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.”)

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