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.