Book Review: The Central African Republic’s Vanishing State

Displaced Christians take refuge in Mpoko Airport, Central African Republic. April 17, 2014. (Ton Koene/VWPics/AP Images)

The Central African Republic was most recently in the news when armed helicopters assigned to the United Nations mission in the country (MINUSCA) fired at a group of rebels near the town of Bambari. This was deemed necessary to protect civilians from attacks, which has been a central part of MINUSCA’s mandate since 2014, the year after an armed rebellion ousted then-President Francois Bozize. Bambari marks a frontier between two groups that were part of the Séléka—the rebels that deposed Bozize but have since faced off against each other.

Notably missing from descriptions of this recent incident is the role of the government of CAR itself. Reporters and government officials alike attribute that absence to a “lack of capacity“—the state can scarcely project any presence beyond the capital city of Bangui. A stated goal of international engagement in CAR is to restore and extend state authority and legitimacy, ultimately producing a government able to resolve such insecurity without external assistance. While all involved acknowledge that this is an ambitious undertaking, to fully appreciate its magnitude one must read Yale University anthropologist Louisa Lombard’s account of state-making and rebellion in CAR, State of Rebellion: Violence and Intervention in the Central African Republic.

Lombard presents CAR as a “limiting case”: a state whose problems are so pronounced that they draw attention to the fault lines running through the model of internationally recognized sovereign statehood itself. Lombard’s fellow anthropologist Carolyn Nordstrom coined the phrase “vanishing points” to describe the gaps that emerge when formal analysis ignores realities that would contradict normative ideals; in Lombard’s account, CAR is a vanishing point ad extremis, where Weberian-Westphalian ideals of bureaucracy, legitimacy, and sovereignty are constantly belied by reality.

The book argues that the particular patterns of dysfunction and conflict that have come to characterize Central African political and economic life are the product of a complex web of relationships. To speak of the Central African state is to claim to see coherence in what is in fact a series of entanglements, both historical and metaphorical. The state that emerges from these entanglements is “a social project among social projects,” no more than one of the ways in which individuals and groups negotiate their place in the world; it is characterized not so much by shared purpose as by contradictory and “destructive understandings.” To speak of this phenomenon in terms of state fragility or capacity is too banal; it misses the fact that, as Stephen Smith writes, “the Central African state is for most citizens a hurtful presence and a painful absence.” (Emphasis added).

Lombard argues that governance—at least as understood in UN-speak today—has been a low priority for both rulers and ruled in the region. That conclusion is based on extensive archival research in Bangui and Paris, complemented by interviews and conversations with a fascinating host of characters. She demonstrates that colonial rulers, slavers, and other raiders were concerned primarily with extraction; while ordinary people sought status, which was primarily determined by proximity to the state.

Here, Lombard invokes Cameroonian political scientist Jean-Francois Bayart’s concept of “extraversion“: the politics of Central Africa has long revolved around the manipulation of one’s relationship with “external” centers of power. While the state may appear obsessed with claims of antiquity and autochthony, it remains arbitrary to speak of its history in terms of “local” and “external” actors. Only in their relation to each other are either the “local” or “external” defined, and there would be no such “place” as Centrafrique without interaction between them.

The importance of extraversion in creating Central African identity is best illustrated by the Sango language. Speaking Sango is seen as the chief marker of being a “true Central African,” as opposed to an (Arabic-speaking) foreigner. (Or worse, Chadean—a dire accusation to level at someone in CAR.) As a trading language, Sango was reasonably familiar to many Central Africans, but it was not widespread until the French adopted it as a working language for the purposes of colonial administration. Central Africans did not learn Sango to affirm a Central African identity—they learned it to gain government salaries from the French. In so doing, they undoubtedly sought the material gains of that salary, yet the intangible gain in status is no less important.

Concern with status is indeed a recurring motif among Lombard’s interlocutors; for good reason, as status confers a measure of security against physical and supernatural threats, and introduces a measure of predictability into societal life. For instance, Lombard meets a retired tax collector who still has receipt cards to show his own taxes were paid each year, dating all the way back to the 1950s. To be found without this receipt was to risk being made to “pay” again, with whatever means were on one’s person; conversely, those who could produce a receipt received deference from petty officials and guards, who would otherwise dismiss them without a second thought.

