New OAC Online Seminar 22 Oct - 3 Nov: Patience Kabamba "In and Out of the State"

In and out of the state: Working the boundaries of power in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is available online as a Working Paper of the OAC Press in html and pdf.

Patience Kabamba has degrees in philosophy from Paris and Leuven, in economic development from UKZN, Durban and in cultural anthropology from Columbia University. He has taught at the University of Johannesburg and now teaches international relations at Marymount Manhattan College. Patience has intensive ethnographic experience of emergent social formations when states disintegrate in war-torn Africa: in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda.

Anthropology has often renewed itself by studying collective self-organization beyond the reach of the state. The idea that power usually flows top-down from a state monopoly is increasingly questioned in an era of networks fuelled by interactive decision-making processes that include non-state actors. Power theoretically understood as potentia – the elementary power through which human beings deploy their productive capacities and creative possibilities – is ontologically prior to power expressed as an obsession with order that is often repressive (potestas). Granting precedence to potentia over potestas inevitably leads us to question the conceptual centrality of the state. The Congo (DRC), which has long stood – and stands today – as a symbol of the antithesis of social order, offers much material for reflection on this issue. This paper considers how people negotiate the boundaries between state and non-state power in the eastern DRC today.

 

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Thank you for giving us this opportunity to discuss your paper, Patience. I for one am glad that you chose to range widely in your treatment of the Congo conflict. This gives us the chance to examine and develop your arguments in more detail. I will kick off with some points from across the various sections. You are of course not obliged to respond to all comments.

1. You tell us about your academic accomplishments, but not much about how you relate personally to the places and social processes you write about. Are you an anthropologist at home or not?

2. Like you, I find the lack of Western media investigations into the roots and ongoing causes of the Congo war striking. One could say that the coalition that overthrew Mobutu was one of the successful acts of US foreign policy in recent decades. It included not only the Rwandan generals nurtured by Museveni, but at one time also Zimbabwe and South Africa. Beginning with the Rwandan genocide, it was a lasting defeat for French influence in the region and pushed them into bed with the Nigerians who consider the Congo to be their own backyard. Can you point to serious writing on this remarkable conjuncture in African history?

3. 
I like your summary of the main ways of talking about African states today. In much of Africa, colonial empires lasted for only a few decades, less than a century. Dividing African history into precolonial, colonial and postcolonial history doesn’t make much sense. If it was premature to suppose once that independence guaranteed the birth of a new political kingdom, is it reasonable to hold that states today are best understood as working out the leftovers of incomplete foreign rule?

4. Your brief reference to transnationalism and globalization evokes the entrenched opposition between those who believe the nation-state will wither away and those for whom it has a strong future. Do you hold to one pole or to something in between?

5.  Your ethnographic case study of the Nande people around Butembo deserves to be our main focus and I will return to it later. I will start by noting that you don’t say much about the traders’ relations with local militias beyond suggesting that the former are in charge. This is an old story of alliance and conflict between money and power. Did you underplay it in order to highlight the role of commerce and the church in building a new civic order?

6.   The greatest challenge you pose to us is to rethink the idea of failed states in the light of transnational networks like these. You draw from the example another possible direction for Africa in future. This is the most general and unfocused aspect of your paper. I hope that, before we end up at that level, we could dispute more concrete assertions first.

7.    What I love about your paper is the way it renews the anthropological tradition of drawing radical and optimistic conclusions from the study of stateless societies. I hope that your use of the potestas/potentia pair will get the serious discussion it deserves. Spinoza has enjoyed a revival of late, especially in countries like Italy and France. I am thinking for example of Negri’s work. Do you anticipate linking your ethnography to this analogous political discourse?

An extraordinarily interesting paper. Allow me to begin with one question—What prevents the war that has claimed four million lives from spilling into Butembo? 

Patience, this paper gives us a fine insight into the Congo well beyond the news stereotypes. I am extremely taken with the counterpoint of transnationalism, local ethnicity and cross border trading you offer. John's question is a good one. It would be helpful if you were to enlarge on that by explaining something about how order is maintained and how power is exercised within the space of Butembo, the urban settlement you are focusing on.

In all the excitement and with a big timezone difference, I forgot to introduce Patience to posting on this thread. He'll be here when he can, but in the meantime he sent me these answers to my list of questions.

1. You tell us about your academic accomplishments, but not much about how you relate personally to the places and social processes you write about. Are you an anthropologist at home or not?

I am from DRC but, from southwest on the border with Angola. This makes me a special native anthropologist in the sense that I am a Congolese, so I am can claim to be at home in Butembo, but at the same time being from southwest, I had to learn Swahili, I have to adapt to many of customs from the east including food and other cultural habits. This situation gave me some advantage to claim Butembo as home because I am Congolese, but I can also allowed myself a certain scholarly distance vis-à-vis many of the issues in the Kivus.

