Thursday, January 28, 2010

RIP Bokassa

Bokassa, the ludicrously voluble volleyball player (how many times did he yell at me for missing the ball or pinging it off the pitch? I lost count) and alleged son of the ex-emperor, was the first Central African soldier to die when the rebels attacked Ndele two months ago. He drove the rocket launcher-mounted truck, which the rebels hoped to capture. I can't help but wonder if his bad temper contributed in some way to his demise.


(The abysmally slow connection here has kept me from posting in a few days.)

Father Yves extended a place mat-sized black-and-white photo toward me and said, “Find me.” The photo showed a young, not-yet-emperor, Bokassa standing next to a silky-haired, large-nosed woman in a wedding dress and veil. The stood indoors inside Bangui's main cathedral. Father Yves pointed to part of a book, visible at the left-hand side: “That's me – I was holding that book!” The next photo showed Bokassa's coronation. Father Yves gestured just to the left of the scene captured in the frame: “I was sitting there!”

Father Yves, a missionary with the Spiritin order of the Catholic church, left France for Oubangui-Chari in 1952 and has lived here ever since. In contrast to the aid workers and diplomats and Lebanese businesspeople (and me, more often than I'd care to admit) who bemoan this country's crushing torpor and imperceptible progress, Yves emphasized with wonder how quickly, how unimaginably, the place has changed in the 58 years he has been here.

When he arrived, no Central African held any position of authority. A few years later, a Central African was named to a responsible position with the postal service and “Everyone thought it was a mistake! No one would have guessed that in 1958 they would have more autonomy and in 1960 independence!” At that point, if you went to PK5 (5km from the center of town), the people would be dressed in nothing but a small piece of hide.

Father Yves was also a friend of CAR's only founding father, Barthelemy Boganda. Boganda was a priest like Yves but was defrocked for failure to maintain his vow of celibacy. Yves went to Boganda's house for a reconciliatory coffee with Boganda and his wife and kids, and then a short time later (1958) he was part of the team that went out to the site of Boganda's crashed plane and recuperated his remains.

For someone no doubt expecting the quiet life of a missionary, Father Yves has somehow had a front seat at all of CAR's most famous – or infamous – moments.

He took a trip to the United States once, and he stayed with his fellow Spiritin at their mission in what he described as a “quartier populaire” in New York City. He rode the subway – “under the ground! All by myself!” He was living in a quartier populaire in CAR then, a neighborhood so packed that if you stretched out your arm inside your house you'd hit your neighbor's. He lived simply. In New York, what struck him about the missionaries' life was that they too lived simply, but that made them have about the same socioeconomic level as those around them, or perhaps a bit below. In CAR, even living as simply as they did, they were still the whites – they were still the rich ones. And so the expectations they have for each other are entirely different, as are the dynamics of their relationships. In CAR, missionaries are important personalities, on a local and sometimes a national scale. In New York, I'm guessing they're known only to their congregants. Same title, but how different the job.

Father Yves seemed happy he had ended up in Central Africa.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Chabal and de Waal...and me(?)

In Alex de Waal's recent two-part review of Patrick Chabal's “Africa: The Politics of Smiling and Suffering,” he argues that the north of Equatorial Africa belt that Chabal excludes from his analysis in fact offers rich insights to corroborate and expand his argument. Rather than delving into the particularities of Chabal's points, which seem heartfelt and frustrated enough to make good fodder for an African Studies class, though perhaps at the risk of encouraging a bit of hubris on the part of students (he might inspire them to do things differently, and better, without realizing that his critiques sometimes verge on caricature), I'd like to discuss some of the material de Waal presents, because in a way it describes what I am hoping to do with my own research. His writing was thus both an inspiration and a reminder to get down to work – I have much to go before I pretend to comprehend these kinds of processes and mentalities.

