Monday, December 9, 2013

My new favorite book

Every now and then someone will ask me for recommendations for books about the Central African Republic. There aren't a whole lot, but there are some good ones, particularly among the historical volumes (Zoctizoum, Cordell, Mollion...). Among the anthropological accounts, look out for Rebecca Hardin's books, which should be published soon.

But this is all just background for the real subject of this post: the book I can't stop talking about, the book that countless friends have had to endure hearing me rhapsodize about lately. It's called Bagara, and it's by Ed van der Elsken. Van der Elsken was a Dutch photographer probably best known for his work on jazz musicians. But he took one trip to Africa, to the colony of Oubangui-Chari in the mid-1950s, and Bagara is the result. The book is divided into two sections. The first covers a journey he took in the area around Bria, as he accompanied the local administrator on a tournée, walking from village to village, participating in funeral ceremonies and the colonial cotton-buying scheme. The second part covers safari hunting trips van der Elsken took together with guides' paying clients, also in the eastern part of the country. As you flip through the pages, you encounter not a single word -- only people in all the fullness of their varied personalities and the situations they find themselves in. Inside the back cover is a small booklet that flips out to reveal van der Elsken's narration of his travels and the stories behind each photograph. In this way, it's possible to sync your reading of the text with the viewing of the photos, without either distracting from the other. This format comes as close to hearing the author tell the stories of these people and animals, as close to being there with him, as is possible with a printed book. I read the book cover to cover the moment I opened it; the whole experience was incredibly powerful. The photos are arresting, of course, but it is also the mixture of self-awareness and naivete with which van der Elsken recounts his adventures that makes the book so compelling. He knows how little he knows. But he also has an openness toward people and experiences that helps him learn quickly.

OK, OK -- I'll stop proselytizing here.

Bagara is not an easy book to find (after borrowing a copy from the library, I bought my own on eBay for about $60), but if you have any interest in the CAR I can't recommend it more highly. Here are a few of my favorite shots:

Thursday, December 5, 2013

CAR in the news

I have a piece up on Africa is a Country about some of the misleading ways that CAR has been covered in the media lately.

And if you're interested in hearing more, tune in to PBS Newshour tonight (18:15 EST) -- I'll be giving the 4-minute synopsis of CAR's recent and longer-standing troubles.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Usefulness of a "Bad Neighborhood"

Central African politicians recognize that one of the best ways to draw attention to their beleaguered home is to play up the “bad neighborhood” they found themselves in, through no fault of their own. In 2010 and 2011 donors and diplomats in Bangui became increasingly frustrated with then-President François Bozizé’s not-quite-overt-but-nevertheless-obvious efforts to stack the National Assembly in his favor so he could change the constitution (which he had himself written!) and stay in power longer than the two-term legal limit. But they felt their hands were tied. Better undemocratic Bozizé than the further encroachment of regional anarchy -- the Lord’s Resistance Army, Baba Laddé’s Peuhl freedom fighter-bandits, and so forth -- this usually unstated reasoning seemed to go.

In the end, Bozizé overplayed his hand. He kept tightening his grip on power without realizing that at some point he would be straining so hard that even just a tickle would cause him to lose everything. The result, as we all know, has been a huge amount of suffering over these past months of violence, mistrust, and uncertainty in the country.

I have had occasion to (re)immerse myself in the classics of CAR history, and I’ve been struck by how longstanding the problem of regional politics determining donor stances toward the country has been. Throughout its history as an independent country, interested outsiders (bi- and multi-lateral diplomats) have allowed concern over conflict and instability in the region more broadly determine their positions on CAR leaders’ maneuverings.

David Dacko, the country’s first president, played this card expertly, as colonial administrator-turned-CAR-historian Pierre Kalck described:
A select constitutional committee met in October 1960 to define the means of choosing the first President. Goumba suggested that a minimum age of forty should be fixed, thereby putting both Dacko and himself out of the running, but the committee could not arrive at a decision. Dacko consequently felt more encouraged to work out his own way of staying in power, knowing he could count on the support of the French circles in Bangui, who were prepared to do all they could to strengthen his authority if it meant avoiding a crisis like that in the Congo. In effect, over the last few months, Dacko had been drawing up a number of measures that were destined to put an end to the democratic regime Boganda [the incarnation of the independence ideals] had cherished so dearly (120-121).  

