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 A week later, his company's mining concession was revoked.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.
The writing behind the written
1 day ago