Where is Central African Republic?

The Central African Republic (CAR) is a country with lot of land, few people, and a little physical infrastructure, located within a cluster of states with a history of prolonged conflicts: Chad, Sudan South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  CAR has become shorthand for “failed postcolonial African state,” basically the prototype of a country in permanent crisis.

But as Yale anthropologist Louisa Lombard argues in her new book, State of Rebellion: Violence and Intervention in the Central African Republic, the CAR never failed in a spectacular fashion, like Somalia for instance; it rather became durably “fragile.”  And problematically, restoring the state to a Weberian model has been the goal of everyone in CAR, especially the international community’s interveners who “hold tightly to that state ideal, like an element of religious dogma.”

Although the state is still important, and has become an object of immense hope in its ideal form, Lombard argues that “[its] yearning… is in fact an obstacle to one’s flourishing.” Aid and international development programs are still channeled through the state. But the rigidity of state ideals as a basis for policy makes it impossible to build upon initiatives that could lead to a better functioning polity in CAR. Central Africans’ nostalgia about the state evokes a time when it distributed status, in the form of jobs and salaries.

Lombard calls for a need to take seriously the challenges of dignity and status in one of the poorest places on earth, because ultimately, that is what the state delivered when it was functional.  That is what Central Africans yearn for in a state, as “[their] conceptions of work [is] a matter of earning a salary more than of producing something or laboring,” Lombard claims.

As the Central African state is not a territory in the political sense, in CAR, mobility is power. The state being non-territorialized and privatized, power becomes very strongly linked with mobility – who can move and who cannot. Therefore, “[i]f one’s goal is to understand the country’s politics, one must not assume that mastering that territory and the people in it is the primary objective of any actor, state or otherwise.”

While fixity is important in state building, being able to move is far more important in CAR, where many of the elites have two passports, and build second homes in Cotonou, Douala, Dakar, or Paris. Mobility within CAR is also impeded by one’s identity, in the sense that, thanks to its colonial history, religion is a marker of nationality, wherein the official states codes are Southern/Christian, while Islam and the North translate to foreign, dangerous, and imperialist. Even some Muslims in the northeast changed their names to Christian ones to make it easier to move around, convinced that in the eyes of many southerners, a Muslim can never be a real Central African.

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By Oumar Bar