Friday, July 31, 2009

Borders - or, in a way, Mayotte postscript

Over coffee with my friend Henri-Michel Yéré yesterday afternoon at the BNF (French national library), I had the kind of discussion that reminds me why I chose this life of the mind: all sorts of possibilities I hadn't seen before opened up, and information came together in new ways to suggest alternative conclusions. Henri was excited because, upon the afore-mentioned Fred Cooper's recommendation, he had found some articles that dramatically shifted his reading of Ivoirian nationalism, his dissertation subject. For me, the re-thinking centered on a new appreciation for changing nature of political borders, which is one reason I sought to study of a borderland.

The usual gloss on the current map-lines on the African continent is that they were the largely-arbitrary impositions of colonialism, and Africans today must cope with their deleterious effects. There is truth in this reading, but it is also quite misleading. For borders have meant very different things through time, and the present situation represents a postcolonial legacy as much as any other.

The French grouped their colonies in administrative regions like AOF (French West Africa) and AEF (French Equatorial Africa). Within these regions, they continually redistricted and re-organized. For instance, one of the two "autonomous districts" of northeast CAR went back and forth between Oubangui-Chari and Chad. Because all these colonies were for the benefit of France, administrators could make them perform a kind of division of labor. In West Africa, Côte d'Ivoire was largely a place for the production of cash crops, while its neighbors had more administrative and educational institutions. This created a sense of "bildungsrüggstand" (I'm not sure I'm spelling that properly, but it was Henri's mot juste -- it refers to backwardness, backward development) among many Ivoirians. A group of Ivoirians banded together in the 1930s and demanded that the French implement preferential hiring for people born on Ivoirian soil. They felt all the plum jobs were going to Dahomeyans and Togolese, and they worked together with the French administrators to draft the new policy.

Fast-forward to the independence years. With the adoption of the constitution of the 5th Republic in 1958, all of France's colonial holdings became members of the "Communauté Française," which granted them a great deal of autonomy (they would organize their own currency, their own defense) under the umbrella of greater France. They would in a way be citizens of both France and the African Community, and, for instance, a Senegalese man could serve as French ambassador to the US.

All of the French colonies chose this option but one, that is. In Guinea, Sekou Touré wanted nothing of this association and opted for independence instead. Very soon, the leaders of other African nations saw him getting the red carpet treatment wherever he went, representing Guinea at the UN: the first Big Man. Meanwhile, Felix Houphouet-Boigny emerged as the leader of Côte d'Ivoire (and went on to rule until his death in 1994). He stood at the opposite end of the spectrum, drawing the ire of more militant types like Franz Fanon or even Léopold Senghor. He campaigned for the communauté by writing excited articles like "Un Véritable Etat Multinationale" (a real multinational state). But it was not to be. All of French Africa opted out of the communauté and became independent in 1960.

This article took Henri by surprise. He had been looking at 1963, when Houphouet-Boigny proposed the idea of "double nationnalité" for Ivoirians and Burkina Fasans. A number of interviewees had explained that Houphouet-Boigny hit upon this idea after a trip to Burkina. But try as he might (and he tried -- nearly giving himself microfilm whiplash), Henri found no such trip. Could it be instead that the trip explanation has become the common understanding partly because of a contemporary desire to forget that for Houphouet-Boigny double nationnalité was a kind of disappointment, a contraction of his previous efforts on behalf of a united French Africa, which has now more than ever in a Côte d'Ivoire ravaged by debates about autochthony become politically unpalatable?

With the benefit of hindsight we see how "françafrique" (the tight relationship France maintained in its former colonies, including various treaties that all post-independence leaders signed providing preferential treatment for the French in questions of resource exploitation or military cooperation) enabled the French to use their former holdings only in the ways that were beneficial to them (such as operating military bases), and wash their hands of the rest. The leaders of the new countries of course did not have this vision of the future. They were justifiably eager to emancipate themselves from the dominating structures they had endured. One does wonder, though, how things might have been different if those post-independence leaders had not become increasingly jealous of the borders they had inherited.

This made me think of some letters sent from Abel Goumba, the prime minister of the CAR under the communauté, to the French ambassador in Khartoum in 1958. Apparently a couple of Fellata herdsmen had killed a person in northeast CAR, and they had also killed some protected animals. Goumba wrote in hopes of convincing the ambassador to make a case to the Sudanese authorities to make more efforts to control the hunters coming onto Central African territory. We hope to become safari destinations like Tanganyika or Kenya, he wrote, and if those Sudanese kill all our animals that will become impossible. In an accompanying letter, a French administrator in Bangui explained that Goumba had initially sought to permanently bar Fellata from entry into CAR, but he had convinced Goumba that was neither practicable nor necessarily desirable.

Three years ago President Bozizé did officially close the border with Sudan. This meant nothing to the few people who lived along the border, who continued to cross as they needed. But it wreaked havoc on UNHCR's plans to repatriate Sudanese refugees living in CAR.

