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.