Dacko went on to place his adversary Abel Goumba under house arrest. Meanwhile, the Assembly debated what was of utmost importance to them: “namely, the sale-price of whisky, champagne, and lemonade, and why the prices were different in the cafés in the town and in the bar attached to the Assembly” (124). Dacko lasted four years in power before being ousted in a coup.

My discipline, anthropology, is far better suited to describing problems than finding solutions to them. As Clifford Geertz, writing in 1966, memorably reflected on the aporia of the research on development challenges facing the “new states”,
one result of very extended, very thorough, periods of careful research is usually a much keener realization that the new states are indeed in something of a fix. The emotion this sort of reward for patient labors produces is rather like that I imagine Charlie Brown to feel when, in one “Peanuts” strip, Lucy says to him: “You know what the trouble with you is Charlie Brown? The trouble with you is you’re you.” After a panel of worless appreciation for the cogency of this observation, Charlie asks: “Well, whatever can I do about that?” and Lucy replies: “I don’t give advice. I just point out the roots of the problem” (142).

That being said, I’ll hazard a suggestion. It would appear to be possible to draw from the unfortunate pattern of CAR politics described above the conclusion that regional stability would ultimately be better served by substantive democracy in CAR, not by the propping-up, however half-hearted or ambivalent, of an antidemocratic president.  

Monday, August 19, 2013

RIP Tjostolv Moland

This morning, the family of Tjostolv Moland, a Norwegian man sentenced to death in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), released a statement in his memory explaining that he died in prison yesterday. Moland’s father’s statement does not give the cause of death, but his castigation of Doctors Without Borders for failing to minister to his deathly-ill son suggests sickness was the cause of his passing. I have enormous sympathy for all who die in Congolese prisons, whether guilty or not. To describe the conditions as abysmal is an understatement. The physical facilities are appalling, of course, but it’s the opacity and lack of accountability of the legal system that I imagine inflict the harshest torture.

Moland’s case contains so many inconsistencies and holes it seems it will never be possible to know the full story. Together with his friend and business partner, Joshua French, he was convicted of spying for the Norwegian government and murdering their driver, Abedi Kasongo, in May 2009. Moland and French received the death penalty, and the military court that convicted them (never mind that military courts are supposed only to try the Congolese security sector) demanded $500 billion in damages from the Norwegian government, a request later reduced but never received. Moland and French had been setting up a private security company in Kampala at the time of their arrest. Their driver was killed near the Ugandan border. Moland and French say the culprits were unidentified armed men, who attacked them on the road. One of the prosecution’s key pieces of evidence, a photo of Moland smiling and washing what is alleged to be their driver’s blood from the interior of their car, seems open to interpretation -- to put it mildly. At the same time, police investigating Moland and French’s lodgings in Kampala found a bunch of weird stuff: ID badges for their security firm, for instance, with pseudonyms beside their photos. And they had some weapons -- a rifle, for instance.

I followed the case only intermittently, and I’ll avoid pronouncing my own judgment. What prompted my post was rather Moland’s father’s biographical reminiscences of his son. He remembers Moland as a young man passionate about hunting and the outdoors who, after serving in a hunting batallion in the Norwegian military, worked at game lodges in South Africa, Botswana, and Zambia, and went on to train game park guards in multiple African countries. It was this last piece of information that piqued my interest. Over the course of my research on violent conservation in the Central African Republic, I have met a number of men with biographies similar to Moland’s. They are complicated individuals (as we all are), many with loving families and gentle ways alongside their more militant practices. But I’ve also frequently noticed a cowboy mentality among these guys, an attitude that the bush of remote African spaces is effective camouflage for all that happens there. Frequently, it is. But not always. And in those cases, the camouflage of the bush itself becomes dangerous, as it actively obscures the omniscient view that court procedures are tasked with putting together -- even if the court officials were running proceedings transparently, which, in this case, they were not.

My sympathy, then, to Tjostolv Moland’s family, and my hope that his example discourages others from taking their rifles to Africa, however idealistic (or not) their reasons for doing so.