My how the ideals of fellowship that the UN was supposed to represent have instead helped to increase emphasis on the sanctity of borders and division, to say nothing of the importance of red carpets...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Déjà vu all over again, Waziristan edition

Looks like I'm not the only one confronted with archive-induced déjà vu.

Taking down the failed state

On the margins of a seminar about the situation in Darfur with the Sudanese anthropologist Munzoul Assal (trained in Norway, a happy coincidence that meant that over lunch I had a rare chance to alternate between all the languages I know -- English, French, Norwegian, and Arabic) here in Paris last month, one interlocutor's chance mention of the term "failed state" prompted a brief, but heated, discussion about using this term to describe Sudan. The consensus: please can we get rid of this term? It impedes rather than facilitates analysis.

Since Foreign Policy magazine/the Fund for Peace have recently unveiled their rankings of the world's states most at risk of failure, and because I have so far devoted more time to discussing historical state formations than those presenting today, I'd like to return to this issue of how to analyze the state in Central Africa. On the FP/FfP rankings, Sudan, Chad, CAR and the Democratic Republic of the Congo occupy four of the top eight "most failed" spots.

As I see it, the main problem with the term "failed state" is that it assumes that states come in a one-size-fits-all model. In so doing it excises all the differing histories that led to the diverse political forms that exist within todays' umbrella category, the state. (Keep in mind that the idea that the world is composed of a vast number of equal and sovereign states is a very recent one, with colonies a normal feature into the 1970s.) All of the French Congo (Gabon, CAR, Republic of Congo, part of Cameroon), for instance, was privatized. The vast terrain was divided among forty concessionary companies who ruled from their factoreries in hopes of extracting profit. The few, underfunded civil administrators lamented to no avail how difficult it was to reclaim power from the concessionaires, who generally relied on forced labor and brutal sanctions and flagrantly ignored all the workers' rights laws the French tried to pass. To assume that a situation like that will transform itself into a Habermasian idyll without some kind of massive inputs is ridiculous. And to assume that it will soon collapse into anarchy is also ridiculous, an unhelpfully literalist interpretation of Hobbes' state of nature.

But more to the point, the idea that a set of indicators, no matter how well chosen, will produce reliable rankings about something as difficult to quantify as political life and prospects is dubious, even among those friendlier to statistics than anthropologists tend to be. Sebastian Ziaja at GDI (the German Development Institute -- the Germans seem to be producing a lot of clear-sighted research) has compared the various indices of state failure. In a soon-to-be-published paper, he shows that they have surprisingly high rates of divergence.

For the thing is, the factors that appear on the surface to threaten anarchy -- refugee flows, for instance -- can actually produce relatively persistent political regimes. Scholars of West Africa's recent conflicts have amply demonstrated how "warlord states" produce profit and security for those at the top.

Alex de Waal, who has had the benefit of a kind of anthropological fieldwork among Sudan's leaders while working for the African Union during peace negotiations on Darfur, suggests that Sudan should be understood as a "turbulent state": "constantly full of almost random motion, inherently unstable, yet never showing any fundamental change in its condition" (from a lecture available here; he discusses the term more fully in his chapter in The War in Darfur and the Search for Peace, which he edited). Peripheral areas like Darfur are crucial to a turbulent state, because the destablization there helps those in the center remain among the ruling elite. The ruling elite itself is turbulent and consists of multiple loci of power and unstable coalitions.

De Waal notes that it is tempting to see Sudan as a gyroscope, always tilting and yet never off-balance. But to do so would be to make the mistake most commonly associated with social anthropologists of the 1930s-50s. They saw all facets of human life as performing a function within the structure of the society (hence their school is often described as "structural-functionalist"), which served to reproduce a stable equilibrium, despite the appearance of conflict. But of course, any such system is always changing, and always full of conflicts, making it difficult to predict what the future holds. So the gyroscope's implication of balance is misleading.

Roland Marchal develops a version of the turbulent state theory in his analysis of Sudan's neighbor, Chad. He describes how conflict and dissent in Chad's peripheral regions, particularly those bordering Cameroon, CAR and Sudan, has long been the justification both for repressive tactics throughout the country and for the existence of the state itself, which because of the unrest appears as the go-to container of stability. The situation reproduces itself as the Sudanese and Chadian leaders court and support each other's armed challengers.

The northeast CAR serves as an additional rear base. At the same time, this ground produces a similar dynamic within CAR, in which "rebel" groups emerge in the hinterlands and demand inclusion in the capital. These armed groups in the peripheries, then, strengthen the "failed" central state by providing a justification for its existence and an impetus for programs like security sector reform (SSR -- restructuring, training, and equipping the military), which, despite decades of attempts, has yet to fundamentally alter the center/destabilized peripheries dynamic. And given the poor record of the military, which grows out of the heinous abuses of the colonial guards, further attempts to empower it seem unlikely to better the situation of the country's peaceful inhabitants, who don't care so much about the military or armed groups as for some small improvement in their standard of living.

At this point, I'm eager to go into the mid-century anthropologist Max Gluckman's fascinating work on cycles of rebellion, but this post has meandered enough as it is.

