Saturday, August 15, 2009

The old problem of pirates

I've had several conversations in recent weeks during which my interlocutors, including one of my professors here in Osnabrück, have expounded on piracy and non-state combatants by proclaiming the newness of these threats. This is a new problem, the likes of which we've never seen before, they said.

How such commentators would do well to turn to history!

The pirate and the non-state combatant have served as the foils against whom the nation-stateLink system has defined itself and its laws of war since the 1600s, or earlier if you count Cicero's Philippics, which so inspired the 17th century theorists. (In making this observation, I'm drawing on what I read and learned in a mind-blowing course I took my first year at Duke taught by Ian Baucom, as well as some of his writings.) Opinions may differ about the extent to which these characters have become a more numerous and pressing threat in the contemporary period than they were before (my friend Jatin Dua who studies piracy has pointed out the immense challenges piracy posed to New York City in its early years), but I would hesitate before describing them as tearing apart the state-based mode of political organization when they are precisely the figures that the state has long used to justify self-preservation using whatever means necessary.

The pirate, the brigand, or other non-state combatant has appeared in many guises. To Cicero, he is the man without a state; to Hobbes, he is homo homini lupus (man who is wolf to man, i.e., someone living in the state of nature); to Zouche (a humanist international law scholar), he is inimicus (inimical to our way of life); to Kant, he is the unjust enemy; to Bush, the unlawful combatant. All distinguish between war with an enemy (another state), against whom laws of war apply, and war with this stateless other. The stateless other has violated Hobbes' first law of nature, namely that one exit the state of nature (that horrible space of war of all against all, where life is "nasty, brutish, and short") by joining into a system of covenants. Anything is permitted against someone who has committed this cardinal sin, whether the transgressor be a pirate or an apparent savage like the "Hottentots" of southern Africa, or the natives of the Americas (both of these latter groups figured prominently in the 17th century theorists' writings). In all cases, it is the form of social organization these "unjust enemies" represent that justifies harsh corrective action.

In this vein, one could see the period of European-led slavery and colonialism as a variant of this continual project of ridding the world of its "stateless" menaces. Existential fears like these do not emerge in a vacuum, but rather, as Saskia Sassen might put it, reflect the accrual and interplay of capabilities, organizing logics, and tipping points -- in a word, history.

Or maybe I've just been spending too much time in archives lately.

The "Uighur question" gets an answer in Africa

I keep thinking about a recent post on Chad blog, the project of a journalist named Celeste Hicks. The article present the statement of Mohammed El-Gharani, the youngest Guantanamo detainee, who was recently released in N'djamena. The story seemed so bizarre I wasn't sure whether to believe it, but a quick internet search provided a range of articles to confirm the skeleton of his story, which apparently first appeared on BBC. What would it be like to be held uncharged for seven years only to be plunked down in the Chadian capital and forgotten, passportless and confused?

His testimony, also available here:

I was so scared in Guantanamo. Sometimes I thought they would kill me or throw me into the ocean. I was there from 14 to 21 years of age, but sometimes I feel like I’m 40, because I’ve been through so much.

When I was in prison I called Al-Jazeera to tell them what was happening. Lots of people thought that when Obama came in things would change but it wasn’t true. In January I won my case because the judge said there wasn’t enough evidence against me. But even then I was still getting people pushing me around and not treating me well.

I don’t know why they sent me to Chad, I thought they would send me to Saudi because I was born there and my parents are still there. I’d never even be to Chad before. But when they asked me if I wanted to go to Chad I said of course I do! I could get to see my family and my country. There was no choice.

They gave me no help for the future. The day I arrived, the Americans brought me to the airport and handed me over to the Chadian authorities who welcomed me, and that was it. No more contact with them. The Chadians kept me at the police station for eight days. I don’t know why. They had to buy me a mosquito net and a mattress. I kept asking them every day why I was being kept there, they said don’t worry we’ll give you your papers you’ll get to see your family.

Finally they let me go, but I still don’t have a passport which means I can’t go to visit my parents. I don’t understand what’s going on. I’ve asked every day. Sometimes they say they don’t know if I’m really Chadian. I say if I’m not Chadian then how on earth did you guys take me from the Americans? They have no answer. I always say if I’m not Chadian, then just tell me, and if I am just give me my passport and let me live like everyone else.

Guantanamo is like a dream to me. I’m still living it, even now I’m free. Sometimes I wake up on a morning and I think I’m still there! I feel like there are guards around me, but after maybe half an hour I finally realise that I’m free. I never believed I would be there for so long, I never even believed I would go to jail. But I always knew I would get out. I read the Koran every day and I never gave up.

