Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Violence, Popular Punishment, and the War in the Central African Republic

Written together with Sylvain Batianga-Kinzi, I have a new article out in the latest issue of African Affairs. 

In writing this article, we had a few objectives. First, we wanted to call attention to the spectrum of violence that has long existed in CAR -- within families, between families, in neighborhoods -- and the way that "non-state" actors have long had the capacity to engage in forms of spectacular violence designed to provoke fear. In our view, these factors help explain the patterns of mobilization that we've seen in the war in CAR over the past couple of years, which have reflected not organized-from-on-high entities but have rather grown out of the way people have responded to the threats they perceive in their midst, on a more diffuse basis. Another objective was to encourage people to jettison the concept "popular justice," the euphemism frequently used in place of "vigilantism." At least in CAR and my guess is elsewhere as well, people who respond violently to social threats like burglary or sorcery do not see their work as "justice," a word that connotes the ideal resolution of a given dispute. Rather, they see it as necessary to punish the (alleged) perpetrator in order to send a message both to the criminal and to anyone else considering that kind of behavior that it is not acceptable. Hence we feel that popular punishment is a more apt term. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

War and safari hunting

I have an op-ed in the New York Times today (30 June) arguing against shaming people involved in safari hunting in CAR.

Those who know me are likely surprised that I'd take this position. Over the past year I've been reading memoirs by safari hunters in CAR, and they are as full of sexism and paternalism (when not more overt racism) as one might fear. In addition, over the past thirty years safari hunting has been propped up by armed conservation initiatives carried out by a variety of actors, and the attempt at rigid policing of what had previously been more negotiable boundaries (e.g., between protected park and grazing areas) heightened tensions and in some cases contributed to armed conflict. As I pointed out in a recent post over at African Arguments, the current military head of Seleka, Joseph Zindeko, got some of his military training while working as an anti-poaching guard.

But the safari hunting industry has changed over the past five years or so. As conflicts in the country have intensified, most of the safari hunting operators have moved on to easier places to work. Only a couple remain, and their success owes in part to their explicit avoidance of conflict. To take the example of CAWA, they chose a site not home to many elephants so that they wouldn't have to deal with the heavily-armed poachers who come for ivory. That meant they did not need to do the armed patrols that safari guides elsewhere had to organize. CAWA took pride in employing hundreds of people and funding social services.

One of the founders of CAWA, together with the pilot working for him, uncovered a massacre site near their concession in early 2012. The killings followed the pattern of a classic LRA attack. But when the safari guides alerted the authorities to the tragedy, they were thrown in prison under suspicion of murder. The two were eventually freed in August of that year, but only because there was a riot at the central prison in Bangui, where they were being held, and the guards told them to leave since there was no way to keep them safe.

And yet they came back and re-started their safari enterprise. There's something a bit crazy about that. Most people (myself included, most likely) would have cut their losses and departed without looking back. But these guys seem to have taken it as a sign that they should deepen their commitment, and, after picking up the pieces after their house in Bangui was ransacked, that is what they proceeded to do.

So for all the problems related to safari hunting in CAR, it nevertheless seems to me like people so intent on building some kind of productive enterprise in the country that will employ hundreds of people should be supported. I remember talking to an expert in the management of safari hunting areas in Africa who said that it was, on one level, crazy to dedicate the whole eastern part of the CAR to safari hunting for a few wealthy tourists. If there were any alternative -- if the Chinese came in and opened a plantation or two, for instance -- safari hunting would no longer make any sense, given the distribution of resources it entails. But that's the thing: there are currently no alternatives. There is some diamond mining, it's true, but there are no other opportunities for salaried work, which is what people long for. For better or worse, it's all we've currently got.

I find myself turning, as I so often do, to Ed van der Elsken. After his trip to Oubangui-Chari -- his first sojourn in Africa -- in the mid-1950s, which included a stay among safari hunters that was at once exhilarating and nauseating, he reflected that upon return to Europe,
I find, I have been indulging in a great deal of moralising. I remember now that when I was in Africa, filled with the emotions of hunting, I knew nothing of all the noble sentiments and intentions expressed in my text. I often hunted enthusiastically and by no means always sportingly. Primitive instincts and passions arose in me, inciting me to capture, conquer and kill. I, too, was guilty of many dirty and cowardly tricks. I must admit this because it would be unfair if I were to stand too much aloof from my comrades, who often stood by me in critical moments (24).