A final word on "failed states": some might say that the term "failed state" is useful for advocacy and grabbing people's attention. But advocacy based on slippery analysis doesn't tend to produce lasting solutions. Iraq was described as a kind of failed state in 2003; it remains near the top of the rankings today.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Archives and their (dis)contents

Near Sheki, Azerbaijan, site of the rebellion Bruce Grant studied

Bruce Grant, an anthropologist at NYU, describes how one paragraph among the hundreds of pages he read in Azeri archives arrested his attention: "From the end of 1929 to April of 1930, the political situation in [our region] was good. In April, a few kulaks and bandits raised a commotion and spread discontent. Currently, however, our political situation can be considered average." What, he wondered, did "average" mean in the context of November 1930 Ajerbaijan, when the report was written? And what, for that matter, did "good" mean? The "kulaks and bandits" in question were the grandson of a Sufi-style saint and his followers, who fought a rebellion against the Soviet presence.

Moments like these occur frequently during archival research. You ask for a carton number, and the archivist returns with a box the size of several telephone books stuffed with reams of largely unordered pages, some handwritten in mystifying cursive, some purple mimeograph bleeding-ink typeface. It becomes a real-life jigsaw puzzle. Even simple sentences demand cross-references that would have been obvious to the people involved at the time, but which now are entirely mysterious. Sometimes those cross-references appear in the other documents, but sometimes they don't. Colonial political reports were submitted trimestrally, semestrally, and annually. Why, then, in the case of Ndele, were only the reports from 1936 and 1948 saved? Can any inference be made on that basis? Probably not. Still, one wonders.

During my time at the colonial archives in Aix, I had the privilege of watching a master at work. Fred Cooper is one of the leading historians of modern Africa, and he was in Aix to research citizenship in post-WWII French West Africa. In 1946, former French subjects became French people with "the quality of citizenship". Though a highly ambiguous category, "the quality of citizenship" became a way for people to make claims on rights in ways they never had before. Fred went through carton after carton, quickly assessing each document: some he would photograph, some he would quickly note, and many, many he simply whizzed past.

As a part-time historian at best, I found I lacked that facility. Too often, I would stop to ponder word choice (how odd, for instance, that the French referred to Sultan Senoussi as the "sovereign" even as their treaty stripped him of all sovereign powers), wonder about the backgrounds and characters of the people writing the documents (was he really a slacker, as his higher-ups said, or rather the only one who could see clearly?), and get dragged down side paths by stray sentences or details that caught my eye (funny that the 1935 Oubangui-Chari census listed Turks -- as well as Brazilians, Americans and Syrians -- under the category "European": new evidence for EU accession hearings?).

But more than anything else, I found myself slowed by the continual voice in my head wondering about the relationship of all this history to the situation I will find when I start my fieldwork. Sometimes I felt I kept seeing examples of how history repeats itself. For instance, for security reasons, the French sited their garrison in Ndele over a kilometer from Senoussi's fort. This meant that they actually had very little idea of what was going on over there, and Senoussi was able to sign treaty after treaty saying he'd relinquished the slave trade while having done nothing of the sort. Similarly, for reasons of security the UN base today sits behind a massive, concertina wire-iced concrete wall at the outskirts of town, and many employees have only a spotty idea of what is going on outside. (I write this while wary of the direct parallel it suggests between the French and the UN. Please take it as a musing for now -- I am certainly not ready to make any such sweeping assessment.) Colonial/imperial projects by their very nature are so full of hubris that they involve repeating a lot of mistakes, as many have pointed out in the case of Afghanistan.

But clearly the relationship between past and present is not simply one of repetition; we don't live in "Groundhog Day." Nor is it a case of building blocks stacking ever-higher toward some noble goal. The anthropologist and historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot, inspired by Foucault, suggests that we are never so steeped in history as the moment when we think we stand outside of it as the omniscient viewer who makes some judgment. Much valuable work has drawn attention to the ways that the voices of women and non-white men have been silenced throughout history. But including more of those voices does not mean that we have a complete understanding of history, for the choices we make about how to bring voices back in, and the analysis we draw, are situated firmly in the present, not in the thousands of little conflicts over power that are occurring at any given point through the years, most of which remain unknown. Trouillot does not intend to undermine the study of history but rather to strengthen it by showing how we are always, irrevocably, creatures of our time. (Even the physicists who claim that backward time travel is highly possible admit that fast-forwarding is impossible.) I find hope -- inspiration for my research -- in having made peace with that.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Houses in Ndele, December 2006

If, at the moment they resolved their Senoussi problem, the French glowed with plans to make the lands of Dar al Kuti productive once more, twenty-five years later it was clear even to them that they had fallen short of their goal. "Earlier, it seems, a land of abundance, Ndele barely manages to feed itself: it's a brutal fact," (“Autrefois, parait-il, pays d’abondance, la subdivision de Ndele arrive a peine à se suffire a elle-même: c’est un fait brutal.") wrote an administrator in the town in 1936. He went on to describe how rain fell onto his desk through the holes in the thatched roof, and how he had killed two snakes and a scorpion inside his house the day before (INSIDE the house, he repeated). Perhaps not quite what he hoped for when he joined the colonial service, which at that time still had an idealistic patina for many. His higher-ups saw him as a slacker.

