Friday, October 16, 2009

The magical, problem-solving state

Time and again during my time here in CAR, I've been struck by how people look to "the state" (or, in the realist-inflected terminology of one diplomat, "le pouvoir") to solve all problems, especially the problem of conflict. I find it odd because the state here has done absolutely nothing to earn that kind of credit.

I'm in Tiringoulou, a village in northeastern CAR, a place with very nearly no state presence. The town boasts a mayor, but otherwise has only a few rebel-group gendarmes and a community- and NGO-run school and health post. And yet, when the question of the building conflict between the Gula, Tiringoulou's major ethnic group, and their neighbors the Kara comes up, the solution proposed is that the state should step in - whether the Sudanese one or the Central African one - and hold a formal peace process. Only, a meeting of kota azo (big men) requires financial means. And of course, people here have pretty much none of those. (The situation is such that I think even the Muslim at dinner had some warthog, which is unclean, like pork.)

Following the fall-out from the killing of Tiringoulou's sheikh (whose house I'm now staying in) in 2002, the Central African and Sudanese governments did meet and worked out a formal peace agreement. Sudan was supposed to build a school here, which I see no sign of. And apparently the peace didn't take, because the tensions have re-emerged in, if anything, stronger form.

I'm not sure where these thoughts will go, but I find it interesting that in the place in the world with arguably the least state presence (the army shows up occasionally and attacks, but that's about it), the state is nevertheless imagined as some kind of almost magically-powerful entity. Veena Das makes this point in her book Life and Words - the state, far from being simply a totalitarian political-theological relic, can be magical and surprising in the ways that it appears in people's lives, because the people comprising its bureaucracy have power, but not omniscience, and often don't fully understand the gray areas that surround the laws they are implementing. But Das' research is on India, where the extent of the bureaucracy is legendary. The situation here is the opposite.

This is also, incidentally, the place in the world with the least light pollution, according to National Geographic. I sat tonight and alternately slapped at the swarms of mosquitoes and admired the Milky Way, until the hum of the generator replaced that village idyll with the imperative of getting together all my notes during the day's two-hour power allotment.


  1. Great thoughts. That's always the most striking thing about the Eastern DRC to me. Despite the fact that the state has done nothing for them in 15+ years, most people still really, really believe in its authority and legitimacy. They don't want to break away; they want the state to work.

    On another note, most of the civil society leaders I interviewed there referred to the state as "le pouvoir." Turned out they all read Gramsci.

  2. Yes! Even the "rebels" just want a job in the ministry of water and forests, and they'll be content...Everyone wants that salary, though the public service part often goes neglected.