Birthday Kisses for the Dictator

Today, the second installment of my series on using the library as a time machine. Alongside a volume on Coup d’Etat: Pourquoi Faire? (Coup d’Etat: Why do it?) that discussed the development advantages of coup-initiated leadership, I found another Bokassa-era gem: VOEUX à l’occasion de 53ème anniversaire du Général d’Armée Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Président à vie de la République (WISHES on the occasion of the 53rd birthday of General Jean-Bedel Bokassa, President for Life of the Republic). The book, from 1974, is a glossy scrapbook. Each page contains a photo and that person’s accompanying birthday wishes for the fearless leader, with the entries organized according to social role: Central African government officials and civil society leaders, foreign heads of state, Bangui diplomatic corps, Central African diplomats abroad, business operators in Bangui. In many of the pictures, the subjects look unsure whether to smile or affect a serious pose.

Though no apologist for Bokassa (the excesses of his coronation as emperor, viewable on YouTube, make me nauseated in light of the dire circumstances the country faces today), I nevertheless find it thrilling, on one level, to discover such perfectly-preserved relics of an era of construction, however unsound its financing.

One of the things that stuck me was how the diplomatic corps stepped over themselves to praise Bokassa. The end of the Cold War has allowed for a bit more circumspection on that count, at least. American Ambassador William N. Dale wrote, “I know how the Central African people all look forward to this memorable event [of your birthday]. I allow myself to add to their happiness my wishes for your health, longevity, and big, constant success for your vigorous efforts in favor of development and prosperity in your country.” The French ambassador was even more laudatory.

If you read only the book of wishes, you might assume the birthday party was a slickly-organized, lavish success. And perhaps it was. But Bill Gribbin, #2 at the US embassy at the time, recalls in his Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training oral history that Bokassa's fests were frequently a bit haphazard:

Those of us who lived in the CAR will never be lacking for stories. One of my favorite ones involved an American astronaut who toured Africa. ... Anyway, Bokassa was something of a self-proclaimed space nut, so when these visitors came to the CAR, he immediately offered them great hospitality. In fact, he took them to his private game park in the north. ... the embassy staff was invited to a state banquet, which would be on the top floor of the one hotel there in town. The top floor was a garden terrace about 7 or 8 stories up. Since Bokassa didn't often entertain, this was a big event. So we were all "convoked," which is the term they used, so those of us from the American Embassy, all the cabinet ministers and most of the senior military authorities showed up on time and were escorted up to the top of the hotel. Every 10 feet or so was a young soldier with an Uzi who had been there since about two that afternoon. But the guests of honor and the president didn't show up, and they didn't show up, and they didn't show up. Although we sat down, we were not given anything to drink. A band played music so loud that we couldn't talk to anybody. So we waited from about eight o'clock till after 11, when the presidential party finally returned from the game park and showed up at the banquet. By this time, of course, the tropical dew had settled, and we were soaking wet, even though it hadn't rained. I remember that I kept worrying about these kids with these Uzis because they would nod off. I hoped that no dream would awaken them and cause then to spray the crowd. In any case, that event – the mix of enthusiasms and sheer self-centeredness - was very typical of Bokassa.

The most familiar of the birthday wishes came from the head of the Safari Hotel-Restaurant, today the Hotel Oubangui, a massive multi-story edifice along the river. Every afternoon at around 5, Bokassa would march to the hotel-bar, set on the rocks out amid the rapids, accompanied by a brass band in red, white, black, and gold uniforms, to take his customary sundowner whiskey. The hotel administrator wrote his wishes to “Dear Papa” and signed off “Please receive, Dear Papa, our huge happy birthday kisses.” “Baiser,” the word he used for kiss, has a variety of meanings. Colloquially, today, it means to screw over. The proprietor’s words thus take on another, originally unintended and yet more accurate in the longue durée, meaning.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Coup d'Etat: Why Do It?

On my first visit to Bangui, in 2003, I was arrested. Just three months had passed since Bozize’s coup, and an atmosphere of uncertainty dominated the city. Ransacked buildings, their remaining skeletons now locked and shuttered, gave the city center the appearance of a ghost town. Waves of paperwork flowed across the floors of looted civil servant offices. A statue of the ousted president, Ange Felix Patasse, was dressed daily in colorful drag, one of the few signs of playfulness amid the general tension.