So I’m here in Chad now with no papers and no money, and my family are having to support me. I don’t speak Chadian Arabic and I’m still trying to learn my way around the city. But I’m free. Chad is really hot and not very developed, but I would rather spend the rest of my life here than another hour in Guantanamo.
I’m not angry with the Americans. I just want to get on with my life. I want to study, I want to work. I think I’ll try to go to school and find a job. I hope I can get back to Saudi Arabia to see my parents as soon as I can. I’m so close to them but I can’t get there. I call them every day. I tell them not to worry because I’m free now. Seven years away for no reason is inhuman.

How jealous he must be of the Uighurs, who, after a long period of uncertainty as they awaited hosts, now lounge on Bermudan beaches! (OK, that's an exaggeration, but four did end up there. Seventeen more are on their way to Palau.)

The dilemma posed by people like Mohammed El-Gharani has become known as the "Uighur question," and it's one of the biggest challenges slowing the closing of Guantanamo. What to do with people who can't return to their home countries, whether because that country won't take them, or because they risk torture there? According to Jonathan Mahler, there are sixty people at Guantanamo who have been cleared for release but have nowhere to go. Ireland recently announced it will take two. At this rate, these people might languish for months, years.

I haven't found any details about the quid pro quo the US offers to countries that accept ex-Guantanamo prisoners. It probably consists of money, or military aid, or some such tempting perk. With a system like that, it seems likely many detainees will end up in Africa. Perhaps I'll come across one in CAR. Stranger things have happened.

Hague visit

Photo: Wikimedia

It would be challenging to design a less-peaceful-looking building than the Vredespalais (Peace Palace) in the Hague. Spiky crosses jut out of the severely-angled roof like the barbs on the back of a horse-shoe crab, and a single tower on the left-hand side dominates the rest of the building (the architect had envisioned two towers, but but the project ran out of money, despite Andrew Carnegie's founding gift of what would in today's currency equal 200 million Euros). It was completed in 1913, just in time to stand sentinel beside the carnage of WWI. Tragi-irony.

The Peace Palace was intended as a solution to the problem that loomed large for the first half of the 20th century: wars between nation-states. It was to provide a neutral, posh meeting ground on which world leaders could unite to work out their disagreements civilly. As such, its failures dwarf its successes. But the threat of nation-state war has faded nevertheless.

Today, the Palace's main occupants are the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Most of the cases are secret, but the tour guide gave as an example a recent non-secret hearing between the Khartoum government and the government of South Sudan over a site of potential oil exploration.

Overall, the Peace Palace stands as an aesthetic monument to a bygone, short-lived era of nation-state grandeur and jostling. The tour guide's narrative directed my gaze from the mosaic floor (a gift constructed with the labor of "15 French girls") to a giant cross-carrying statue of Christ ("It stands only for peace, not religion -- it was a gift from Argentina and Chile commemorating the end of their border dispute") to a set of stained glass windows (thanks, England). Then we arrived at the "Japanese room," which houses silk tapestries made, our tour guide said, by 48,000 artisans (which seems ridiculously high, but they were definitely ornate), as well as a giant kilim from Turkey and Ming dynasty vases, each the size of an obese ten-year-old, from China. This chamber provided the tour's most intriguing mystery: each chair was donated by a particular country and bore an embroidered back with a flag or a crest, most of them immediately recognizable. But one contained a diamond shape half-filled in turquoise and half in white, with a pole with a red ski cap perched on top bisecting it. Any ideas who this might be? Argentina, perhaps?

On my way from the Peace Palace to Malakkastraat, in search of the home of a long-lost friend, I passed the embassy of Chechnya. From the staid, frozen-in-time pompousness of the Peace Palace, which struck me as an anachronistic artifact in an era marked by non-state enemies and the blurring of public/private distinctions, the Chechens' outpost reminded me of the intensity and ardor behind struggles for statehood, which are ongoing and play out far from the Hague's plush halls.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Dependency, extraversion, and all the rest

With my seminar on Law, Culture and Language here at the University of Osnabrück winding down, I finally have a moment to turn away from frantically playing catch-up on course topics like cultural rights (still not sure what those are, or why they are rights, a topic to which I will return) and intellectual property and instead return to working through questions nearer to my own project, here on my blog.

Today's topic: extraversion. Such a richly descriptive term, one wishes it were not a neologism, a category that too often consists of jargon created as a way of circumventing accessible, precise description.

