Thursday, January 1, 2015

Boomtown on the Oubangui

Recently back from a quick trip to Bangui, allow me to share some impressions. What surprised me most was the traffic and general bustle.

Even despite the fact that many taxis and minibuses were stolen during “the crisis,” as many in Bangui refer to the violence of the past two years, never have I seen so many traffic jams in the city. (I’d have said too that never has it been so hard to cross the street, except that I was mostly not on the street – for the first time, instead of hoofing it from place to place and hitching a taxi where I could, I hired a private taxi, for safety. Things were calm during my visit, but it hasn’t been long since a flare-up, and the general sense is that thieves still abound.) Vendors with gaudy Christmas gifts – balls that look like they’ll stay inflated for about as long as it takes to bring them home, neon-colored tinsel – as well as the usual boys balancing towering pyramids of boiled eggs and women expertly carving the green peel off oranges to reveal fragrant, glowing-white/yellow orbs crowded the sidewalks and spilled out into the streets. For their part the streets are more potholed and rutted than ever, the effect of no maintenance and the constant stress of peacekeeper tanks and armored vehicles.

Being in Bangui during such a not-yet-post-conflict purgatory reminded me of another time I was in the capital under similar circumstances. It was June 2003, my first visit and just three months after Bozize’s successful coup. Then, the roads remained empty. Much of the downtown remained shuttered after the pillaging and looting. The only sign of playfulness amid the tension was a statue of the ousted president that was each day dressed in colorful drag. There were few restaurants open, and as I recall the mobile phone service was poached from towers across the river in DRC. (To meet people for interviews, I called landlines! That, more than anything else, makes it feel like long, long ago.) A grand total of four INGOs worked in the country then: Oxfam-Quebec, COOPI, MSF-Spain, Handicap International. Today, there are fifty or so. Even with the unofficial curfew, never have the posh cafes and restaurants done such brisk business. A new(ish) Lebanese-run “fast food” (by Bangui standards) joint is packed every day for lunch, both because it serves up decent burgers and falafel and because it suits the temporality of humanitarian work: always in a rush, if only to write the next report.

I’ve read about booming wartime economies before – Carolyn Nordstrom has written about then evocatively, and a bit polemically – but I wasn’t expecting to see one here in Bangui, which I think of as a rather sleepy place. Many Central Africans wonder what the humanitarians are actually doing, as the economic bustle has not done anything to change the structural problems of Central African politics and the weakness of state institutions. LandCruisers and walled villas with brightly-colored gates tagged with signs evoking laudable goals are all quite visible; the effects, whether long term or short term, of their good works less so. These criticisms strike me as both unfair and a bit true. They’re unfair in the sense that humanitarian aid is explicitly a band-aid, not a cure, and should be judged in those terms. Moreover I am sure that the people receiving “pulses,” oil, and maize appreciate the food they get, whether because they can eat it or they can sell it (little baggies of yellow peas can be seen at markets all over). At the same time, though, it seems to me that the biggest effects of these organizations lie not so much in the distributions of household goods, and much more in that they are a legitimate way to bring money into the economy at a time when other types of businesses are for various reasons fraught. Most of that money comes in the form of rents for offices and houses, salaries for locally-hired drivers and maids and guards, the 18,000 CFA (about $35) that expat employees will spend on a prix fixe lunch at Relais de Chasse, and so forth. That this industry operates with an implicit “expat standard” in contrast to a “Central African standard” is a boring fact related to the distribution of power and money in the world (I too lived in a lovely, humanitarian-rented apartment during my stay). That’s not the point I’m trying to make. It would just be nice if there was some recognition that the more prosaic impacts of humanitarianism – namely the economic stimulus, especially to landlords and long-distance transporters and restaurant owners – might be more important than the stated, more-ephemeral goals of solidarity and relief.

I was also surprised by how calm it has seemed in the city. Though carjackings had become normal in recent months, they seem to have declined. The peacekeepers play soccer and chat with people like me but are otherwise a bit bored. Partly this is due to the improving security situation and partly it’s due to the red tape surrounding any action they might endeavor to undertake now that they’re inside the UN bureaucracy fortress. Whether this lull will last remains something of an open question, of course (rumor had it that all the big politico-military entrepreneurs – Bozize, his son Francis, Michel Djotodia, Abakar Sabone – were meeting in Nairobi last week). But, as I heard time and again, people are tired.

The reasons for the relative calm are no doubt many. My personal favorite has to do with the death of Levi Yakete. Yakete was a party operative under Bozize, and he fled to France after the Seleka coup. From there he was active in getting money and supplies to anti-Balaka fighters, and for this he was placed on the UN sanction list. In mid-November, he was driving near his home in southern France when his car broke down. With his wife at the wheel and his children in the back seat, he began pushing the car to the side of the road. But before he got there, another car came up from behind and plowed into this unexpected, nearly-stationary obstruction. So Yakete is no longer able to incite violence.

There’s another layer to this story, however. It is widely understood in CAR that people’s spirits outlive them, and these spirits continue to act in the world after a person’s death. One of the death-spirit’s main tasks is to exact vengeance in the case of a wrongful death. “La mort n’est pas gratuite.” “On lui a rendu la monnaie.” These sayings indicate the sense that vengeance will be had, that people will get what they have coming to them. So the second layer of meaning associated with Yakete’s death had to do with the feeling that the spirits have come to work their vengeance. And so people are proceeding with caution.


  1. Not sure how well you know Bangui, but are the landowners that are likely to profit from humanitarians paying rent predominantly from a specific group? (I assume not Muslim, but perhaps it would fall along other divisions as well?) It would be interesting to think about how the arrival of NGO money inadvertently gets funneled one way or another, through the city. I've heard of this being an issue in Goma, DRC, although I can't remember the details.

    1. Actually, many of the property owners are indeed Muslim, though it's mixed -- ministers and people like that are often landlords as well.