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COLUMNIST/Where is Centrafrican Republic?


The Centrafrican Republic (CAR) is a country with lot of land, few people, and a little physical infrastructure, located within a cluster of states with a history of prolonged conflicts: Chad, Sudan South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  CAR has become shorthand for “failed postcolonial African state,” basically the prototype of a country in permanent crisis.

But as Yale anthropologist Louisa Lombard argues in her new book, State of Rebellion: Violence and Intervention in the Central African Republic, the CAR never failed in a spectacular fashion, like Somalia for instance; it rather became durably “fragile.”

And problematically, restoring the state to a Weberian model has been the goal of everyone in CAR, especially the international community’s interveners who “hold tightly to that state ideal, like an element of religious dogma.”

Although the state is still important, and has become an object of immense hope in its ideal form, Lombard argues that “[its] yearning… is in fact an obstacle to one’s flourishing.” Aid and international development programs are still channeled through the state.

But the rigidity of state ideals as a basis for policy makes it impossible to build upon initiatives that could lead to a better functioning polity in CAR. Central Africans’ nostalgia about the state evokes a time when it distributed status, in the form of jobs and salaries.

Lombard calls for a need to take seriously the challenges of dignity and status in one of the poorest places on earth, because ultimately, that is what the state delivered when it was functional.  That is what Central Africans yearn for in a state, as “[their] conceptions of work [is] a matter of earning a salary more than of producing something or laboring,” Lombard claims.

As the Central African state is not a territory in the political sense, in CAR, mobility is power. The state being non-territorialized and privatized, power becomes very strongly linked with mobility – who can move and who cannot. Therefore, “[i]f one’s goal is to understand the country’s politics, one must not assume that mastering that territory and the people in it is the primary objective of any actor, state or otherwise.” 

While fixity is important in state building, being able to move is far more important in CAR, where many of the elites have two passports, and build second homes in Cotonou, Douala, Dakar, or Paris. Mobility within CAR is also impeded by one’s identity, in the sense that, thanks to its colonial history, religion is a marker of nationality, wherein the official states codes are Southern/Christian, while Islam and the North translate to foreign, dangerous, and imperialist. Even some Muslims in the northeast changed their names to Christian ones to make it easier to move around, convinced that in the eyes of many southerners, a Muslim can never be a real Central African.

In CAR, the state of permanent crisis was heralded by army mutinies that broke out in mid-1990s, followed by coups attempts and rebellions.

Two of those coups and rebellions were successful: François Bozizé, a former army officer and career politician, claimed power in March 2003, later ousted by Michel Djotodia and the Seleka rebels in 2013.  For Lombard, “the ever present but always changing role of violence in CAR politics has had a lot to do with the state form itself.”  The state’s aim has never been to assert authority over the territory. Lombard also debunks the idea of conflict in CAR are being fueled by resources extraction/exploitation.

Despite the claims of the cottage industry around research on war-time natural resource economics, Lombard contends that in CAR, diamonds, timber, or ivory are not the main drivers of the conflict. It is because “[t]he CAR state has always been privatized, and the higher one goes up, the state organizational hierarchy, the greater the opportunities for personal enrichment.” Therefore, capturing the state becomes what drives the conflict, above all else.

One recurrent theme in the conflicts in CAR is the degree to which violence is meted out by the factions. Lombard argues that it is pointless to describe wars in terms of degrees of ‘barbarism’, as if the West’s interest in long-distance killing is more evolved than face to face killing. CAR shows that violence has always had a role in shaping the state.  The paradigmatic form of wartime violence in CAR is lynching, which brings into the concept of war as violence of the pack. Though, “even widespread participation in popular punishment tends to be an attempt to decrease future violence.  It is a spectacle meant to dissuade others from engaging in it,” as she points out.

One of the strengths of this book is its accessibility to a wide audience.  Yet, one wonders who is Lombard’s audience?  The book opens with the question “Where is Central African Republic?” followed by the sentence: “If you asked that question in picking up this book, you are not alone: it is one of the questions I am most frequently asked. (Hint: the country’s name includes a clue.)” One can probably applaud the author’s attempt to write for a wide readership, but at the price of such platitude?  In many subjects such as violence and its associated cannibalistic trope, the book is very engaging and draws on sophisticated anthropological discussion, but in other instances, the author engages in very superficial narratives.

Beyond the CAR situation, the author’s goal is to argue that “understanding conflict in Africa today requires looking at the relationships among all of the people present and how those relationships structure what people do.”  Moreover, Lombard asserts that “A central concern of this book is to recognize how difficult it is for people to just act as they wish, or as they see best, in any given situation.”

Overall, Lombard does an excellent job at showing the complexity and interconnectedness of state fragility, political and mob violence, and international intervention’s attempt at (re)building an ideal form of state that may just be that, an idea.

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