Though never able to entirely sever the connections between Dar al Kuti and the Muslim north, the French did their best to stop them. The transformation of Ndele from "zeriba" (a fortified commercial outpost on a trading network) to colonial town in itself dramatically altered the region's orientation. By the mid-30s, very few pilgrims on the Hajj traveled through the once-well-visited town and no Koranic school operated. The French did their all to arrest and punish any possible "transfuges" (defectors/deserters) who might try to avoid their labor (they still used tipoyes for transport!) and tax requirements by resettling in Sudan, where rumor had it the British allowed people to live more freely.

The French presence was never great, but the various wars they pursued in the early years of their rule ensured their hegemony over potential rivals for a time. In the process, once-rich, vibrant, and violent societies withered. I am hoping my research will show some of the ways how the old connections have regrown, assuming new forms but influenced by historical relationships, in recent decades. But many questions remain:

* Ndele again has a sultan, but his background is not clear from the reports I've found so far in the archives. What are his powers now, and how did he come to have them? I know that some of the contemporary armed group leaders have backgrounds (Gula, Runga) that trace to the losing side of the turn of the century raiding.
* Who are the modern-day bazinguers (the sultan's soldiers), how do they see themselves, and how do the populations they visit see them?
* Again on these bazinguers: who are the elusive elephant poachers (who kill more than 1000 elephants in a single dry season, according to some estimates), rumored to contain Sudanese military officials among their ranks? What are their connections to the various armed groups in the area, and especially the Chadian/Centrafrican military entrepreneurs that pop up at the head of various armed movements over the years?
* What to make of the new presence of the international system, the UN and NGOs, with their benevolent aims and surfeit of unintended consequences?

The perpetual doubt of the dissertator remains: am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Will I find these connections and raiding networks? A foreign visitor to Ndele, where I plan to do research, will likely perceive it as incredibly isolated, poor and remote, barely able to feed itself, just like the administrator mentioned above. Anthropologists like to try to reverse those stereotypes and instead show the fecundity of supposedly stagnant and "underdeveloped" social systems. There is more than a grain of truth, however, in the foreigner's initial perception, and the challenge will be to balance recognition of that reality while also stretching it apart to reveal what it fails to see.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Believe you me

Yesterday I came across a letter sent by a British administrator in Bahr-el-Ghazal in 1918 to his counterpart on the French side of the border apologizing for his inability to come to a meeting. He closed:

"With kind regards, believe you, my dear Sir,
Yours sincerely,
Maud, Captain."

The voice of a dandy suddenly rang out in the silent reading room.

This got me thinking about the different standards of politesse that accompany different languages, and particularly in Arabic, where the first four or five paragraphs of a letter praise Allah and the recipient.

Late 19th century/early 20th century Central Africa saw a momentary surge in diplomatic correspondence in Arabic, thanks to greater integration with the trading societies to the north. Xavier Luffin has written some fascinating articles about the brief flowering of Azande letters to the British, which was quickly squelched by Christian missionaries.

Unfortunately, the recipients of these letters, whether French or English, did not seem to particularly appreciate the salutations extended them by their African interlocutors. Often, translations would include only, "Salutations, etc..."

And yet sometimes those are the parts that communicate the most.

Granted, I did the same.

The Sultan of Bangassou

I have mentioned Sultan Senoussi several times already. But he was just one of the Sultans of the Haut-Oubangui. To his south ruled the Sultan of Bangassou. He received pride of place in French reports about the rapacious natives. They claimed his people were cannibals who reserved the most-tender flesh of children for their ruler. They characterized his rule as authoritarian, capricious and violent.

I recently discussed this with Thierry, a friend who is a direct descendent of the Sultan of Bangassou. Thierry related a story his grandfather used to tell. He lived in a village undisturbed by outsiders. When they heard gunfire, they thought it was thunder, and shook their heads at the strangeness of thunder on a sunny day. One day, they heard the sultan's raiders from afar. They all ran toward some caves just beyond their houses and hid. But Thierry's grandfather sensed something, he wasn't sure what, and he pulled his family out of the cave, and they ran through the bush. When the raiders arrived, they immediately figured out the village hiding spot, and they gathered thatch, packed it into the cave's opening, and set it ablaze. All inside perished. The raiders then set about pillaging the village; their salary for service to the sultan was free rein to reap the spoils of the areas beyond his domain. (Not unlike the warrior-king system in Norway, mentioned in this post.)

Thierry's grandfather and his young family survived, of course, thanks to the grandfather's premonition. But before long they were incorporated into Bangassou as slaves. With the growing French presence, at around the age of ten Thierry's father went to work for an administrator as a houseboy. A few years later, he and one of the sultan's daughters fell in love, and eventually won the agreement of their families to their union. Thus the son of a slave became royalty.