My arrest came early one morning. A police officer emerged from the dawn shadows and berated me for taking a photograph. From my perspective, I was attempting to get a shot of an impossibly decrepit multi-story building (a ministry) that nevertheless housed many camped-out residents; from his, I had a captured an image of the monument to the founder of the nation, a site of prime national security interest. It was only after he pointed it out that I even noticed the pile of rubble and concrete that once memorialized Barthelemy Boganda. The ironies of the incident seemed telling.

I evaded arrest with my camera intact (my primary concern), but the officer required that I expose the film (yes, film!), so I lost the image.

Ten years later, in the library at the University of California at Berkeley, I finally found a photo of that building. It shone out at me from among the frontspieces of the book, Un Coup d’Etat: Pourquoi faire? a serious tome from 1973 devoted to explaining the wisdom of Jean-Bedel Bokassa’s coup, several years into his reign. The frontspieces consist of many photos of progress achieved under “cher Papa”: an Air Centrafrique plane on the runway, the Ecole Nationale de l’Administration, the maternity division of a hospital, and so forth.

Forty years after Fred-Patrice Zemoniako Liblakenze wrote the book (much of which consists of words of wisdom from Bokassa, as well as songs and other honorifics dedicated to him), his question is again timely, but only when asked with a valence opposite to that of the original. Why do it, indeed -- so much suffering, and so little to show for it besides destruction and mistrust.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Michel Djotodia: Where He Comes From, Where He -- and CAR -- Might be Going

I have a piece up at African Arguments reflecting on Michel Djotodia's biography and what it might mean for politics in the CAR in the years to come.

It's tempting to see Djotodia's coup as history repeating itself. And many of the coup dynamics this time around are indeed similar to those in 2003. But one of the responsibilities of anthropology is to remind and educate people about the fact that social life is always full of endless possibilities, that deterministic accounts miss more contingent reasons for why things are the way they are. CAR's recent history is dispiriting, and the damages of the coup (looting not just for goods but also for looting's sake, violence, not to mention the psychic toll of the upheaval) are profound. However, events of recent months also bring with them some new opportunities, such as the (imminent) return to Bangui of some of the technocrats who fled while Patassé and Bozizé were in power. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

President Michel Djotodia?

When the Union des Forces Démocratiques pour le Rassemblement (UFDR) announced its presence by capturing CAR's northeasternmost town, Birao, at the end of October 2006, a few people starting working their sat phones, each declaring himself to be the leader. There was Abakar Sabone, formerly best known as a Chadian recruiter of men-in-arms who'd helped Bozize take power in 2003 but became disgruntled with his former ally over a perceived lack of proper payment for his services. There was Damane Zakaria, a counselor in Tiringoulou who was with the men on the ground. And there was Michel Djotodia, who few people knew much about at all.

Sabone and Djotodia were in Cotonou, Benin at the time, and they were locked up at Bozize's request. Though they were eventually released, they were both somewhat sidelined during the peace process, and for the next few years whenever anyone asked who was the leader of the UFDR, it was General Damane's name that was put forward.

It was Damane who I got to know while doing research among the UFDR in Tiringoulou in 2009-2010. Nevertheless, I was curious about this Djotodia fellow, so I frequently asked about him as well. Overall, the impression I got was of a polyglot, intelligent guy with outsize political ambitions. He made it into my dissertation, but only in the form of a long footnote:

"People in Vakaga [prefecture] remember [Djotodia] as a prolific practitioner of extraversion. He went to the USSR to study and ended up living there ten years, marrying, and fathering two daughters, and
then finally returning to CAR with “ten diplomas” and fluency in a number of languages, which made him useful when it came to representing the UFDR to foreigners and media. People in Tiringoulou tell of one day, long before the rebellion, when a plane of Russian hunters unexpectedly arrived. Upon hearing Djotodia’s rendition of their language, declared him not Central African but Russian and brought him along for their tour of the country. He had political aspirations, and he pursued them fervently. Twice he tried to become a deputy, and twice he failed. The highest post he attained was Tax Director. He also worked to become close to the Sheikh Tidjani, spiritual leader for many in the buffer zone, who lives in South Darfur. At the time of the UFDR’s first attack, he, like Sabone, was in Benin, where he had friends from his Russia days. Like Sabone, he was jailed in Cotonou for his role in the insurgency. But then he becomes harder to track. He had a falling out with the Sheikh when he tried to convince the president’s son to name him consul to Sudan in the Sheikh’s place (though technically Sudanese himself, the Sheikh occupies this post as a result of the respect and legitimacy he enjoys throughout the region). The break in this relationship has made it harder for him to claim to represent people in the area. Damane said that he had pushed him out when Djotodia had attempted to make an alliance with Charles Massi, another sidelined politician aiming for power through the form of insurgency. Whatever the specifics of his fall, people described it as a function of his failure to properly negotiate alliances. This diplomatic capability is central to maintaining power in a place of plural authorities. People surmised that this “intellectual” is now trying his luck somewhere far away."

