Understanding conflict in Central African Republic: Q&A with anthropologist Louisa Lombard
Beginning in 2012, fighting between various factions in the Central African Republic (CAR) caused widespread bloodshed and displaced hundreds of thousands in the Texas-sized nation of 4.7 million people.
Scholars, journalists, and politicians have struggled to make sense of the conflict in the rural, landlocked country — a former French colony.
Louisa Lombard, assistant professor of anthropology at Yale, has spent 13 years conducting ethnographic research in CAR. Her latest book, “State of Rebellion,” puts the recent uprising in social, cultural, and historical context. She examines the role that international organizations and nongovernmental organizations have played in sustaining conflict in the little-known country.
Lombard recently spoke with YaleNews about her book. An edited transcript follows.
What was your goal in writing this book?
A 1996 book called “Fighting for the Rain Forest” by Paul Richards inspired a lot of people of my generation. That book does two things: It is an account of the war in Sierra Leone in the early- and mid-1990s, telling the story of war in a little known place. It also puts forward an agenda for doing ethnography of conflict more broadly. In particular, Richards argued against a prevalent thesis at the time, which he characterized “the new barbarism.” It was the idea that the conflicts in the post-Cold War world were not political, but were about primal drives, resources, and poverty. He pointed out that the conflicts were political and very meaningful, and described how best to study them.
I knew my book was coming out 20 years after Richards’s book. I thought it was time to examine where we stand with Richards’ approach to conflict ethnography. To my mind, the heavy presence of international organizations in managing conflicts is a major change since Richards was writing. They were present in the 1990s, but in a very ad hoc way. Over the past 20 years, they have become institutionalized and conventionalized. What I’ve seen in Central Africa is that all kinds of entanglements and relationships have developed between Central Africans of different stripes and international organizations. Those entanglements make it analytically limited to understand conflict in Africa as if it is the function of any one isolated group, such as corrupt politicians or armed rebels.
The overall goal of this book is to tell the story of a little known conflict and say that at first blush it seems like an outlier, but by examining it, we can understand important things about how the world works today, and particularly about conflict in Africa in the context of international interventions.
How do the entanglements with international organizations affect the situation in CAR?
Imagine you are a Central African politician. There is a coterie of international interests that determines much about your country, and it tells you that because you’re a member of the transitional government, you cannot stand in the next election. You have the certainty of knowing you’ll be out of a job in a year; of course, you try to acquire as much money as you can while still in office. The entanglements don’t determine how any one individual behaves, but they do create profound incentives to take certain actions.
We can’t point blame at any single category of actor in CAR. We have to look at the relationships among all of the actors and what structures those relationships, and how this makes it hard for people to take the morally proper course.
You use the term “the good intentions crowd” to describe the various international actors working in CAR. What inspired that label?
I coined “the good intentions crowd” as an attempt to grapple with this strange category of people — the humanitarians and diplomats from international organizations. I use this term because, when we look at these people, it’s a very diverse group. You have everything from nongovernmental organizations that work with a volunteer ethic — the Doctors Without Borders of the world. Then you have NGOs that are very corporate in their approach. Then you have various U.N. agencies doing all kinds of different work. The European Union is present with its own interests, including diplomatic interests. Then you have diplomatic missions from various other countries. They are all very different, but what unites them is the sense that what they are doing and the reason they are in Central Africa is because they have good intentions — things that they want to do to help Central Africans.
I refer to them as the good intentions crowd to highlight the fact that the thing that unites them is their good intentions, but if we’re going to apply some kind of sociological term to them, they are a crowd. They are not a community. They are not united in any other sense. They often have very different ways of working but they happen to be present in the same place and participating in the same scene as it plays out.
What are the international organizations getting wrong?
One of the challenges in helping CAR is that the world has been divided into states. The U.N. model of the world, in which the world is compose of all of these allegedly equal nation states. So anything that anybody wants to do to help in CAR has to work through this state model. The state doesn’t really exist in CAR. The basic institutions are not present. They don’t have a history of providing social welfare or doing the kinds of things that we think of states doing.
What ends up happening is that the state model structures the relationships between the good intentions crowd and Central Africans of different walks of life. It makes it very difficult for anyone to really think creatively, openly, or critically about the country’s problems. They always have to work through this state model that brings them together but reinforces hierarchies among them. It prescribes a certain ways of doing things, certain kinds of projects that are fundable and possible. A whole range of other initiatives that might actually be much better adapted to the context and provide help to Central Africans aren’t possible in this state model.