The op-ed is my attempt to walk a path skirting both aloofness and excessive moralizing.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

CAR in a Hot Spot

Over on the website of the journal Cultural Anthropology you'll find a series of essays (called a "Hot Spot") Iedited by some of the foremost scholars of CAR reflecting on the recent upheavals in the country. I have an essay introducing the themes and another with a very short political history of CAR, and then I turn things over to everyone else. Some of the essays focus on understanding the recent violence, while others reflect on long scholarly and personal engagements with CAR. All of the essays provide useful insights, and some also moved me to tears. Among those you'll find are:

An essay by RebeccaHardin and Henri Zana reflecting on lives devoted to teaching in CAR, and the “professional death” that has befallen CAR's once-hopeful intellectuals.

An essay by Andrea Ceriana Mayneri explaining the symbolic and historical underpinnings of an act of cannibalism in Bangui earlier this year.

An essay by TamaraGiles-Vernick reflecting on the ways in which historical violence is sedimented into Central African memories, alternately forgotten and remembered.

An essay by BrunoMartinelli (in French) explaining the politicization of religion in recent years and reflecting on the sobering realization that some of his former anthropology students are almong the most virulent anti-Balaka.

… And so much more! Check it out!

ps And a special shout-out to the editors of Cultural Anthropology, Charles Piot and Anne Allison, who have overseen the move to open access, as well as expanding the journal's online forums! Anthropology of and for the future.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Sultan's Two Bodies:* Sovereignty and Northeastern CAR

Last week, Dar al-Kuti, a precolonial state with its capital at Ndele, in northeastern CAR, inaugurated a new sultan. The former sultan had been ill and infirm when I was there most recently, in 2010. He spent most of his time in Bangui, partly because of the better medical care there and partly because former President Bozize had put him under house arrest (or so the rumor went). People in Ndele told stories of how he used to ride on a towering white horse, a rarity here in the tsetse zone. He also used to provide copious food to the poor on Fridays, but in his absence the practice had become but a memory. During the CPJP/government battles in Ndele in late 2009, the sultan's house was hit, leaving a gaping hole in the roof.

The Dar al-Kuti I encountered was a far cry from the Dar al-Kuti Dennis D. Cordell describes in his historical work on the subject, or even the Dar al-Kuti he encountered during his research there in the 1970s. Dar al-Kuti was at its biggest and most powerful during the last decade of the nineteenth century and first decade of the twentieth. The town had some 25,000 residents and the army alone was 6,000 strong (larger than the current CAR army, in other words). Sultan Sanusi was adept at developing relationships with newcomers to the region – first Rabah, sultan to the north, and then the French explorer-colonists, arriving from the south – in order to bolster his own authority. His polity was founded on raiding, primarily for people to be made into slaves, but also for other goods such as ivory.

French agents signed a series of treaties with Sanusi. The language of the treaties is interesting: they refer to Dar al-Kuti as a “country” (pays) or “state” (etat) and describe Sanusi as its “sovereign.” And yet at the same time the treaties successively deplete Sanusi's authority – at least in theory. In reality, neither Sanusi nor the French particularly respected the treaties' terms. Eventually, in 1911, the French agents at Ndele decided Sanusi was uncontrollable and assassinated him early one morning. Though there was some fighting over the course of the next couple of weeks, most people left, dispersed throughout the area and beyond. Ndele became a ghost town.