I spent a fair amount of time in the archives reading about how the concessionary company officials interacted with African leaders in the areas they sought to exploit. What struck me was the entrepreneurial attitude with which the most powerful African leaders met the European newcomers. For instance, with no roads, few navigable waterways, and far-flung outposts in need of equipment, the sultans of Haut-Mbomou (Bangassou, Rafai, Zemio), saw an opportunity and became "veritable entrepreneurs of transport," in the words of Louis-Bernardin Metefia. In practice, this meant they excelled at (forcibly) conscripting porters. The epic story of the Faidherbe, a tugboat the French sought to transport from the Congo to the Nile, rivals Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo debacle in the South American jungle, and was possible only with the sultans' collaboration. The first concessionaires to arrive in Haut-Mbomou in the 1890s found the sultans had, to varying degrees, adopted EuropeLinkan style of dress (Bangassou wore a British general's tunic) and spoke excellent French.

All of this seems a perfect illustration of political scientist Jean-François Bayart's concept of extraversion. Bayart proposes the term extraversion to describe the ways in which Africans have actively participated in the processes that created and maintain the continent's dependent position within the global system. The continent is not marginalized or marginal, he maintains, but in recent years there has been an "aggravation of its dependence." Rather than indulging the "meanderings of dependency theory," however, he argues for the importance of analyzing the dynamics of dependence. Such an approach enables a historical reading of change, participation, and movement. Extraversion, as he terms African participation, consists of six sets of strategies: coercion, trickery, flight, mediation, appropriation, and (its opposite) rejection. Overall, then, these are rent-based modes of action. Bayart maintains that in Africa sovereignty is defined by the ability to manage dependence through rents. On the one hand, Bayart seeks to make sense of Africa's inferior position in the global economy; on the other hand, he wants to take seriously the ways in which Africans have taken external constraints and re-made them into new creations (for instance, through emulation of attractive colonial "life-styles" and religions). But in the end, he is pessimistic, describing strategies of extraversion as "pathetic when not frankly tragic" and ill-suited to solve problems of "accumulation, representation, and legitimacy" that currently plague the continent.

Extraversion is a brilliant theory. It describes some large portion of the processes through which democracy, development and other donor-fed buzzwords become so hijacked. And it describes many of the dynamics of war on the continent. Sometimes, such as when thinking about the ways armed group leaders play with qualifications in order to obtain the recognition of the international system, I wonder what remains for me to find out and describe besides the ways these strategies represent extraversion. Extraversion can seem to encompass everything.

Any totalizing theory makes me inherently suspicious. What might it miss, or distort? For one thing, it ascribes all developments in Africa as in some sense responsive/reactive to stimuli from the exterior. Bayart would take issue with describing an "interior" and "exterior" to Africa, because he sees the continent as constituted by sets of relationships whose parties cannot be isolated for the sake of analysis. Point taken. But extraversion remains a reaction, whether within the continent or beyond.

Extraversion also misses the unpredictable processes of governance and collaboration that one finds on the ground. (Foucault termed systems of governance techniques "governmentality," but in an attempt to minimize jargon on this site, I'll stick to dictionary-available approximations of this term.) Thomas Bierschenk and Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan provide a telling example in their article "Local Powers and a Distant State in Rural Central African Republic" (1997). They describe the differences between two types of Groupement d'intérêt rural (GIR, rural solidarity groups). In the associations, membership may be required (as is the case for cotton producers). The cotton producers' association is the real village treasury (the village chief gets nothing from the central state), able to raise substantial sums, thanks to inputs from members. Recognizing the importance of these associations to village life, aid donors began creating and subsidizing additional associations with organizing aims such as pig-raising or small business support. The donors bring with them large sums of money and seem to require nothing in return. Except in the case of a pig-raising project that trained a particular set of already resource-strong individuals, the outputs of these projects are next to nil. The few successful projects became sites of development tourism, with officials from Bangui and Washington (including the president of CAR) making visits, which rapidly inspired copy-cats eager to get in on the action, who used the all the trendy buzzwords like "participatory" and "community-based" to woo funds their way. In a word, these copycats are engaging in extraversion, and next to nothing remains in the village to show for it besides the installation and maintenance of a "subsidy-based mentality." The extraversion lens does not make visible the non-aid funded associations, however, which seem to be the real locus of political struggle in the village. They are there not just during the aid donors' pop-in assessment visits but all the rest of the time as well.

A full discussion of the drawbacks of aid is beyond the scope of this post. Because the roles and effects of international agencies are one of my interests, Bayart's theory of extraversion will in all likellihood be an important element of my analysis. But I hope that by drawing attention to the governance effects that accompany strategies of militarized extraversion in particular locales I might also reveal more about the ethics and political structures that organize people's daily lives.