What measures could improve circumstances for Central Africans?
One thing I propose is to consider focusing more on the politics of distribution. Right now, aid is structured through government ministries aimed at providing social services. This is incredibly expensive. The need is so immense. For instance, CAR has no judicial system. Building a judicial system from scratch in a place where people understand the judicial system to be enormously corrupt is incredibly difficult and expensive.
What if instead of trying to build up these anemic institutions, we just give Central Africans money as a way of showing them that they matter and have dignity? They could use that money however they’d like. Most will use it for things like sending their kids to school or putting a new roof on their house. Some might buy beer with it, and if so, there is a woman who sold them that beer, and she can use the money for something else. It will get small-scale transactions going that ultimately would do a lot for Central Africans and improve their feelings of security and stability. It would give them a sense that they are valued in their political system.
People often lament that countries like CAR remained underdeveloped despite an abundance of natural resources like gold, diamonds, and uranium. Is there any truth to that?
This is another popular way of explaining conflict and underdevelopment in Africa. It comes from a couple of different impulses. When I read journalistic accounts of CAR, I often read about its rich natural resources. I think the journalists include it as a nod to the idea that this place is not inherently a basket case, and it could improve in future. I appreciate that on one level, but there are a few problems with it. First, when it comes to CAR in particular, a lot of these resources exist, but not in a form that is easy to exploit in an industrial scale. For instance, the gold is spread finely, mostly as dust, and can’t be mined on an industrial scale. The uranium is extremely difficult to mine and is located in a very remote part of the country. And so on.
Water is a major resource that is undervalued. CAR is a wet area in a region that is increasingly drying out. That’s one resource they could exploit, but natural resources don’t in and of themselves make a country wealthy. Once they are being exploited, it becomes very difficult to develop the systems that will provide a reasonable redistribution of the wealth they create.
Do CAR’s natural resources fuel the conflict?
There is a school of researchers and conflict observers who argue this. If we just make it unprofitable for armed groups to exploit diamonds, they say, then conflict will stop because it will no longer be profitable. The problem is that people aren’t really fighting for the natural resources; they are fighting for access to the state and the status associated with it.
In talking to members of armed groups. I found that, sure, they make some money by charging security fees to people mining diamonds, but ultimately they are interested in a status change that would come with a state job. They want a salary and pension — that’s how you become someone who is taken seriously. Being in an armed group makes them money in the short term, but it is not at all stable over the long term.
Is CAR a failed state?
The term “failed state” gives the impression that these were somehow well-functioning states and then just because of the venality and ineptitude of their leaders, they turn into basket cases. In the book, I argue that understanding CAR’s present situation requires understanding where the country has been. There were certain dynamics put in play during the colonial period — basically the French colonial government decided that rather than administer or develop institutions in the country, they would lease it out to private companies to run for their own profit. That kind of concessionary dynamic remains very much the case, and, if anything, has intensified. Rather than a failure, what we see is an intensification of whole way of operating that has existed for many years. Both in the colonial era and now, this way of operating has not been a boon to Central Africans.
I want to criticize the idea of the failed state because it’s analytically vapid and not very useful. At the same time, I want to recognize that life in CAR is extremely difficult for Central Africans and there is very little to celebrate. That’s the tragedy. Life expectancy for Central Africans has been dropping. This is partly why Central Africans feel like they’re going backward. They are trying to figure out why this is happening, but they remained locked in patterns that prevent them from escaping the situation.
Are you optimistic things will improve?
I wish I could be more hopeful, but I think the current situation where there is a very large U.N. presence and various armed groups vying for influence is probably going to persist for a while.
It’s a very difficult situation. In the book, I write about how the U.N. missions interact in places like CAR. The rebellion and violence become entangled with the modes of intervention. That’s one reason why it is difficult to see a way out. For example, I discuss U.N. disarmament programs, which were never a good idea for the situation in CAR. They were pushed forward by international organizations. They’ve been spectacular failures but have created expectations among people involved in rebel groups and the people working for the international organizations. They keep doing them and they have to keep doing them because everybody expects it, and it is difficult to challenge those expectations.
How do we deal with all of these armed groups? We don’t want to incentivize people to take up arms by paying them off, which is what the disarmament programs have done, but we can’t ignore them. What do we do?
Lombard’s research was supported in part by the Department of Anthropology and Yale’s MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies.