With this post I want to share some of the stuff I’ve been learning about Central African Republic (CAR), and I also want to use the space to present my strategies for learning about a new country or situation, and also to explore a bit the nature of what we know and think we know about a place.
1) I like to start any examination of a place with: “What the fuck is going on?”
For CAR, the indisputable best source of WTF-is-up news is Twitter. On Twitter, you can follow analysts who are reading in multiple languages from many more sources than you’d ever have time to skim and so get presented with a limited but still diverse set of articles about a topic. You can also follow actors who are tweeting their real-time opinions, decisions, and movements; from this pool of standpoints you can begin to form your own analysis. I’d include journalists and human rights reporters engaged in information finding as “actors,” and I’d lend similar weight + critical skepticism to witnesses as to the narratives of those we think of as biased ‘participants,’ the protesters, politicians, activists, organizations, and survivors. Journalists and observers have angles, bias, and blinders as much as ideological actors, especially in the heat of the reactive, unreflective moments as one can find on Twitter.
- @bouckap – Human Rights Watch observer tweeting live reports from Bangui and rural areas
- @louisalombard – Anthropologist using her knowledge of CAR to write & tweet with nuance and depth
- @drovera - Amnesty International human rights observer
- @marcusbleasdale – Photographer who often works alongside human rights observers
- @theprojectcar – Lots of aggregated news and articles on CAR news and the humanitarian situation
- @jgmariner – Amnesty International, often updating on CAR
- @astroehlein – Human Rights Watch director posting articles & updates frequently on CAR
Another kind of care to take when reading Twitter is of your heart. Twitter feeds anxiety: constant, endless, context-free updates stream in while the only action available is to follow the rabbit holes of hashtags and clicking through to new feeds. In my studying of trauma, one thing that stands out is the healing power of narrative and action. Twitter is bereft of both these things. It gives you instant and constant interjections of “what is” with no room to connect this moment’s photo to the larger picture of “what was” and “why.” You can gain some of that by following a subject over time, but you can also gain a false sense of narrative, as users speaking to each other create useful shorthands that further erase context– the use of “Christians” vs “Muslims” in the CAR crisis is a good example of this (more on that below). And Twitter can leave readers plugged in to the moment but utterly helpless to partake in it, on edge but isolated and incapacitated. Use Twitter but be conscientious about how you do so; get deeper reads and get offline; connect, contextualize, act.
Here, I would also like to link to some CAR-specific local news sites, but I haven’t found those yet. I’ve gotten the best news articles from clicking links on Twitter.
After some gruesome human rights Twitter time, my head starts spinning with a plaintive, whyyyyyyy???
This is when I put Twitter away and start reading reports.
For CAR, I recommend (1) the long-form reports by the International Crisis Group for the best political histories and analysis, and (2) anthropologist Louisa Lombard‘s published articles for the sociological and cultural nuance absent in just about all the news articles (for example: 1, 2, 3). Her work on CAR is a fantastic model for how academic researchers can apply their knowledge (the no longer updated Sahel Blog by Alex Thurston was another such example). In general, I check out the country page on the Economist Intelligence Unit, Human Rights Watch, UNDP’s Human Development Report, International Crisis Group, and of course Wikipedia for detailed but digestible context of a place or situation.
No matter what, make sure your read on history goes at least as far back as colonialism. If it’s fucked up, it was probably fucked up by colonialism and is continuing to be fucked up by either neocolonialism (structural adjustment? corporate-controlled resource extraction? a political elite governed by cultural & monetary ties to former colonial power? international aid and military intervention based on “strategic interest” of former colonial power? etc) or by some fucked up reactionary chain of events set in motion by stupid and/or maliciously Machiavellian colonial policies (ethnic divisions in political and economic roles and power? ridiculous border lines grouping enemies, dividing communities, and blocking traditional movements? intergenerational traumas and impoverishment from enslavement, resource extraction, and imposition of agricultural cash crops? etc). CAR represents a case study of colonialism back then contributing via long and complex cascading events to an incomprehensibly devastating situation of inhuman interpersonal violence today.
I loosely summarized this history in an email to Bones while reading through this fantastic ICG backgrounder [pdf] :
Did you know that after one of those real brutal rubber-plantation-slavery colonialisms [if you don't know what that implies, please read King Leopold's Ghost and come back later], France killed (through “sabotage”!) the socialist leader emerging to take on leadership after independence and then installed two successive military warlords, one of whom, Bokassa, declared himself emperor in a ceremony paid for by France that cost the same amount as the entire country’s annual GDP at the time, and when this dude finally got too wacky for them (NOT because his choice of murdering poor people was to stuff debtors into prisons so full that most of them suffocated to death, but instead because he reached out to form an alliance with Qaddafi), France just deposed him and installed an actual French person, former member of the French Secret Service, as de-facto ruler alongside French “advisors” controlling every ministry?