Much like the division between card-carrying taxpayers and other “lesser” citizens, the division between local and external is also not so much one of origin as of status. It continues to be replicated in the considerable difference in salaries and amenities of expatriate and local staff of international organizations working in the country, or in UN vehicles being waved past any number of official (and less official) roadblocks.

Lombard turns to sociological theory to demonstrate what happens when the source of status is thrown into flux. She first invokes Mozambican scholar Alcinda Honwana’s theory of “waithood” to describe how Central Africans experience the state: an aspiration, toward which occasional progress is made, yet whose realization remains always distant, always in the future. She then turns to Emile Durkheim’s classic definition of anomie—a loss of hope that emerges from social dislocation. Central African society is rife with anomie; where one’s position in society is determined in relation to the state, and the aspiration for the state is evidently unattainable, what follows is a despair and dislocation—what Durkheim called “unmooring“—or a reorientation toward new goals and sources of meaning. In this context, to successfully reform state and society requires above all else the creation of new forms of relationship and meaning that restore certainty to social life.

It is in this light that Lombard speaks of “centuries of failed DDR” (disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration). The point is twofold: First, that the list of unsuccessful attempts at DDR and military reform is far older than typically acknowledged; second, that such efforts will continue to fail unless they can provide not just material but social value. Read in conjunction with Mariel Debos’ contemporary account of “war and interwar” in Chad, which notes that armed violence is for many young men almost the sole viable path to material progress and status, one comes to see the problem with DDR as more than just a failure of management, or even a flaw in its design. The failure stems from a mismatch in values, from attempting to provide a material solution to what is experienced first as an intangible dispossession: the loss of certainty that attends on knowing one’s place in the world, and having that place known by others.

This is not to say that a certainty as to one’s place is necessarily positive either. The most elegant piece of Lombard’s analysis is her application of the work of Max Gluckman, on “social bonds” in Apartheid South Africa, to the Central African context. Gluckman used the term “bond” to evoke a chain—something that binds people to each other, but also restricts them to particular roles, relations, places. Lombard argues that the state—in all its fragility and absence—has become the bond between “local,” “national,” and “external” actors in CAR. The ideal-type state defines each of their roles, constraining what is or is not legitimate for each to do; in the process, it also limits them from doing the things that might actually make an effective state appear. This is the durably dysfunctional state, the hurtful presence and painful absence.

The connection between anomie and violence as social contagion—”war as the violence of the pack” Lombard calls it—will be apparent to those familiar with Durkheim’s writings. Yet Lombard is at pains to stress that explanations for socially contingent phenomena are typically incomplete; explanations of violence cannot possibly capture the altered emotional experience of the violent moment. This book, like her previous work, is about “making sense of the Central African Republic,” but she does so by way of meta-analysis. Rather than trying to account for the behavior of various actors, she encourages the reader to (temporarily) adopt “new habits of mind”: the perspectives of those actors, including the destructive understandings they have come to hold of the country, and of each other.

That approach will be unsatisfying, perhaps, for readers who came to the book in search of explanations. Lombard offers few insights into how to solve the problems that beset CAR; if anything, this book suggests the insights run in the opposite direction—the problems of CAR reflect the fragility and contradictions of the international system. The one tentative solution she offers is to treat the state as a mechanism for distributing basic income, thus providing at least a minimal degree of material and social solace in a manner that Central Africans recognize and expect. Even this suggestion seems impractical, because donors may be unwilling to foot the bill, and because characterizing the state in this manner diverges too far from the ideal of sovereign equality written into the UN Charter. It may indeed be a solution for the problem of violence, but it is certainly not a sustainable solution to the challenges of state dysfunction, fragility, incapacity, and absence.

Nonetheless, State of Rebellion is a thought-provoking read for all those who do seek to work on those problems; as an invitation to integrity and intellectual humility, it may be one of the most outstanding examples of the ethnography of conflict since Paul Richards’ account of Sierra Leone in Fighting for the Rainforest and, indeed, Lombard herself sees the book as fitting into the genre that Richards began. State presence and stability in CAR may remain a distant goal, but Lombard’s incisive and fluent writing—leavened with flashes of dark humor—goes a long way in reducing the empathetic distance between the reader and the people whose daily struggles she so vividly captures.

Ameya Naik works with the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute. @kianayema