Stories and Fragments of Violence: The Necessity of Rethinking the State

From the Series: The Central African Republic (CAR) in a Hot Spot

Photo by Steve Conover, licensed under CC BY SA.

Since December 5, 2013, images of death and violence have traveled from Bangui through the media of the world, from the official media to social networks. This wave of violence is sometimes presented with a degree of cynicism as a largely predictable result of local political neglect or else from a perspective that naturalizes its origin in an uncivilized “other.” These new images of the violence are problematic for several reasons. First, violence has long been a feature of daily life in the Central African Republic. Second, these images of violence, mostly produced by journalists embedded with the French army, have dominated the headlines and reflections about the CAR situation. Those images and fragments of violence produce the Central African as cultural “other” while also producing and reproducing the distinction between Christian and Muslim, thereby adding more fuel to the fire. The urgent problem that emerges from the CAR situation today is, how can we think about an end to the violence in a context where structural violence (poverty, unemployment) and lack of future prospects blow on the embers of revenge?

It is difficult to establish a clear history of the origins of the violence that these images and accounts call us to witness. In this context it is necessary to accept the fragmented nature of the story but not to naturalize it. To face these fragments of violence, and sometimes death, can open up reflection on political and anthropological possibilities beyond humanitarian/military action.

Several fragments of violence have struck me. Firstly, there is the man waving the foot of a supposed Seleka member. The new President of the Central African Republic, Catherine Samba Panza, had prioritized the reconstruction of CAR’s army. The new recruits of the CAR army gathered in front of the president, who gave a speech. Anti-balaka were numerous. After the president’s departure, a man was accused of being a Seleka spy. He was killed. Future CAR soldiers cut his body and then waved the fragments.

This procedure of death sentence by naming has been reported to me by many people. Such stories abound on social networks. Some who had been targeted survived and told their story. Improbable and exceptional circumstances of survival paradoxically often end in a renewed profession of faith. Images of improvised death also circulate on YouTube. A man was held by two men with machetes while another films with his phone. The captured man says in Sango, “Ala zia mbi, ita,” (“Leave me, my brothers”). He does not attempt to escape. Uncertain and nervous, his executioners hit him with sporadic blows. One after another. The man repeats quietly, “My brothers, leave me.” The scene lasts for minutes. At each stroke the man does not cry, he simply sighs until he falls to the ground and puts his forearm over his eyes.

Two violent scenes respond to each other: one in the heart of those who will be future FACA and the other in the heart of a residential area. Those uncertain gestures will certainly spur revenge and more violence. Violence is both destructive and reproductive. In addition to the bodies visible in these clips, there are many invisible bodies—people who have disappeared and whose friends do not know what has happened to them. These disappearances become cause for concern, and also for accusations. On Facebook and other forums, tensions are high and accusations are articulated based on people’s past allegiances and imagined future positions. These scenes of violence and their broadcasting call for greater military action.

Meanwhile, humanitarian workers remind us that “there are more deaths because of humanitarian neglect than from violence.” Another fragment of violence becomes the refugee camp in M’Poko airport, where tens of thousands of people in destitution gathered over the course of a few days and have remained now for months. The symbolism of this refuge—a place where people can flee to somewhere else—was probably less important than the protection provided by the nearby French military base. (The French military remained masters of the airport despite the renegotiation of defense agreements between CAR and France in 2010, which stipulated a decreased role for France in CAR politics.) Thereafter, the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières arrived, and the camp became a place combining military protection and humanitarian intervention.

What becomes visible is of course another absence, recurrent in CAR: that of the state. For some, its absence inspires their calls for an increased international humanitarian and military presence. France is strengthening its military force in CAR, now about two thousand strong. The EU promised to send eight hundred servicemen. Meanwhile, many humanitarian initiatives from the diaspora try to help Central Africans as a whole, while others work for dialogue between the factions. While these initiatives are laudable, we must not forget that the absence of the state is producing deeper structural violence. Different questions then arise. Do those initiatives reinforce a state that, though absent, nevertheless “works,” in its dysfunctional way?

Finally, the paradox between the moral arguments and the weakness of means of intervention has to be questioned. Diplomats tried to draw attention to CAR by warning that it could become “another Rwanda,” almost exactly twenty years after the Rwandan genocide. For cultural anthropology, the fragments of contemporary violence raise the question of the continuing reverberations of the colonial situation through practices of knowledge and practices of violence. Indeed, at the end of the nineteenth century other French soldiers were sent to what eventually became the CAR territory. Prioul’s (1981) work on the first exploration missions in CAR territory gives a sense of what these soldiers’ work entailed: their conquest of the “other” was focused not on vanquishing the natives but on vanquishing the Muslim “foreigners” involved in trans-Saharan and European trades.

Unlike the violence of the late 1990s that had focused on ethnicity, new fault lines redefine and reconfigure past fragmentations. A triangular relationship between “foreign” Muslims and the French military—the flawed basis for the conquest of the territory—now finds itself central to considerations of the future of “a country adrift,” in the words of Anne Retel-Laurentin. Moral arguments about the French intervention, which is caught between humanitarian responsibility and a fight against the “Sudanization” of Central African territory, lead to new and unexpected reconfigurations in this three-way relationship. Meanwhile, the non-production of a Central African state remains a key issue. It also reminds us that extreme violence is not natural but is rather the product of the fragmentation of everyday life in unbearable material conditions, including the absence of the State and the rule of law. Beyond hypothetical democratic elections, it is urgent to open paths and think about the future forms that the state could take, emancipated from the postcolonial model, which have proven materially unsustainable in the Central African Republic.