The area was given the colonial designation of an “autonomous district” – it was too far from the capital and had too few people for the French to bother administering directly. (This status, incidentally, is a spatial category I am developing theoretically in a forthcoming article and book.) In the 1920s, however, the agent at Ndele (at that point there was only one, together with some regional guards from elsewhere in the country and/or West Africa) thought it would be easier to govern if he had a “traditional leader” to lean on and encouraged a few elders to choose a new sultan. They designated one of Sanusi's sons, and the sultanate was reborn, after a fashion. When forced laborers were needed, as they often were, the sultan's guards would go out and track people down. All the villages in the area made prestations (usually part of their harvest) to the sultan. His authority was always in an unclear relationship to government power. On the one hand, he had more effective authority than the French agents did; on the other hand, he had been deputized in order to carry out their will – and did.

Eventually (people were a bit unclear on when the shift happened), the sultan became the sultan-mayor, which was in part an aspirational designation on the part of the government – in the sense that the title indicated his “capture” by the state.

When I spoke with people in Ndele about the sultanate, they used the language of countries and sovereignty. They said that Ndele had been the first place in CAR to have a French “ambassador,” all the way back at the turn of the twentieth century.

I recently came across a photograph posted on the Facebook page of the Front patriotique pour l'autodetermination, which seeks independence for the eastern part of CAR that shows a banner on which someone has written “District autonome de Dar al Kuti – pays de Senoussi”. In this usage, as in my conversations in Ndele, people describe the autonomous status of Dar al Kuti not as a function of French disinterest but rather as a sign of French recognition that Dar al Kuti had a kind of sovereignty that the rest of the country lacked. That past sovereignty is being invoked today in order to justify future sovereignty. But terms like “sovereignty” and “state meant something different and more malleable in the early 1900s than what they mean today, when they have hardened into the UN system of “equal” nation-states. And the Sanusi sultanate today is intimately connected to the history of state-building in CAR, however “tragic when not frankly pathetic” (I'll borrow Jean-FrancoisBayart's French brashness here) it has been.

* The title of this post is a play on Ernst Kantorowicz's The King's Two Bodies, in which he traces the gradual transformation of understandings of kingly authority in Britain from religious to secular sources.  

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The many sides of Joseph Zindeko, Seleka's new military head

I have a piece up at African Arguments about Joseph Zindeko, designated military head of Seleka at a conference in Ndele last weekend. I met Zindeko in Tiringoulou at the end of 2009 and was simultaneously impressed by his openness and by how much he held close and by how carefully he managed information. He was the chef d'etat major for the UFDR in Tiringoulou, and he was the main local interlocutor between UFDR members in the town and the people running disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) in the capital. Though he admitted to me that only a few UFDR members would ever be able to be integrated into the army, he did not spread that information widely among his men. Yet he was an excellent storyteller, including of battle exploits. In short, a man of many (apparent) contradictions.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Religion and the limits of making sense of violence as it happens

The NYTimes "Room for Debate" forum featured a short piece by me as part of their discussion on the possibility of a broader Central African religious war. As I'm starting to learn is the norm when working with daily journalists, the first I heard that they were going forward with the feature was when someone tweeted it this morning. (I had submitted an entry last week, but received no reply other than a "thanks". The piece they eventually published was edited and had a title that was not my own.)

They had asked for 300 words, but I couldn't quite manage to distill it to that extent. Even at 600 words, I could barely scratch the surface of these complicated issues.

The journalistic interest in religion as a driver of fighting in CAR has been among the reasons I have been reflecting lately about the (im?)possibility of fully accounting for violence as it plays out. The anthropological stock-in-trade is to make sense of social phenomena that at first appear senseless, and yet I have lately been reflecting on whether there might be limits to that approach when it comes to violence as it happens. Let me explain.

After the Cold War ended, a number of violent conflicts broke out across the African continent. Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo: from the perspective of “The Coming Anarchy”-reading global public, these places all became synonymous with violence at once senseless and barbaric, as well as greedy and self-interested. A number of anthropologists who had long worked in these locales and knew them differently took up a charge to make sense of the so-called new wars and show their sociocultural foundations and meaning. Led by Paul Richards, longtime scholar of Sierra Leone, these scholars sought to counter the “new barbarism” thesis that emerged from accounts like Robert Kaplan’s Coming Anarchy. Excellent ethnographies have resulted from this impetus. To continue just with the case of Sierra Leone, I think of work by Chris Coulter, Mariane Ferme, Danny Hoffman, and Michael Jackson.