This suggests one oft-cited difference between slavery of the trans-Atlantic system, the model most Americans and Europeans are familiar with, and slavery in a place like Central Africa. Social mobility tended to be much greater in the latter. Any tendency to romanticize such "traditional" systems, however, is quickly arrested by the memory of all the people who stayed in the cave.

Slavery vs. forced labor

In the months before a French officer assassinated Sultan Senoussi and his probable successor, colonial officials sent a flurry of reports (flurry at least considering the difficulties of transport through the territory) crescendoing in alarm over the dangers the Sultan posed to their dominance. After Senoussi's death, the French justifications for killing him increased in moralizing and rationality. The moral arguments centered on the fact that the primary driver of Senoussi's economy was slave-raiding. He trades men the way only cattle should be treated, they wrote. Now, the people of Dar el Kuti can be human again, and their land can prosper. The rational arguments centered on the way that Senoussi would agree to their administrative projects, as if he shared in them, and then go and do his own thing (raiding, trading) anyway. This became a critical issue because the French sorely lacked food and labor. They told Senoussi to conscript laborers for their road-building and plantations, and they told him to uproot several villages and re-site them along their supply route, the better for inhabitants to "offer" their services as porters. (The institution of "portage" in CAR has an ugly history. Porters were forced to carry loads as heavy as 65 kg -- for the Americans out there, that's 143 pounds -- and often went unfed and unhoused during their treks.) In sore need of labor and food himself, and with his own projects for expansion, Senoussi did not fulfill these demands.

With Senoussi (and, over a span of some twenty years, the region's other sultans as well) gone, the French system of forced labor became institutionalized through the "impôt" (tax). The continual problem of colonies like Oubangui-Chari was their insolvency. Concessionary companies could turn good profits, but administration required creating a tax base in a place where no one had any money. So people could only acquit their debt through labor, often for a substantial portion of the year. In many of the documents I have found describing the early years of the impôt, administrators' main worry is population exodus -- people fled to Anglo-Egyptian Sudan or even the notorious Belgian Congo to escape such an onerous demand. In theory, taxes are supposed to be a trade: you pay something, you get something back (protection, social services). But people in Oubangui-Chari paid something, and got nothing back. A directive from the Lt. Governor in Bangui in 1918, for instance, ordered administrators to halt treatment for sleeping sickness (too expensive). (The Belgians in Congo, in contrast, still offered it, making their side of the river attractive to Central African sufferers.)

This state of affairs begs a comparison: in what ways was the political economy of raiding and slavery under Senoussi different from the political economy of forced resettlement and forced labor under the French? According to the French, people were happy to be out from Senoussi's grip. Residents no doubt hoped the people of "Dar Franci" (the land of the French) would protect them from raiders while permitting them to live on their own. And with the defeat of the sultanates of Wadai and Darfur, they no longer faced such threats from marauders. But in some ways, the actual changes to their lives were few: they were still being controlled in ways quite different from how they lived on their own.

When tracing the trajectory political life has taken, it is important to parse out both the continuities and the ruptures. Anthropologists, led by Clifford Geertz, are trained to interpret. Historians are trained never to do so. I try to keep my anthropologist tendencies in check when perusing these archives, but refraining from reading into the words is a constant battle when faced with the tedium of fat files of disorganized memos.

I still have many questions about slavery and forced labor, and especially how people experienced them, and I will return to this topic in future posts.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

For your next vacation...Norwegian prisons

Jeremy Weate on Naijablog posted about the British government's decision to build a prison in Nigeria to house Nigerians who committed crimes in the UK. Much more cost-effective, obviously.
Which made me think of this story, and this one, which appeared in the two main Norwegian newspapers on the same day last summer. For those who don't read Norwegian, the first headline is "Foreigners in Norwegian Prisons Don't Want to Go Home," and the second "Foreign Criminals Take their Vacation in Norwegian Prisons." There have been a lot of articles like that in the Norwegian press; a favorite one profiled a Lithauanian man who really enjoyed his Ikea-style dorm room, internet-enabled computer, and distance from his family with their incessant demands.

This brings me to the whole world of the bizarre that is the Norwegian prison, at once wonderfully enlightened and entirely naive.

Take this article. Headline: "Greased Himself in Cooking Oil and Escaped from Prison." Unfortunately, his cellmate was too fat and got stuck. Which is not so different from one of the opening scenes of Hawaii, Oslo, a blockbuster (by Norwegian standards) film from 2004.

Or this article. Written by a former prisoner, it describes a land of unlimited resources where the intended rehabilitative purposes of prison actually seem to work. A little rah-rah Norway in perspective -- understandable given the author's experiences in less-enchanted lock-ups.

Which reminds me: did they ever catch those guys who stole The Scream?

Independence day?