Well, now we know a bit more about what Djotodia was up to. He has been in Nyala, in South Darfur, cultivating working alliances with the remnants of Chadian rebel groups that have been hanging out in the area. It was these fighters from the Chad/Sudan/CAR borderlands who became the military backbone of the Seleka rebel coalition that first threatened the CAR capital, Bangui, in December. (The UFDR fighters I knew -- tough guys, but a bit ragtag, especially compared to their counterparts in places like Chad or Sudan -- could have put up a decent fight against the CAR armed forces on their own, but the "Chadians" were what made them so unstoppable.)

And through these alliances, Djotodia has come out on top. Hearing the stories of his ambition during my research, I almost felt embarrassed on his behalf -- he seemed like a Jamaican bobsledder convinced he'd win gold. And yet here he is, ten years after Bozize took power, getting ready to move into the presidential palace. Here's hoping he lives up to his intellectual reputation and does a better job than his predecessor. Goodness knows Central Africans have suffered far too much already.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Post-Gadaffi Repercussions in the Sahel

The report of the "Post-Gadaffi Repercussions in the Sahel" workshop I participated in at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Accra in June last year is available for download here.

One of the most stimulating presentations was by Prof Morten Bøås, who discussed "escape routes" between West Africa, the Sahel, and into the Sahara. Similarly to the ideas of non-centralized modes of power that I have developed, Morten talked about how governance in the region is in large part a question of "organisation without organisations". In other words, it is a matter of hubs (primarily geographic) and nodes (primarily people -- big men), which become the orienting points in dynamic, loose networks. Also fascinating was Christian Vium's research with nomads in Mauritania. The report blurb doesn't do justice to his project; Christian's stunning photos here at least make it come alive a bit more. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Missing Pieces

I revisited the penis-snatching incident that happened during my fieldwork for a short piece in Pacific Standard magazine.

There is always a risk of exoticizing when talking about these kinds of phenomena, a risk that I think anthropologists of Africa like me feel particularly acutely. However, in this case I think I'm in the clear: the article has engendered some correspondence with people in the US who argue the problem of missing members is in need of (rigorous) study here as well. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Making War, Not Peace

I had an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune this weekend arguing that peacebuilding initiatives in the Central African Republic, and specifically disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programs, have contributed to fanned the country's conflicts, rather than diminishing them.

The piece focuses on the most recent attempt at DDR in CAR, which never even got off the ground. But the argument becomes even stronger if one looks at preceding DDR efforts. Consider the PRAC, which ran from 2004 -- 2007. Seven thousand people who had allegedly fought during the conflicts that crescendoed with Bozize's successful coup in 2003 participated in the PRAC. Even if one accepted that they were indeed ex-combatants (and many were not -- the lists of DDR beneficiaries are notoriously difficult to police given the markets that inevitably spring up around them), these were entirely inactive armed groups. I met DDR participants in 2004 who had not held a gun since 1997. And despite having "disarmed" all these 7,000 people, the program collected only a few hundred guns, only a fraction of which were in working condition.

Failures like the PRAC have effects. When UN officials and others eager to fund the next round of DDR and peacebuilding drum up support, they can seem to be talking as if the new efforts will be carried out on a proverbial clean slate. But what the PRAC's non-disarming disarmament shows is that on the ground programs like it give rise to new definitions, new understandings of what DDR means and entails. I wrote the op-ed in part in hopes of injecting that historical memory into the discussions as to the character of the peacebuilding efforts that will soon be carried out.

I could go on -- the ways in which DDR in theory is mismatched with DDR in practice are copious -- but I'll leave that for another post, and another article.