There is, however, a time-disconnect between war and ethnography. Ethnography takes time, and it is difficult to do during war. I know of one intrepid PhD student currently doing ethnographic research in CAR. During my own research there I stayed far from conflict, even as I tried to understand it, because I was concerned for my own safety. I managed to miss the two major attacks on Ndele that occurred during my time in CAR, in both cases by just days. There tends therefore to be an element of hindsight, or an element of pre-sight (in the case of ethnographic projects interrupted by war), to ethnographic accounts of war and violence. This has struck me repeatedly as I struggle to come to terms with what has been going on in CAR and to explain it for the journalists and others whose queries have been filling my inbox. I can point to historical and ethnographic dynamics A, B, C, D, and E that have helped bring people in CAR to their current predicament. And I can cite grievances X, Y, and Z that likely motivate the fighters. But the addition of all those factors does not somehow “add up” to the violence over the past year and a half. There remains an excess, beyond that which is explainable through reasons -- even reasons related to symbolism and performance. So while I agree with Richards that the new barbarism ideas are erroneous and damaging, I nevertheless wonder if it might be necessary to step back slightly, or at least step a bit to the side, from the project of making sense of violence.

In listening to interviews with anti-Balaka fighters, I have been struck by the disconnects between why they say they are fighting and what they are actually doing, as well as by the ways they contradict themselves. They claim not to be targeting all Muslims, but only “enemies” from Chad and Sudan who continue to target them. But then they scrawl graffiti declaring “No more mosques in CAR.” And mob violence acts first and asks questions later when it comes to assessing the provenance of “Muslims” who have been identified and targeted. The danger of referring to the situation in the CAR as motivated by, or playing out through, religious differences is that it hardens and fixes what are actually fluid -- or at least ill-defined -- categories and grievances that have other referents (such as foreignness) as well.

So as violence is ongoing, I wonder if we should be open to the idea that violence might exceed our attempts to make sense of it. That is not exactly a research agenda, nor does it offer a solution for the journalists tasked with reporting on what is going on. It is, rather, a reminder that when it comes to violence, not everything has a reason. I think frequently of a comment Ed van der Elsken made in his text accompanying his photo-book Bagara. To preface his description of a particularly chilling hunting expedition that he was part of, he wrote, “The next story is not meant to illustrate the barbarity of hunting, for this was not hunting. Nor was it an incident. Such things happen, I saw them” (1958: 23). In other words, the violence unleashed on a heavily-pregnant female elephant was not a scandalous event that set in motion a range of accountability initiatives (legal sanction, self-questioning, the end of the safari, or anything else). It was just the kind of thing that can happen sometimes when people have empowered themselves with violence, whether through guns or other means.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Two faces of CAR social relations: Openness and mistrust

I have an op-ed up at Al Jazeera America with a short account of some of the factors contributing to the violence in CAR over the past year+. Plenty of reports have detailed the political maneuvering and military entrepreneurship that have helped organize the current fighting. (Some of the best are Roland Marchal's pieces for Global Observatory and Africa Confidential's coverage.) I wanted to draw out another factor: the simultaneous openness/flexibility that I've observed in Central Africans, and how fraught people find it to trust each other. There are a whole host of reasons for the high level of mistrust, and I could only gesture toward a few in the piece. This is something that will have to be dealt with, one way or another, when the fighting stops. Post-conflict programming usually frames its tasks as "rebuilding" trust or helping the state "regain" its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. When it comes to CAR, that's the wrong way to think about it. The state never effectively had that monopoly in the first place, and for as long as CAR has existed as a polity, trust has been strained. So instead, these processes should be seen as new constructions -- building trust, building a state -- that will play out on a far-from-clean slate. That's an enormous task, of course. But maybe it can also be an opportunity.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Bulletproof Project comes to CAR

Inspired by a story about what Jeffrey Goldberg would call "security theater" (performances of control that lack an empirical basis in actually making us safer) in Iraq, Brendan Koerner launched the Bulletproof Project, an effort to catalog instances when people have believed that any manner of "magic" will make them impervious to bullets. CAR contributes much to the project, as I'll explain.