This is an area "that pompous reports unfortunately earlier presented as rich and fertile, which is far from the exact truth" ("que des rapports trop pompeux ont malheureusement présenté, jadis, comme riche et fertile, ce qui est loin de l’exacte vérité"). So wrote a colonial military official in 1903. He was describing the territory that had recently been named Oubangui-Chari, today's CAR. Plowing through documents in the archives, I find myself reading emotions and frustrations into the words, like a Ken Burns documentary soundtrack playing in my head. This writer's voice, for instance, seems to drip with tightly-controlled, almost-sarcastic anger.

Fifty-seven years later, as colonialism was drawing to a close, another administrator offered a sober assessment: "Oubangui merits a place of choice among the under-developed countries, and only the support of the Metropole enables it to live as it does now" ("l’Oubangui mérite une place de choix parmi les pays sous-développés, et que seules les finances de la Métropole permettent au Territoire de vivre sur le pied où il vit actuellement"). The quote comes from a long report listing various challenges of administering this inhospitable terrain, and by the end I almost got the impression that the French would be perfectly happy to let go of this ugly stepchild of their empire. "You want independence? Eh, OK," I could almost imagine them saying, with a shrug. Place is no good to us, anyway.

I couldn't help but wonder, what if CAR had said no to independence? Clearly, none of these events unfolded as I'm positing here, so my question is hypothetical on multiple levels. But I don't think Central Africans today would entirely mind being a French department, with the passports and health care and educational opportunities that would afford.

As it turns out, one outpost of the French empire DID find itself in a situation of choosing independence or the French fold and picked the latter. In 1974 and again in 1976, the people of Mayotte, an island in the Comoro archipelago, voted to be a French overseas collectivity. And earlier this year, with 99% of the vote, they chose to become a French department and thus gain full access to French social welfare programs and EU benefits. Meanwhile, the rest of the Comoros Islands have endured more than twenty coups or attempted coups and claim Mayotte as their own. At this point, it becomes difficult to tell who is doing the colonizing.

The people of Mayotte are largely ethnically Comoran, like elsewhere in the islands. GDP per capita on Mayotte, though far lower than in mainland France, is 9 times that of the other islands. One French friend described Mayottians (something tells me that's not the right descriptor -- suggestions?) as "racist" against Comorans, who come to Mayotte in droves in hopes of better opportunities there or in Europe, whether for work or, say, giving birth in the better-functioning hospitals.

All of which calls for a comparative project, no? I could deal with a bit of fieldwork here.

P.S. See also this excellent piece (subscriber only, unfortunately) by Ian Parker about Tokelau's deliberations over freeing itself from the Kiwi yoke.

States and warrior kings

At the BNF (Bibliothèque nationale de France, for acronymophilic francophones) the other day I came across some fascinating books describing conquest models of state formation.

One account that particularly captured my attention was Janet Ewald's
(1990) Soldiers, Traders, and Slaves: State Formation and Economic Transformation in the Greater Nile Valley, 1700-1885. Ewald describes transformations in 18th-19th-century Taqali, a small place in Sudan's Nuba Mountains.

Permit me to include a few lengthy quotes, because they provide a good synopsis:

Soldiers, traders, and slaves are analytically valuable, for each figure embodies a particular way of gaining resources. Wielding the means of destruction, soldiers aggrandized themselves with the spoils of war. Traders gained wealth through their control over the means of exchange. Slaves linked soldiers and traders. Soldiers produced the slaves whom traders exchanged. Richard Roberts has elegantly argued that the dynamics of warrior states, especially the need for warriors to reproduce themselves by capturing and forcibly recruiting slaves, structured the performance of the regional economy in the Middle Niger. Reproduction, however, involves more than incorporating new soldiers. Everywhere soldiers, traders, and slaves had to eat; one way or another, they lived off the land and its produce. My book investigates how soldiers and traders in Taqali and other states of the greater Nile valley transformed, or failed to transform, their power over coercion and exchange into power over land and slave labor (p. 7).

Under this conquest regime, the roles of slaves, soldiers, and traders overlapped. Slaves became soldiers; soldiers traded; and traders commanded soldiers. The ability of traders to assume the resources previously claimed by the state, including soldiers, accounts for both the expansion of the slave-raiding frontier and the aggrandizement of traders behind that frontier. The chapter closes by suggesting that the increasing power of merchants led to the crisis which the Mahdiyya violently tried to resolve (p. 9).

The warrior-king, however, was a profoundly ambiguous figure, both predator and protector. Highlanders looked to him for defense against enemies and perhaps for the riches of booty. But they also feared his armed horsemen...The Taqali kingdom was built around two processes. Warrior-kings tried to transform their access to the means of destruction into access to the means of production and exchange. At the same time, their highland subjects sought to gain the benefits while avoiding the dangers of rule by warrior-kings. Confronting each other, kings and subjects continued to build their kingdom until Mahdist forces destroyed their still-unfinished work. The Taqali kingdom, to borrow the title of Willis's book about the Fipa, was a 'state in the making.' It became a completed structure only when descendants of the kings reconstructed it in their memories (182).