De Waal draws attention to the ways that the areas north of Equatorial Africa were drawn into the world economy through integration into largely Muslim raiding empires. He writes:

The characteristic form of successful Sudanic states was an assimilatory empire, managed through clientelism and organized violence. The trans-Saharan links enabled the states in the Sudanic belt to adopt organizational technologies that could allow clientilistic political models to function on a far larger scale. Paramount among these was Islam...At their zenith, the Sudanic and Ethiopian empires ruled their domains as three concentric circles. The inner circle was the fully administered territory, where a centralized patrimony controlled political life. In the second circle loyalty was bargained, with local chiefs enjoying a degree of autonomy, and negotiating their obligations to the centre. The outer circle was a zone of influence, where power was exercised by the intermittent use of force. The nature of patron-client relations varied according to the circle.”

In the outer circle, where force was used, the raiding party ruled. However, even in these outer regions the raiders would establish zariba – outposts for trading and pilgrimage pit-stops.

In summary, pre-colonial chiefly administration in the Sudanic states was more instrumental in support of a power hierarchy than the world of reciprocal obligation described by Chabal for elsewhere in Africa.”

However, this is where I – who has yet to be able to access Chabal's book and so am relying on the reviews I've found to form my analysis – would tweak both Chabal's and de Waal's points. The world of reciprocal obligation “perverted” (yes, Chabal uses this word) by colonial command-and-control may once have existed, but in many places it had already been profoundly re-shaped by the kinds of raiding and integration that de Waal describes by the time the Europeans set up a physical presence on the continent. Across Africa in the late 19th century, raiders transformed the political, economic and social landscape. From Tippu Tip, who traded and raided from his base on Zanzibar far into Central Africa to Senoussi, sultan of Dar-al-Kuti (where I'm doing my research, in the north of modern-day CAR) to the Chamba expansion in Nigeria, these transformations, which in some instances represented a form of colonialism and in others terror, have, in my opinion, been neglected in the midst of the contemporary emphasis on the lasting effects of European colonialism. I'm curious to see the ways in which this raiding colonialism, which in CAR coexisted with French colonialism for a couple of decades, has affected the political repertoire of current leaders and the expectations of the governed. CAR is an ideal place to carry out this project because the colonial administration was so half-hearted, victim of continual budget cuts, and the French even ruled through the raiding sultans for several decades.

As a part-time historian at best, I find it challenging to delineate precisely how the political life of a century ago has influenced the reality today. One could argue, for instance, that the CAR state fits the model of three circles rule: the elite form the first circle; urban residents – because of their potential for disorder – the second; and the hinterlands, whose residents are generally ignored except when they are attacked, the third. But that seems possibly too facile. On top of that, educated people tend to be sufficiently familiar with the anodyne “good governance” platitudes hammered home by UN and other aid programming that they stick to that script instead of delving into the actual workings of the political system here.

In any event, if anyone has any tips or reading suggestions, I'm all ears.

Legitimate state, illegitimate corruption? Or vice versa?

An American company recently sought to open a gold mine in northeastern CAR. Gold mining can have massive harmful effects on the environment, but the company worked to minimize the damage by using innovative, cyanide-free mining techniques. They also wanted to use the best labor practices – no Dante-esque scenes of child miners here for Sebastiao Selgado's progeny to snap – and planned to establish community development funds and a number of other projects to benefit area residents. In addition, they would build and maintain a CAR-Cameroon railway and also repair the region's roads. Even those skeptical of the local benefits of mining agreed that this company strove to do things right. The company director arrived at his appointment with the minister in charge of permits for such undertakings. The minister, ensconced in his office full of the over-large furniture that is fashionable among the Central African elite, asked point-blank: where is my money? The company director explained what he was hoping to do and that he couldn't pay bribes or gifts. When it became clear that he wouldn't budge, the minister stood, turned to his personal security guard and punched him the in face, apparently out of frustration. The company director took this as a cue to depart. A week later, his company's mining concession was revoked.

