Flanked by an army officer and four African peacekeeping troops, Catherine Samba-Panza emerges regally from a backroom into a plush chamber filled with overstuffed red-velvet gilt chairs and sofas.
The new president of the Central African Republic, only the third female president in Africa today, has one of the world's most impossible jobs: trying to rebuild a shattered country where the state has collapsed and political chaos has spiralled into daily sectarian killing.
But she has a plan. As she met the media in her grandiose office Wednesday, she outlined a blueprint for security and reconciliation in the ravaged nation, using a growing force of foreign peacekeepers, while capitalizing on the advantages of being a woman – and touting Canada as a potential partner.
She exuded confidence and calm, until the end of the briefing, when she sharply reprimands a French television crew for daring to ignore her recent speech at a military ceremony. Instead of her speech, she complains, the TV channel showed a gruesome lynching by soldiers at the same ceremony.
Even as she spoke to journalists in the presidential office, the killings were continuing. Several more civilians were killed by armed men in Bangui, where dwindling Muslim neighbourhoods are under siege, and militias roam freely.
"I think the presence of a woman at the head of the state in today's context is fundamental," said Mrs. Samba-Panza, a former mayor and human rights activist who was chosen as interim president just five weeks ago after a rebel-backed leader was ousted.
"In our community, even if we have difficulties, we do have some basic values, and among them is a respect for women," she added. "I think we've arrived at a moment when I can teach reconciliation and respect. People express their anger at the political struggles, and they want another kind of leadership, and this leadership could be represented by a woman."
One of her heroes is another pioneer: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female head of state in Africa, who has ruled Liberia since 2006 after the end of a devastating civil war. "She's a woman who came to power in almost the same situation as me," Mrs. Samba-Panza said. "She became the head of the country at a moment of great difficulty in a post-conflict period with many security problems."
So far, African and European nations are the only ones to provide peacekeepers for Central African Republic, and most of the African troops are badly under-trained and under-equipped. Countries such as Canada could provide much more – not just in humanitarian aid, where Canada has already donated millions to the country – but also in human rights and military aid for the peacekeepers, she said.
"I think Canada has a lot of experience in the sphere of minorities and their integration into society," said Mrs. Samba-Panza, who recalls how she benefited from support from a Canadian community group herself. "I think Canada and its organizations and people can bring a lot to building peace here."
Mrs. Samba-Panza, 58, was born in Chad to a Cameroonian father and Central African mother. This has made her a target for nationalist fervour in her homeland, where many are resentful of the foreign troops. One newspaper in Bangui blasted her in a front-page headline. "Samba-Panza: the president who thinks in Chadian, speaks in Cameroonian and acts in Central African."
In a deeply divided country, where the army and police have fallen apart, she will find it difficult to develop a power base. She is required to resign next year when elections are scheduled.
But as long as she holds office, she pledges to try to heal the divisions. "People have to learn to live together after the fracture," she said.
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