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.
An anthropologist's take on political theory - the state, sovereignty, and their boundaries and frontiers. Full explanation here.
Research described on this blog has been supported by grants from the NSF, Wenner-Gren, SSRC, USIP and Duke University, but the views expressed here are the responsibility of none but the author herself .
I am an assistant professor of anthropology at Yale University. Previously I was a Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellow in the department of geography at the University of California, Berkeley. I earned my PhD in cultural anthropology from Duke University.