“Cannibalism” and Power: Violence, Mass Media, and the Conflict in the Central African Republic

The crisis in the Central African Republic is contributing to the reactivation of a longstanding mixture of memories, fears, and resentments among the population, which have been exacerbated by the more recent violence. Thus, the opposition between autochthonous Central Africans and foreign Muslims echoes the complex relations that have connected the Central African populations and the Muslim traders along the former slave-trading frontiers of Chad and Sudan since the nineteenth century. But the political exploitation of this historical and geographical border, and the exploitation of ethnic and religious identities, is reinforced by the widespread perception of an economic and cultural impoverishment. This impoverishment is seen as the effect of political forces and communities that have been exploiting the wealth of the country from the nineteenth century to the present day, leaving the population weaker and dispossessed of its past strength and wealth. In this piece, I examine the politics of a widely reported, infamous act of cannibalism in Bangui in January and show how it expresses the re-invigoration of a conception of power and strength that many Central Africans have felt their long history of exploitation has eviscerated.

The violence that is shaking the CAR rests on economic and political interests, as well as on complex social dynamics. The case of M. Magloire Ouandja, who apparently ate the leg of a Muslim in Bangui after he had been killed and dismembered, must be analyzed in light of the mixture of representations underlying the violence between different communities. 

The BBC was able to interview Ouandja and some witnesses of the event. Ouandja claimed to have recognized a “Muslim” on a minibus and, with the help of the crowd, forced the man to leave the bus, killed him, and burnt his body. The video broadcast by the BBC shows Ouandja while he eats what remains of his victim’s leg. The day after, Ouandja reappeared on the streets of Bangui with a baguette in one hand, apparently intending to eat the leftovers. During the interview, Ouandja (who claimed he is now known as “Mad Dog”) said he wanted to avenge the death of his pregnant wife, his sister-in-law, and his young nephew, who had been killed in the preceding months by the “Muslims,” who were presumably linked to the Seleka. The interview and images were seen all over the world and shared over and over on Facebook. I would like to briefly consider three questions, which were completely overshadowed by the media’s obsessive interest in Ouandja’s mastication.

On the basis of what little we have to draw on (photos, films, newspaper articles, and interviews that appeared in the media), I would like to consider the form of this violence. It cannot be reduced to the fact of “eating,” which is a marginal gesture in the sequence of events. Apparently, the victim was recognized and accused while sitting in a minibus, in the midst of a crowd in a street in Bangui in a normal and even anonymous situation. He was then dragged into the street, killed, and his body burned. This homicidal dynamic closely recalls the description that Julien Bonhomme (2012, 215) gives us of mob violence, which explodes in various parts of equatorial Africa against people accused of witchcraft in contexts in which “exposed to the hazards of anonymity, urban sociality appears to be torn between contact and distance.” I am not trying to say that in the CAR, being accused of witchcraft is the same as being accused of being a “Muslim.” But these identity labels produce specific forms of violence among the crowd and in the communities, which spread following a kind of pattern that quickly leads from the figure of someone unknown to that of the stranger and then to an “other” who is close to one and persecuting one—a classic figure in rumors of witchcraft in Central Africa—who is accused of causing the ills of the community. This may be the sense of the phrase of one witness who, speaking to journalists, explained Ouandja’s gesture as “perhaps . . . simply the act of an unbalanced individual . . . or the results of religious hatreds . . . or something to do with sorcery.”

Secondly, Ouandja’s violence was, literally, “spectacular.” The baguette, the ostentatious chewing and the interview are details that suggest the protagonist of this macabre event was seeking visibility not only in the street or among his neighbors but also through the presence of the cameras further afield. In this case, too, I am not trying to say that the murder of a man was a “performance.” Rather, the gestures by which the murder was carried out (in front of the cameras, with the burning and dismembering of the human body, which was then dragged through the dust) were not accidental but “say something” about the murderers’ need to show their strength, to exalt that strength in front of the community, and to impose it by annihilating the victim and destroying his remains with fire. While the media hastened to link Ouandja’s name to that of the “cannibal” Emperor Bokassa (1976–1979), Ouandja indicated where we should look to find the meaning of his gesture: “Mad Dog” (chien méchant) is a nickname that has been circulating for years in the most bitter conflicts around the equator, a battle name for those young men who (like the anti-Balaka) fight brutally, their bodies shielded by mystic protections, and are both slaughterers and victims in the breakdown of society and in the social violence. “Mad Dog” is the boy–soldier protagonist of a novel by the writer of Central African origins, Emanuel Dongala, the inspiration for the 2008 film Johnny Mad Dog, a pirated DVD of which has proved highly popular in Bangui and to which Ouandja was clearly referring.

The last aspect of this affair, then, concerns the sense of the ingestion of what remains of the body of a Muslim. Ouandja is not “mad,” nor was he starving or accustomed to eating human flesh. He is a man who is afraid that his strength and power are inferior to those of the men who have exterminated his family and sacked his country. “Mad Dog’s” gesture is part of a conception of strength: strength (one’s own and that of one’s enemies) is inseparable from the human body in which it is contained. Brandishing the remains of a leg and putting it in his mouth, Ouandja confirms that for him and others who think they need to fight the Muslims, the body is seen as “a multiple and fragmentable entity that retained power beyond death and dismemberment” (Bernault 2006, 213). Ouandja’s gesture cannot be reduced to madness or tribalism, two expressions which would be more comforting for the western public who read the accounts in the media. On the contrary, it is a political gesture that expresses a conception of power and strength and of the way in which these two resources have historically circulated in Central African society.

Front image: A man in Bangui holds his machete, in "UN Warns: Torture, Cannibalism, Gruesome Lynching in CAR." Alalam News Network, March 20, 2014.