Sunday, July 19, 2009

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.

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