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.