I heard this story a few days ago. I heard it second-hand, so some details may have been embellished, but it follows a narrative of corruption that, if stereotype, is stereotype because it happens so very often here. Many are the people I've known who have tried to set up businesses in CAR but failed for lack of bribery-funds. (Some businesspeople, like those of a diamond buying house I know, seem to have found an equilibrium of bribes that remains profitable for them, but few manage to achieve this delicate balance.) Tell this to a non-“dignitaire” Central African and he or she will most likely cluck with disgust and frustration. That's not to say that, given the constellation of factors (generally precarious lives) that people here face, these people on the street wouldn't behave similarly if given the chance. But they don't tend to see it as legitimate, either in the abstract, ideal-world sense or in the practical sense of the brakes it places on their country's economic development.

Hearing stories like this over and over makes one wonder: at what point, if ever, does the state cease to be recognized as a state? Is there anything a country could do to lose credibility, to render itself no longer a (theoretically) sovereign entity? Regrettable nomenclature of “failed states” and facile analyses of globalization notwithstanding, there is really very little a state can do to fail. Even Somalia, the “failed state” par excellence, has not failed in the international system, where it is assumed to fulfill its independence-era borders despite a lack of government for the time being.

I wonder, what if a corporate CEO or a university president behaved like the minister did, demanding money on the side and punching his associate if denied? The corporation might well Enron its way out of existence and into cautionary notoriety. The university's standards might well decline so precipitously that enrollment would plummet and it would close its doors. In both cases, there should be sufficient feedback from clients to correct bad behavior, and the categorical forms of corporation and university are not assumed to be immutable, ever-lasting containers and so a particular example may die and disappear (OK, with the partial exception of those that are “too big to fail”). Not so the state. When states are comprised of practices as flagrantly corrupt as those of the CAR minister above, their economies founder and they might lose some foreign aid, but they'll gain other, correctively-minded aid (though they'll likely scuttle anything that upsets their status quo too much such as aid projects that refuse to pay bribes). Despite the heterogeneity of the state form throughout history, it has always held a special almost peculiar legitimacy in the realms of theory and international law.

This might be partly why people here have such high hopes for what the state should do for them, even though their actual state falls short on any of their desires: they make a distinction between the state as a set of agents and processes in their actual lives and the state as an ideal that daily reality can never contradict, like the hope of heaven. Christian Lund makes a similar point in his article “Recategorizing 'Public' and 'Private' in Ghana.” In the case he describes, people made land claims in reference to an abstract, ideal version of the state that had little to do with local functionaries' comportment.

From what I've heard from my interlocutors so far, their ideal state is one that provides never-endingly for their welfare. Leaders they experienced as just were those who welcomed the hungry with plates of food. Obligatory bribes/gifts, skimming funds or materials, taking a bit on the side – these practices are more ambiguous. Rarely, though, do their benefits trickle down in the way the jobs created by the presence of more businesses would. (An aside: many of CAR's leaders' spouses and children – and the leaders themselves, on holidays – live in France or elsewhere abroad. This, too, decreases the local benefit of their skimming.)

One final note: re-reading what I've written here, I recognize the resonances with the colonial era when I describe with awe the prospect of a railroad and resource exploitation. But, quite simply, people here need jobs. The hope of a life comprised of some work other than subsistence farming is one reason many young men join armed groups and become violent entrepreneurs. And though roads can bring all sorts of negative consequences, such as an escalation of the bush meat trade, the limiting effects of isolation and “enclavement” in this country are great enough to outweigh the potential harm.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Chimps for sale

Bambi the chimp

The most interesting part of JMA was the afternoon market and exposition. Vendors filled the market stalls with the region's agricultural products. There were funny-shaped squashes and snowy piles of dried manioc, displayed like at a state fair. And there were piles of machetes and hoe blades printed with “made in Cameroon” that the seller assured me were actually made in China.