Richard Fardon (1988) describes a similar state of affairs in his book Raiders and Refugees: Trends in Chamba Political Development, 1750-1950. The Chamba live in present-day Cameroon and Nigeria, and their expansion in the late-18th to 19th century owed to their bellicose strategies: they would attack villages and destroy villages, taking the de facto control of the land and anyone still living. Once they ran out of space, they developed a more centralized, sedentary system of rule.

An aside:
We've become used to stories of bellicose Africans; the news is filled with stories of bloodshed. But one of the places today recognized as among the most peaceful on earth shares this warrior-king political background: Norway. (As a Norwegian citizen studying Central Africa, allow me a brief moment to enjoy my weird, quasi-karmic moment.) Norway was home not only to marauding seafarers, but also to raiding rulers (Ewald provides some citations).
In Norway, the ruling elite supported themselves by raiding for slaves and goods. That way, by targeting the zones just beyond the frontier, they were able to avoid getting their own population to support them. However, once they were no longer able to take slaves, and ran out of space, they had to subjugate their own peasant population. Northern Ireland, too, has a history of raiding, in a somewhat different form, such as represented in the epic poem Tain Bo Cuailnge, which is about a heroic cattle-raid in the Ulster area in the early Christian era. One of the leaders was the 17-year-old Cuchulainn, and object of such desire and power was the Dun Bull. "The Dun Bull of Cualnge, for whose sake Ailill and Medb, the king and queen of Connaught, undertook this expedition, was one of two bulls in whom two rival swineherds, belonging to the supernatural race known as the people of the Sid, or fairy-mounds, were re-incarnated, after passing through various other forms" (quote from David Nutt's introduction, p. b).

What do we learn from the conquest regimes and warrior-kings? For one thing, that the 19th century was a period of vast upheaval, widespread intensification of raiding, and political, economic and social transformation on the African continent. In some places, the 19th century developments may even have been more sweeping than, or at least on par with, those brought subsequently with European colonialism. Scholars (see, for instance, Crawford Young's book The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective) have illuminated the depravities and authoritarian legacies of colonial regimes. That scholarship teaches us that there's no such thing as a clean slate when it comes to politics; present structures always reflect the sedimentation of modes of rule over time. Work like Ewald's reinforces this point and also helps avoid colonial-blame-games. It doesn't necessarily make solving the problems of unaccountable governance any easier though.

CAR: A Real Country?

With Virginie, the youngest marathoner.

When Haiti's Jean-Bertrand Aristide was granted amnesty in South Africa, an American military plane stood ready to deposit him there. But the plane needed a refueling site on the African continent. The French ministry of foreign affairs suggested Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic (CAR). Upon hearing this generic-sounding name, the pilot quickly dialed the State Department to ask if it was a real country. So relates Roland Marchal ("Aux Marges du monde en Afrique Centrale...", 2009).

I have several versions of this story myself. My favorite involves a translator I once worked with. In 1996, she was the youngest competitor at the Atlanta Olympics. According to her passport, she turned eleven during the games. Her event? The marathon. It was her first time running such a long distance, and she came in dead last but thoroughly happy because of the enthusiasm of the crowd cheering on such a tiny and improbable competitor. At the athletes' village cafeteria, she approached a group of Ethiopian women. When she told them where she was from, they professed never to have heard of such a place. Never had she felt so small, not even when French schoolchildren more familiar with the place (which had been a French colony) teased her by calling her a "mangeur d'hommes", a reference to the widely-believed (but most likely untrue) rumors about the country's erstwhile Emperor Bokassa.

Yes, CAR exists. There are plenty of people living there to prove it. But the government exhibits few of the characteristics the theory of rational-bureaucratic states would suggest. It is easily one of the most de-institutionalized states in the world. To understand what it IS, rather than simply what it is not, it helps to consider the region's history.

Until the late 18th/early 19th century, when Bagirmi merchants moved into the area, the territory that became the CAR was largely home to de-centralized groups of farmers, herders, and fishermen. Over the course of the 19th century, Arab raiders from the north -- coming largely from Darfur and Wadai in present-day Sudan and Chad -- intensified operations in Central Africa. Particularly under Rabah, Sultan of present-day Bahr el Gazal (Sudan) from about 1869 until his assassination by the French in 1900, the raiding became continual. Rabah picked Senoussi, son of a cleric, to rule over a colony that became known as Dar al Kuti in the northeastern CAR. Dar al Kuti was the southernmost outpost of the raiding empire, and over the course of just twenty years (1890-1911), Senoussi de-peopled large swathes of the country. His bazinguer fighters would attack, grab hostages, pillage food, and uproot entire villages to work on the vast plantations they established. Resisters were killed; those who acquiesced were incorporated into the life of the growing settlement or sold to north-bound traders. To the people he attacked, he was a powerful marauder. But he couldn't have persisted without first the support of his more-powerful neighbors to the north and later the support of France (which was somewhat unwitting -- they initially didn't realize their attempts to weaken him were actually strengthening him and in the end they assassinated him too; note to self: don't include gifts of guns in treaties with people you hope to defeat). His hold on territory was never total, but rather in flux, as his men raided and attempted to expand. Some villages were allowed to remain independent provided they paid requisite tributes; others fled and escaped to regions beyond Senoussi's reach. There were similar dynamics elsewhere in the country, such as Bangassou, where another sultan ruled by raiding and incorporating, but always in a delicate situation vis-à-vis the stronger powers in the area and dependent on them for trade and commerce. Today, few have heard of Bangassou or Ndele, capital of Dar al Kuti, but at the turn of the century they were as big as or bigger than Abéché, in eastern Chad. (Ndele and Bangassou's populations plummeted with the establishment of French hegemony and have only risen to their 1900-levels, while Abéché has grown four-fold to some 80,000.)