Please allow me to continue to sloppily live-blog my read of that ICG report because it helps me to learn by taking notes:
Kolingba: That takes us up to about 1980, when France’s ‘puppet in chief’, André Kolingba, spent his idle time (since he was not really governing) installing his small minority ethnic group in positions of power & wealth.
In the words of the ICG article:
“[President of CAR Kolingba] invented ethnicity, if one understands by that the manipulation of tribalism for political ends, in a country united by a true lingua franca, Sango, and in which the origin of people had not had any importance for some time”. This infiltration seriously destabilised the FACA [CAR's military], with lasting repercussions. When he left power in 1993 after a twelve-year reign, André Kolingba, a teacher imbued with unique skills for ethnic manipulation, left his successors a national army 70 per cent of which was drawn from his own tiny ethnic minority. [p. 8]
Patassé: Since it was the end of Communism & the start of a Brave New World when Kolingba left office, France decided to back a democratic election rather than insert their chosen person. This winner, Ange-Félix Patassé, was elected with popular support because he had led rebellions against CAR’s France-appointed dictators in the past. Patassé took power to find that the military & the presidential guards hated him, since they were the one and same military crafted by Kolingba. In response Patassé installed his own ethnic militia to be in charge of the military instead. This set the rest of the military against him so his presidency was marked by military mutinies that France kept stepping in to stop, killing a lot of civilians in the process.
Bozizé: France finally left in 1999, replaced by the UN, overseeing elections, more coup attempts, and the CAR government’s violent scorched-earth reprisals. One of the coup leaders was a man named Bozizé, who fled CAR after his failed coup, but continued to run a guerrilla campaign in the North from afar. Bozize was well-place in his abstentia for when a foreign coalition began plans for intervention in CAR to stop Patassé’s indiscriminate violence. Bozizé, conveniently in France at the time, became de-facto opposition leader regardless of the feelings of people on the ground in CAR. A foreign force including DRC and Chadian soldiers overthrew Patassé and installed Bozizé, “a general without troops who had become head of state.”
ICG summarizes these 50 years of rebellion and intervention:
All armed opposition in the CAR has been driven by its desire to acquire control of the state to advance its own personal interests rather than any specific political agenda.
They are the corollary of a vicious circle, composed of the following stages: people respond to poor governance by taking up arms; the rebels take power; distribution of the faded finery of the state then creates malcontents, who join the previous holders of power in taking up arms to recover their sinecures. Then, either the new rebels win the day and the circle is completed or the government in position, under the pressure of the international community, which urges it to negotiate and rally support from the armed opposition, invites the rebel leaders into the government and their combatants (often members of the same ethnic group) into an army that becomes less and less national. The consequence of all this is the corruption of state institutions, whose lack of legitimacy then justifies further rebellions. In addition, given the impossibility of a peaceful transfer of power, the legal opposition loses its raison d’être. Finally, the international community loses its credibility by demanding incorporation of the malcontents at the same time as supporting the fight against impunity, which, if it were to be taken seriously, would prevent the recognition of any government that comes to power by the force of arms [p. 22]
Here’s another good article that contextualizes the foreign interventions that contributed to CAR’s current crisis.
Djotodia: This brings us up almost to the present-day crisis. The Seleka marched into Bangui, CAR’s capital, and deposed Bozizé in March 2013, installing Michel Djotodia in power. The Seleka are an alliance of rebels (Seleka means “alliance” in CAR’s major language, Sango), consisting mostly of unpaid soldiers and militia from earlier rebellions. These soldiers came from groups that had been victimized by Patassé’s scorched earth policies but did not feel particular allegiance to Bozize, who was disconnected to the rebel movements on the ground.
The Seleka coup was followed by massive looting and violence by Seleka soldiers against civilian populations across the country: it was time to get their due. Some of those under attack organized around Christian religious identity to form self-defense militia under the disturbingly ironic title “anti-balaka” (anti-machete); quickly ‘self-defense’ turned into revenge rampaging of its own, targeted not at Seleka militia but instead at the easier victims, civilians assumed to be aligned with Seleka: Muslims, of any allegiance. At this point in time, February 2014, the attacks on Muslims have escalated into attempts at ethnic cleansing, terrorizing Muslim people until they leave entire parts of the country. This report from Amnesty covers what’s happening.
3) What is missing?
Still with me so far?