But alongside these more mundane items most was the proud display of leopard skins, two chimps and a monkey, and carved ivory, all for sale and all illegal by the letter of the law. Daniel, a friend in Obo who is also something of a fixer (he translates for the Ugandan soldiers when they have gas or uniforms or cookies to sell; he also translated for me) explained that normally one must obtain a 70,000 CFA (almost $200) permit from the Ministry of Water and Forests officials in Zemio (a good six hours away by road) if one wants to sell these products. Failure to do so gives the gendarmes sufficient pretext to seize your goods. Either way, though, strictly speaking the law forbids the sale of protected animals, whether alive or dead.

But somehow the state laws didn't apply on this, the day of greatest state power and presence. It is well-known to all that the dignitaries are the major purchasers of the wares. Daniel said the laws had been specially “relaxed” for JMA to enable locals to benefit from the dignitaries' visit. Even Daniel was in on it: a gendarme from Bangui had asked him to procure a chimp. Bambi, one of the chimps at the market, lolled on a young man's back, just like a human baby. The young man named his price as 70,000, but Daniel said this was the dignitary price – usually, you can get a baby chimp for 10,000 (about $23). Only chimp babies are docile enough to be pets; they are caught by shooting the mother and seizing the infant carried.

The illicit-goods-fest continued at the president's banquet, where an ivory salesman set up a whole table of carved tusks. (The elephants would have been relatively small, I noted sadly.)

All this fascinates me. It reminds me of the Central African leaders of the ECOFAC (EU-funded anti-poaching program) who use their jobs as privileged positions from which to consume and traffic in game meat (also, strictly speaking, illegal). Whatever else, being a state official does not seem to mean abiding by and enforcing laws. The laws do serve at least one function: they provide a pretext for seizure, should the official choose to invoke it. But it seems to get at something important that the day of the state is also the day of illegality. (This gets into the debate between Bayart et al and Chabal and Daloz about whether it makes sense to talk of criminalization/illegality if the state actors involved do not themselves view the activities as criminal or illegal. For now I'm sticking with the descriptor “illegal,” using the definition of contravention of written laws, without taking the next step of judging it “criminal.”)

World Food Day

Each year, the president chooses a benighted corner of his country to inspire by visiting for World Food Day – la Journée mondiale de l'alimentation et la femme rurale. In December of this year Obo, a town in the far Southeast (several days' drive from the capital, even once the road was fixed up for JMA) plagued by the Lord's Resistance Army for nearly two years, received the (dubious) honor. JMA (pronounced “jema”) is supposed to be a spectacle of state power and beneficence. Will the president distribute food? I asked. No... JMA is about encouraging people to grow more, came the response.

It is fitting that in a country so thoroughly propped up by international donors, the only time when the state makes its presence felt in the hinterlands is on a holiday invented by the United Nations. Before leaving for fieldwork, one of my dissertation committee members posed the following provocation, “Would the CAR exist as a state if the international donors weren't there?” I stumbled in responding then. Now, I think it is indeed the international system's insistence on treating the rent-fee-spoils structure that is CAR politics as a state that makes it appear so. It's kind of amazing how the state category never loses its legitimacy in the international realm, regardless of wholly contradictory on-the-ground realities. Even “collapsed” Somalia is still generally assumed to hew to its post-independence borders, all evidence to the contrary. No wonder it seems like a magical entity.

JMA in Obo dawned hotter and sunnier than usual. By 8am the main road was baking and bustling. Many people were wearing t-shirts and baseball caps printed with “JMA Obo, 15-16 octobre 2009”, which were made before JMA was repeatedly postponed. A group of cowboy hat-clad pom pom girls waited at the front of the parade line. Clowns, their faces painted white and their shirts and pants stuffed to give the impression of potbellies and cushioned bottoms, butted into different crowds and pleaded for alcohol from the people selling and imbibing (mostly gendarmes and dress soldiers) along the periphery. A man played a giant marimba with beautifully clear sound, and a group of dancers (accompanied by a sign carrier: “Groupe des danseurs,” just to clarify) shook to the beat. The notables began taking their seats under awnings set up for them.