In CAR now, there are elements of the current situation that are analogous to this history, particularly in terms of the regional relationships and the existence of political-military-economic strategies of raiding. President Bozizé took power in a coup in 2003 (and went on to win elections in 2005). His coup would not have succeeded without the support of various countries in the region, but most especially Chad. In fact, most of the fighters -- about 4/5 -- who helped him take Bangui were Chadian. Chadian support (and French support when an armed group threatened in 2006), have been decisive in Bozizé's ability to retain the executive mansion. Bozizé controls the capital but little area around it. When he armed resistance arose in 2006, his troops' strategy was to attack and burn hundreds of villages in the vicinity of the insurgency.

This is not to suggest that nothing has changed in a hundred years, or that the area is somehow stuck in the past. (The colonial period was, among other things, brutal, and relied at first on administrators who had been kicked out of the Belgian Congo, ostensibly for being too harsh.) But it helps to know something about the political repertoires leaders are drawing from and the trajectory their rule represents.

Many African philosophies suggest something along the lines of the idea of "wealth in people," or "a person is a person by virtue of relationships with other people", which is posited as an alternative to the individual-centric phenomenologies like "I think, therefore I am." The most famous example is the South African idea of ubuntu. Stripping these ideas of their humanist-equality overlay, one might suggest a corollary: a state is a state by virtue of its relationships with other states. Unlike the UN Charter would have it, these states are decidedly unequal.

Yikes -- does this make me some kind of Kissinger-style realist? I'm going to say no.

In a later post, I'd like to look more at the idea of the warrior-king model of state formation, which was widespread in North-Central Africa and far beyond.


I have mulled starting a blog for years. Two years ago, I even set up a couple of initial pages, one on the Central African Republic and one on Eastern Equatoria, in South Sudan. But mostly the brief bursts of inspiration gave way to inertia. Now, though, as I've started my PhD research (provisional title: "Raiding Sovereignty in Central African Borderlands"), I have found myself missing the extended-lunch discussions I had back on campus, and my brain feels submerged in observations, ironies, and questions. Writing up some of my thoughts becomes an alternate way of working through the ideas. If for an audience of one, so much the better. (Mostly I'm just hoping that keeping in the practice of writing will help me avoid total meltdown once dissertation-writing time comes around.) I'll still miss Kevin's jokes, but I'm afraid that's unavoidable for now.

Broadly, some of the themes that interest me lie around the intersections of political and legal theory, anthropology, and history, with a particular focus on sovereignty and the state, and the ethics and practice of militarized political economies.

I named my blog "Foole's no man's land" for a couple of reasons. The figure of the Foole comes from Hobbes' Leviathan. In different ways, political anthropologists from E.E. Evans-Pritchard onward have considered themselves in conversation with this text. Hobbes provides a masterful theoretical argument for leaving the lawless, war-of-all-against-all state of nature in favor of submission to a sovereign, the keeping of covenants, and, most importantly, the pursuit of self-interest. Anthropology's starting point, in contrast, was among so-called "stateless" people, who, despite never submitting to a sovereign, seemed to be getting along just fine.

The Foole plays an interesting role in Hobbes' text. The "Foole" has noticed that there are times when self-interest and the keeping of covenants do not align. Hobbes allows that in such cases a person might break a covenant, but should not break a covenant loudly or explicitly, but rather do it silently, weighing the risks of getting caught (this interpretation comes from an article by Kinch Hoekstra; it's not the only interpretation of Hobbes' Foole, but to my mind it's the most interesting and the most convincing). Early anthropologists tended either not to see self-interest as the guiding force in the societies they studied, or they saw a flavor of self-interest so different from that of western, capitalist society as to become almost unrecognizable as such. Maybe because of this, they ignored the Fooles in the societies they studied; the analysis they offered suggested well-ordered, functional social systems with no dissenters or scofflaws.

Here, I'd like to bring back in the Fooles and other surprises of law and politics in the modern world. I study an area that is something of a no man's land. The Central African Republic is a state that exists on maps, and as a member of the United Nations, but not as a sovereign governor in the vast, sparsely populated terrain outside the capital. And it's a no man's land home to many Fooles, bandits and otherwise, who transgress boundaries and borders both physical and social to create opportunities within and beyond the space they inhabit.

So, here goes.