A close reading of news and reports can get an outsider very far into understanding what’s going on in a place. But it can also lead to a false sense of expertise. That false presumption of knowledge is much too common amongst international development and policy actors, which fucking sucks, because it’s these people who wield a whole lot of power and resources to impact the lives of people of whom they know very little about. [this comment is about intl relations in general, not specific to the CAR situation. :) ]
For example, Louisa Lombard here breaks down the oversimplification of the violence in CAR into Muslim Seleka vs. Christian anti-balaka:
It’s not that religion is unimportant, but rather that religion maps onto a host of other historical divisions in the country, chief among them “foreignness.” Among people in the capital, Bangui, there is a widespread anxiety that their country is being invaded and plundered by foreigners. They have a fair amount of historical support for this fear: whether in the case of the trans-Saharan trades’ nineteenth-century raiders or the case of the French-backed concessionary companies of the early twentieth, or of incompetent contemporary ministers’ corporate contracting, people with roots in far-off places have been the ones to obtain greatest monetary benefit from the CAR’s resources. The fear of foreign plunderers — and especially “Chadian,” “Muslim” plunderers — festered and grew during former President Jean-Francois Bozize’s decade (2003-2013) in power, because of the support he received from Chadian President Idriss Deby, who sent a contingent of Muslim soldiers to assure Bozize’s security. The impunity “Chadians” in Bangui enjoyed as a result was the source of much tension. The fact that the Seleka alliance that toppled Bozize in March was also predominantly Muslim piled more injustices and abuses onto these longer-standing tensions.
In terms of the fighting currently taking place, there are a number of groups involved, with a range of origins, that are largely non-centralized. So though the “anti-Balaka” fighters might describe themselves as Christian, and though the ex-Seleka offshoots might describe themselves as Muslim, the battles are not organized or planned in the way that the term genocide suggests. Both anti-Balaka and ex-Seleka consist of disparate assemblages of people, some smaller and some larger, none of which have a large-scale command-control hierarchy.
Lombard expands on the thesis in this article, which is a better read and includes recommendations for next steps.
The larger implications of Lombard’s argument is that (1) oversimplification is one of the real problems occurring on the ground (civilians consistently being targeted for the brutality of the militias they resemble on some level, whether religious, ethnic, or geographic, forcing violent responses to take shape along those same lines of identity), and (2) oversimplification on the part of international actors creates a Good Guy/Bad Guy narrative that’s simply wrong, opening foreign aid and intervention to manipulation and exploitation by local, regional, and global actors.
Once I start to get a bearing on the actions and major players taking place, as well as the political-economy and historical causes of contemporary events, I force myself to stop as ask, “Who is missing?”
Usually, it’s easy to learn about politicians and military commanders. Sometimes we learn about victims of violence at the moment of or soon after their victimhood. Occasionally but all too rarely do we hear from opposition political leaders. Activists, social movements, community groups, and other civil society actors are almost always absent from the news round ups. Women’s groups, for example, or students, or farmer cooperatives or whoever, are often actively engaging in the big questions and events of their country but their contributions are overlooked by inside politicians and military and by outside researchers, reporters, policy makers, military.
This overlooking harms the most impacted people by further marginalizing their power. The priorities, perspectives, and carefully reasoned, nuanced recommendations of the most impacted people are the complex answers to oversimplified questions. The onus is on the researcher, observer, journalist, aid worker to seek out these perspectives, listen to them, learn from them, consider them, ideally to act in solidarity with them.
Obviously, easier declared than done.
The first step is to embrace the humility of not knowing. And embrace a healthy fear of the clumsiness that comes from wielding giant paws in a delicate and intricate situation you will never be properly scaled to see. And then, ask questions, seek diverse answers, listen, listen, listen, and act carefully and while honoring overlooked perspectives.
In CAR, the situation seems interesting, because an oft-overlooked perspective has come into power. Catherine Samba-Panza, the former mayor of Bangui, was elected President of CAR by the National Assembly. Samba-Panza is a woman, a lawyer, and an activist against excision and other forms of violence against women. Like Liberia’s first woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, before her, Samba-Panza comes from a business background, elected on a platform of neutrality and commitment to technocratic governance in the midst of conflict. I have no idea whatsoever in what ways her role will be constrained by the structural conditions of the office she holds, and in what ways her vocal commitments to ending the conflict, women’s rights, and technocratic governance may be corrupted by the same office. But I am very anxious, hopeful, to see and to listen.
4) Finally, level up.
Once you’ve gotten your overview (this is where I’m almost at), you have to figure out what material is essential to be able to namedrop and what’s important to deeply understand. For vocab words (names, armed groups, places, relevant treaties or whathaveyou, timelines), sometimes it’s worth it to actually make flash cards or write out lists and memorize them. I accidentally forgot the year of the Malian coup in front of someone when I first arrived to Mali in this fall, even though I’d been immersed in researching and writing on it as it took place, and hoooboy did it make me look ignorant. Memorize that vocab!
I always try to read at least one nonfiction book and one fiction book about every country I visit or work in. This isn’t always possible, but it’s a good goal. Nonfiction for depth and novels for culture, feeling, emotion. Goodreads has some good lists of recommended books by country; the Great African Reads book club has threads discussing books for each country in Africa. I’m looking forward to starting Dark Age: Political Odyssey of Bokassa.
Statistics on the humanitarian situation, which includes information about the numbers, locations, and living conditions of displaced people; country-wide food and health needs; security and violence; maps; and overviews of the current, planned, and requested aid can be found at these humanitarian coordinating hubs:
Annd that’s all I’ve got. Feel free to reply with your recommended CAR readings or your own strategies for going from “totally clueless” to “smartypants” on some subject, place, or event.