Sunday, November 8, 2009

Hungry soldiers

We stayed in Koubou later than we should have so that the Sister and her helpers could buy manioc, peanuts, and honey from the women there. Darkness enveloped us for most of the drive back. The headlights illuminated the basketball-player height grasses that very nearly engulf the dirt track this time of year, and my view out the front windshield looked just like what a Scuba diver would see through her mask.

A few kilometers from Ndele, a flashlight waved us down. It was a soldier, who proceeded to ask us where we had been and pan his light over the truck's contents, a hungry look in his eyes. The sacks of manioc disappointed him. He had hoped to find bush meat, which, being illegal, he could easily seize (to eat). In a beaten-down patch of grass beside the road a group of about ten women and children hurried to re-position the basins they carry on their heads while the soldier was busy with us. A few quickly disappeared through the grass, and the others made to follow them. They were en route back from the fields after a long day of work until the soldier stopped them to see what he could shake them down for.

Disappointed, the soldier let us pass. Everyone in the vehicle began tut-tutting. “Ce n'est pas normal!” Except, sadly, though it might not be “normal” it is certainly usual here. The soldiers supplement whatever salary they receive by requisitioning from the population. The interdiction of bush meat indirectly favors this practice, because it gives the soldiers a law to use as a pretext. The ministry of water and forests is one of the best posts a soldier can get. (Even the armed group that controls the road leading north from Ndele, which has distributed various posts to its members, has apparently established its own ministry of water and forests.)

While researching Central Africa in the archives, I often felt déjà vu as I read about the armies of old. The sultans who ruled in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries raided with large armies. A sultan expected his soldiers to take their own salaries by raiding the populations just beyond the domain of the sultanate. Even at that point, the French decried the armies' undeveloped tactical maneuvers and general rapaciousness – attacking people rather than fighters, burning villages. (It should be noted that the system the French replaced the sultanates' armies with, the regional guards, treated people even worse.) The first treaty signed between Senoussi and the French, in 1899, included what I consider CAR's first security sector reform (SSR) project: the stipulation that Senoussi would permit French officers to train his troops. For the more than a century since then, CAR's armed forces have been in a near-continuous state of SSR. And yet very little has changed.

I mentioned in an earlier post how surprised I was to find that everyone, ex-pat and national alike, saw the state as the solution. The state needs to patrol and surveille its territory; otherwise armed groups – whether foreign or Central African – will continue to run rampage over this vast, nearly-unpopulated reservoir of resources. These comments remind me of a moment in a meeting of UN officials I attended in New York, during which we discussed the prospects for SSR in CAR. One man did some quick calculations: the size of the army in my country is x, compared to a land mass of y; he realized quickly the absurdity of expecting the CAR armed forces (maybe 5000 men, of whom less than 2000 reasonably-well trained) to control what goes on in their country's territory, which is the size of Texas and has almost no roads. The French realized this in the 1950s, and it was one of the reasons they gave up the colony without too much of a fight.

And yet we keep advocating SSR because what can you do besides work with the state form, in this day and age? I find myself highly critical of SSR and yet unsure what would work better. In his recent study of CAR, “Au marges du monde en Afrique Centrale,” Roland Marchal points out that the World Bank study “Voices of the Poor” entirely misrepresented the results of their survey of Central African priorities. The report ranks “security” as the number one priority, when in reality people seek economic development.

After decades of failed development projects, international planners (and the government officials who play to donor priorities) have positioned security as the prerequisite for development and therefore prioritize programs like SSR and DDR. In reality, of course, security and development have a chicken-and-the-egg relationship. Is it wholly naïve to suggest we go back to re-emphasizing the economic side of things?

(In fairness, not all the soldiers feed off the population. The president's special forces – the Presidential Guard – are thugs, as are many regular soldiers, but a lot of the officers are friendly and respectful guys. I played soccer yesterday with some lieutenants, among others, and though one kneed me awfully hard in the thigh, I can't chalk that up to anything other than my own deficient skills. Our goalie – not a soldier – was the best player on the pitch. He walked with great difficulty owing to an atrophied leg, but his hands magically always found the ball.)

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