And then we waited. The pom pom girls eventually sat down on their puffs; the military brass band found the shade of the beer pavilions. I bought an orange and asked the price: 25 Francs. But it was three for 25 yesterday, I protested. “Today everything has changed,” the saleswoman shrugged. Happy World Food Day.

Two young men approached and introduced themselves as Liberian soccer players. They were en route to Sudan because they had heard of some Liberians who had gotten jobs playing there. But the military roadblocks along the road in CAR had been too expensive, so they got stuck, penniless, in Obo. (I tried to find them in subsequent days, but no luck. I hope they are scoring for Juba as we speak.)

Finally, some hours later, we heard the president's plane overhead, and fifteen minutes after that his motorcade blasted through, kicking up plumes of dust. He retreated to the residence prepared for him so he could rest before the festivities. So we all waited some more, in the beating sun.

Eventually the president arrived, clad in a banana-yellow shirt that made him easy to pick out. His late arrival meant the parade was truncated – only the military bands and a few others got to take their turn in front of the president's awning. An announcer then listed the name and title of every single dignitary who had come for the occasion. “So-and-so, Chauffeur, Office Nationale de Materiel,” he called out in a slow, ponderous voice. There were at least six ONM Chauffeurs. This roll call took an hour or more.

President Bozize gave two speeches, one in French and one in Sango. In the French speech, he read through every security/development tenet you would find in the most anodyne UN document: First, we must have security, then we will work on development; but we must have gender equality...and climate change... In the Sango version, the crowd got a bit more into it, applauding when he told them to “pika maboko” and calling out in response to his promises. Functionaries assigned here will no longer stay in Bangui – they will come to their post, he said. (Whoo-hoo, I thought.) And what about food, the ostensible reason for the holiday? “First, I am working on bringing security,” he said (in fact, his government's role in security is nil – any security in the area is due entirely to its saturation with Ugandan soldiers on the prowl for LRA), “and then I will negotiate with the World Food Programme about food distributions.” What? This is the best vision you can offer up? Distributions from WFP?

That night, a crew of waitstaff brought from Bangui set up not one but two giant banquets for the visiting dignitaries. I started bantering with the waiters in Sango and they insisted I attend. “With your white skin, you're an invité!” they encouraged, without a trace of rancor. (CAR has got to be the most racist place on earth; the mere whiff of foreignness brings vast privileges.) The second banquet, spread on tables arrayed around a well-lit concrete stage, was the more lavish. French red wine, sodas and beers from Bangui, and Cameroonian bottled water filled the tables to the point of clutter. At the buffet, waiters dished out chunks from a capitaine (CAR's prized river fish) the size of a five-year-old. (Once the dignitaries had served themselves, and taken seconds, the waiters served the assembled crowds of onlookers as well.)

Bozize and his wife (incidentally, they're technically no longer married – she had remarried and lived in France when he came to power; their kids urged her to go back and reap the rewards of the good years, such as a staff of five hairstylists) sat at the center table. Bozize wore a shirt covered with pictures of himself and slogans from KNK (Kua na kua – work, nothing but work), his political party. To the crowd's delight, the first couple danced repeatedly and even stuffed money on the forehead of the dancers they particularly liked, such as a young man who “ate” and regurgitated his cigarette while shaking his legs with an incredible elasticity, and a midget.

The next day, nary a trace remained of the previous day's festivities. The president stayed until early afternoon, and then blasted back to Bangui, sparking an exodus of dignitaries. I had the misfortune to be walking in the road then and quickly became caked with the dust of tens of speeding trucks. Even the mattresses brought from Bangui – ostensibly for the hospital in Obo – were packed up and returned to the capital, now likely gracing various functionaries' homes. Within a couple of days, the generator brought by ENERCA to provide night-time electricity had ceased functioning. Some problem with the battery. Potholes are already growing on the road to Bangui, which had been fixed up specially for JMA.

And food? The markets are sparse and food prices sky-high because people are scared to go to their fields for fear of being taken by LRA. But at least oranges are again three for 25 CFA.