The other day a diplomat offered his serious opinion that in fifty years the CAR will no longer exist. Each neighboring country will subsume the part extending out from the shared border. We're at the end of the road, he said. This prognosis strikes me as the most hopeful of any I've heard. I'd even go so far as to say that it is more realistic than assuming that the aid directed here will bring about a turnaround in the governance of the CAR state, which is largely privatized, in Bayart's sense of the term.
If you consider the political map of Africa as a kind of jigsaw puzzle, the CAR is like that pesky piece that you just can't find when you've otherwise finished. It was the space left over and claimed by France at the Berlin Conference in 1884, a grab made partly so that France's colonial holdings looked bigger, and so that they could try to repeat the Belgian Congo's incredible profit-making by experimenting with their concessionary-state-on-the-cheap idea (it failed, and they even controlled the sea access, which CAR currently does not). The CAR's anti-colonial leader, Barthelemy Boganda, never thought that it could be a tenable country on its own, and he chose the anodyne name it now bears in hopes that it would facilitate joining forces with the rest of Central Africa to become a federation. However, he died before independence, and going solo proved too tempting to the leaders who outlived him. They all did quite well by this arrangement, but the people they govern have suffered.
Life expectancy in CAR drops by six months each year. For men, it's now 39.2. On a continent that has seen its population skyrocket in recent decades, CAR's has stagnated for 25 years and remains at a measly 3.9 million in an area the size of France and Spain combined (or Texas). Meanwhile, everything is imported (even manioc, the staple food), and importing is hugely expensive (and quite profitable for Cameroon, from whence most products arrive). Even eggs are imported from Cameroon – keep in mind that to get eggs from Cameroon to Bangui requires two days (or one long, if you have a good vehicle) of travel on terrible roads. A supermarket owner I've gotten to know (Lebanese, of course) entreated me to try the pineapples that she sells every Monday. They're really good, much sweeter than the ones you get here, she assured me. They're from Cameroon!
A friend's Cameroonian boyfriend came to visit her in Bangui. He paid 15,000 CFA (a little more than $30) to ride as a passenger in a merchant truck (the only “public transport” available in CAR), and 180,000 CFA ($400) in payments to the assorted soldiers, gendarmes, police officers, and water and forests guards who man roadblocks. By the end, he convinced the driver of the truck to let him try to pass as a truck-boy so that he wouldn't be so tempting a target. The roadblock-keepers' authority derives from their status as officers of the state. Without that state, they would no longer be able to act as such a brake. (Granted, CAR is not the only country in the region to have problems with metastasizing roadblocks.)
In Tiringoulou, a town in the far Northeast of CAR where I am currently, residents complain of the discrimination they face from the faraway central government, which labels them Chadian or Sudanese and therefore sub-standard citizens. “We're Central African!” they lament. Little good that has done them. Crossing the border to Chad or Sudan, one finds towns that bustle with commerce unimaginable here – motorcycles, bread, you name it – even products difficult to find in Bangui. The unrequited nationalism expressed by those in CAR's hinterlands is frankly tragic.
If dissolving the CAR state seems like sacrilege under the principles of sovereignty that govern the international system, and maybe especially African Union-era Africa, or if it seems like some flavor of lack of solidarity with CAR (a put-down, in the sense that they couldn't make a go of it on their own), I'd argue that such points of view reflect a lack of the kind of creative thinking that could actually help the people who live in this literal center of the continent. Contra Mamdani (who recently argued for efforts to ensure the equality of sovereign states), I'm in favor of it.
A final thought, also somewhat inspired by Mamdani (who calls for greater accountability from aid and advocacy groups), but in contrast to his view: The usefulness of aid provided by NGOs and international agencies notwithstanding (I have on multiple occasions benefited from the medical care provided by aid groups here, for which I am grateful), in my observation these agencies do more to strengthen the state (and not necessarily in good ways), even though they see themselves as a kind of counter weight. They must interact with state officials as the legitimate rulers of the territory and respect their wishes (agencies like UNICEF work solely in partnership with the government), while in many cases those leaders have lost legitimacy in the eyes of the population, who burst with stories of monies bouffé or piqué (eaten or swiped). Would it be possible to re-think the whole foreign aid (and I include humanitarian aid) system so that it it could include radical alternatives? David Kennedy suggests as much in his study of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, when he argues that it should not take state sovereignty as its organizing principle. Putting such an agenda into practice is, of course, much easier said than done. But from where I sit in Tiringoulou, it seems worth more than idle consideration.
Do we even need to define ethnographic film?
3 hours ago