Nearly every article about the recent crisis in CAR includes photos of fighters decked out in gris-gris that will, their wearers say, keep bullets from hitting them. One of the origin stories about the name of one of the main agglomerations of fighters, the Anti-Balaka, has it that it stems from the initiations members go through, which render them impervious even to "balles-AK," or "Balaka" (Kalashnikov bullets). When I was interviewing CAR rebels in 2009 and 2010, they said their gris-gris knowledge had swelled as a result of collaborations with Chadian men-in-arms, who are "très forts" in that kind of thing.

Today, while revising a chapter on French colonial administration in Oubangui-Chari, as the CAR was then known, I was reminded of another origin for these bulletproofing practices. The French, always short on cash, figured they could impose a head tax on their subjects in order to raise revenue. Colonial subjects generally had no colonial monies, though, so the tax would be collected in labor -- literally backbreaking (or head-breaking) labor, such as carrying 65kg for days, with no provision for food or shelter along the way. Oubangui-Chari was the poorest of all the French colonies, and so it had the highest head tax. How else would administrators get anything done? This policy proved disastrous. It caused tens of thousands of deaths due to overwork, illness, disruption of agricultural production, and the brutal violence that was necessary to coerce people to do their bidding, and so further de-populated an area that already had a very low human population thanks to decades of slave raiding. People resisted however they could. Many fled to less repressive places like the Belgian Congo (yes, even the notorious Belgians were seen as more lenient, at least in certain respects). Many others revolted. And those who rebelled made sure to take medicine given to them by a "sorcerer" that made them impervious to bullets. Some of those rebels were quite successful. One group managed to hold Europeans at bay for a full six months.

To my knowledge, no one has mapped, though time, the gris-gris/medicine phenomenon across Central Africa (kind of like what Julien Bonhomme did for the penis-snatching rumor), but it would be a fascinating project.

P.S. Anyone interested in learning more about the history of revolts, repression, and general colonial blunders/malfeasance must read Cathérine Coquéry-Vidrovitch's masterful Le Congo au temps des grandes compagnies concessionnaires.  And of course my book, when it eventually sees the light of day.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Those were the days, Burundian peacekeeper edition

Hearing reports about Burundian peacekeepers in Bangui battling anti-Balaka has made me think of a conversation I had with a Burundian military observer in Kaga Bandoro at the end of 2010. In theory, he and his (DR) Congolese associates were to verify ex-combatants for disarmament and oversee their demobilization, but stalling on the part of the DDR Steering Committee meant that they sat idle for months on end.

I met them at their base for sodas and a chat in the wan shade of their paillotte. After a few minutes I looked over and noticed that the Congolese officer had fallen asleep. The Burundian officer glanced at his dozing colleague and reflected, “This isn’t a real war. We [Congolese, Burundians] know real war.” He spoke with the dismissive authoritativeness of the battle-scarred. “This is just a peasant rebellion. They have old-fashioned homemade guns, not armes de guerre. Here, there are some skirmishes, but not a real war.”

He’s long since back in Burundi. But his MISCA compatriots must now acknowledge that CAR, too, is home to a “real war,” and that the peacekeepers are actively a part of it. So much for sleeping on the job.  

Monday, January 27, 2014

Recent Writings +

I have a piece up on African Arguments about why the genocide talk about the CAR is misleading.

...And a Blogging Heads interview with Mark Leon Goldberg of UN Dispatch about similar topics.

And, finally, I'll be giving a lecture at the University of Leiden today for anyone who happens to be in the area.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Reflections on Roadblocks

As a supplement to my May 2013 article ("Navigational Tools for Central African Roadblocks") in the Political and Legal Anthropology Review, I have a short essay/reflection on my own experiences traversing roadblocks, available on the PoLAR website. The roadblockers who stopped me are no longer operating barriers; the aftermath of Seleka's takeover of power "has left a new landscape of roadblocks. ...The mutual sizing up that occurs on roadblocks, and its uncertain outcomes, yet again require the development of new navigational tools."