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...