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.  


  1. Good morning how are you?

    My name is Emilio, I am a Spanish boy and I live in a town near to Madrid. I am a very interested person in knowing things so different as the culture, the way of life of the inhabitants of our planet, the fauna, the flora, and the landscapes of all the countries of the world etc. in summary, I am a person that enjoys traveling, learning and respecting people's diversity from all over the world.

    I would love to travel and meet in person all the aspects above mentioned, but unfortunately as this is very expensive and my purchasing power is quite small, so I devised a way to travel with the imagination in every corner of our planet. A few years ago I started a collection of used stamps because trough them, you can see pictures about fauna, flora, monuments, landscapes etc. from all the countries. As every day is more and more difficult to get stamps, some years ago I started a new collection in order to get traditional letters addressed to me in which my goal was to get at least 1 letter from each country in the world. This modest goal is feasible to reach in the most part of countries, but unfortunately it’s impossible to achieve in other various territories for several reasons, either because they are countries at war, either because they are countries with extreme poverty or because for whatever reason the postal system is not functioning properly.

    For all this I would ask you one small favor:
    Would you be so kind as to send me a letter by traditional mail from Central African Republic? I understand perfectly that you think that your blog is not the appropriate place to ask this, and even, is very probably that you ignore my letter, but I would call your attention to the difficulty involved in getting a letter from that country, and also I don’t know anyone neither where to write in Central African Republic in order to increase my collection. a letter for me is like a little souvenir, like if I have had visited that territory with my imagination and at same time, the arrival of the letters from a country is a sign of peace and normality and an original way to promote a country in the world. My postal address is the following one:

    Emilio Fernandez Esteban
    Avenida Juan de la Cierva, 44
    28902 Getafe (Madrid)

    If you wish, you can visit my blog where you can see the pictures of all the letters that I have received from whole World.

    Finally I would like to thank the attention given to this letter, and whether you can help me or not, I send my best wishes for peace, health and happiness for you, your family and all your dear beings.

    Yours Sincerely

    Emilio Fernandez

    1. Dear Emilio,

      I'm afraid I'm not in CAR now so I can't help you with your request. Perhaps there is a reader out there who can. Bear in mind, though, that the postal service in CAR is very unreliable.

      Good luck!

  2. Hi there
    I am German living with my wife in Ethiopia , She recently got a job in ISS (institute for security studies) where she has to write a report about CAR by December , Since I think information from mainstream media never gives a full picture , I would like to ask if you know someone in CAR who would be willing to help with sharing his/her knowledge how life really is in CAR. My email is would be most grateful.


  3. Hi Louisa,

    I'm writing to say hello. I had the pleasure of studying geography at U.C. Berkeley, and then took my degree and associated wisdom to the Central African Republic (Empire) for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. My time there spanned from coronation to coup d'etat. I later returned on several business trips in the mid-80s,

    Just this summer a group of about 40 ex-volunteers from the CAR gathered in Virginia to raise the flag, practice their Sango , eat koko and gozo na nyama together, laugh and talk. Imagine a large group of mature Americans whose lives were influenced by early experiences in Mbaiki, Bangui or N'dele. We cherish those experiences. We are saddened by the worsening state of affairs in the country. The group holds a fun little auction to raise some money for ICDI's well drilling and well rehabilitation work in the CAR. I suppose I am sharing all this to let you know that there are people in the US that you may not know of who hold the CAR with interest and affection.

    By the way, we will be gathering again in the summer of 2015, this time in San Francisco. That's a long way away, but it would be wonderful if you could join us.

    That was a long hello...

    This morning, I saw your name referenced in a BBC article on Michel Djotodia from March 2013. I liked the quote and was curious to learn what else you might have to say. I've learned a lot! And I very much appreciate the perspective that guides your writing. Thank you.

    Life is good,
    Chris Walter

    1. Dear Chris,

      Thanks so much for your message. As an American, I received an unusually warm welcome in CAR thanks to the legacy of Peace Corps volunteers like you. "American?" people would say, "No wonder you speak Sango -- Americans are so good at languages!" Lots of people had stories of the volunteers they got to know, and the adventures (and occasional "scandals") involving them. Among the many reasons that the recent political upheaval in the country is lamentable, the loss of Peace Corps volunteers is certainly one -- your presence built so much good will. In any event, I'm happy to hear that you all still get together from time to time, and please keep me in the loop for the next meeting -- louisa dot lombard at gmail.

      All the best,