded an insurance brokerage firm when she returned. The mother of three, a Christian, turned from the private sector to politics in 2003 after former President Ange-Félix Patassé was overthrown in a coup by François Bozizé, who Djotodia ousted. She has participated in enough mediation to become what some called “incorruptible.”

That reputation and independent commitment to stabilization has regional experts, human rights groups and governments hopeful that her appointment will allow strife to shift into calm. “It’s certainly a step in the right direction,” said Cinq-Mars. Joanne Mariner, a senior crisis response adviser for Amnesty International, said Samba-Panza’s approach toward reconciliation and dialogue may help assuage the anger from Djotodia’s reign. “She seems like a strong person,” Mariner added. “She’s not a pushover. She’s got firm beliefs.”

Still, the leadership shake-up triggered opposing reactions among the country’s sects. Christians, who account for around half of the country’s population, celebrated Samba-Panza’s new role as a shield from further carnage. But for much of the Muslim community, which represents about 15 percent of the people, it induced fear. Djotodia had officially disbanded Séléka last September, six months after pushing Bozizé, a Christian, into exile. But they didn’t listen, and he couldn’t control them. Despite Samba-Panza’s call for unification, aid groups say the anti-balaka are using the Séléka retreat to target Muslim civilians they perceive as having colluded with the militia.

Joseph Kalite, a former minister, was hacked to death on Jan. 24 by men wielding machetes in Bangui. Earlier in the week, the head of the local Red Cross said at least nine torched bodies had been collected from Bangui’s majority-Muslim neighborhoods PK11. And last Friday, Save the Children reported that a truck convoy traveling to Bouar from the village Vakap was attacked, leaving at least 23 dead.

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

Paul Simon Handy, of the Institute for Security Services in South Africa, told Deutsche Welle that Samba-Panza’s “motherly approach” to get both sides to disarm won’t work on its own. “She will need security personnel who will force the armed groups to lay down their arms if they do not do so voluntarily,” he said.

Disarmament is just the beginning of the enormous task Samba-Panza faces. If the cycle of killing ends, she will have to restore a functioning government so refugees can begin returning to their homes and restart their lives. As the promises of aid pour in, that will mean pushing for transparency despite more than five decades of the opposite.

“She’s not tainted by the immediate political crisis,” Peter Bouckaert, emergency director at Human Rights Watch, told TIME. “She is somebody who has stood up to the violence and the abusers and has quite a bit of respect in the country.” That impartiality helped make her the favorite candidate among the international teams on the ground, he added, and a person they feel they can work with to stabilize the country.

All of this will take years—well beyond her time in office, which is expected to end with elections by February 2015—but it’s a welcome start. Samba-Panza’s election brought Central Africans their best day in years; and while reports of violence continue to emerge from the country, her influence could one day help them top it.

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