In short, in my studies, I understand the Congolese not only as objects of my studies, but also as subjects of a history I am part of. In that sense I am I am anthropologist at home.  

2. Like you, I find the lack of Western media investigations into the roots and ongoing causes of the Congo war striking. One could say that the coalition that overthrew Mobutu was one of the successful acts of US foreign policy in recent decades. It included not only the Rwandan generals nurtured by Museveni, but at one time also Zimbabwe and South Africa. Beginning with the Rwandan genocide, it was a lasting defeat for French influence in the region and pushed them into bed with the Nigerians who consider the Congo to be their own backyard. Can you point to serious writing on this remarkable conjuncture in African history?

For now, I can’t. History of Africa is dominated by political scientists without a historical discipline. I will be great if you can suggest one writing  I can point to.

3.  I like your summary of the main ways of talking about African states today. In much of Africa, colonial empires lasted for only a few decades, less than a century. Dividing African history into precolonial, colonial and postcolonial history doesn’t make much sense. If it was premature to suppose once that independence guaranteed the birth of a new political kingdom, is it reasonable to hold that states today are best understood as working out the leftovers of incomplete foreign rule?

The debate stated by the Nigerian historian Aje Ajayi when he stated that the colonial period lasted only few decades, it was just an episode in the millennia of African history. Vincent Yves Mudimbe thinks that even though the colonial period was short, it was so intense that today Africans see themselves only as colonial subjects. My take is that Congolese state as other African states are top-down institutions created by the colonial power who considered them as economic spaces (extractive spaces) and never political spaces where people ha claims on their soil and underground. Post-independent leaders continued to act as ‘gatekeepers’ of the colonial interests rather than as leaders of their countries who wanted to democratize their countries.

4. Your brief reference to transnationalism and globalization evokes the entrenched opposition between those who believe the nation-state will wither away and those for whom it has a strong future. Do you hold to one pole or to something in between?

I am situated in the middle because I think that since nation-states are historically constructed depending of the fights on the ground, the future nation-states will also depend on the struggle on the ground. Statehood is a relative term, it depends on the struggle on the ground, it is a resultant of the dynamic interactions in the society.

5. Your ethnographic case study of the Nande people around Butembo deserves to be our main focus and I will return to it later. I will start by noting that you don’t say much about the traders’ relations with local militias beyond suggesting that the former are in charge. This is an old story of alliance and conflict between money and power. Did you underplay it in order to highlight the role of commerce and the church in building a new civic order?

Somewhere in my book I clearly state that many businessmen in Butembo have participated in financing the rebels. But, what they did and which is worth noting is that Nande traders finaced the rebels mostly in letting them use their infrastructures like hotels or kraals etc.. But, in exchange the traders got exoneration for their imported goods. I think that capitalism goes with a certain level of violence, but what traders in North Kivu did in alliance with the Catholic Church was to protect the center of their community by ‘supporting’ the conflict on their borderland. This, indeed, makes the Nande story less romantic and more real as the overall result is a sort of social cohesion in Butembo during the war.

6. The greatest challenge you pose to us is to rethink the idea of failed states in the light of transnational networks like these. You draw from the example another possible direction for Africa in future. This is the most general and unfocused aspect of your paper. I hope that, before we end up at that level, we could dispute more concrete assertions first.

My argument is that the Weberian model of state imposed on Africans and which never took roots in Africa has shown its limits as far as peace, stability and social cohesion are concerned. This state has failed, but Africans did not fail with it. They are using their creative power to re-imagine different ways of making new social arrangements. Many sub-groups, aligned along ethno-linguistic affiliations, are taking their collective fates on their hand with the help of their elites including religious, commercial and customary elites. This looks like a new direction away from the chimera of a state generally conceptualized as institution with the monopoly of legitimate violence, with universal validity across time and space.

7. What I love about your paper is the way it renews the anthropological tradition of drawing radical and optimistic conclusions from the study of stateless societies. I hope that your use of the potestas/potential pair will get the serious discussion it deserves. Spinoza has enjoyed a revival of late, especially in countries like Italy and France. I am thinking for example of Negri’s work. Do you anticipate linking your ethnography to this analogous political discourse?

Yes. The understanding I got from my anthropological fieldwork is that political subjectivity has been encapsulated in an iron cage called Weberian state which has been universalized and crystalized. Taken as form of relations along the line of contractualists or even Hannah Arendt (State as public space of debate), the state should work for a greater flexibility of human relations have rather than for a perpetuation of institutional rigidity.

Merci beaucoup. Patience

Patience, I wanted to add that what you are doing, the way that you are deploying your ethnography of the Nande in this argument, is important and valuable.

I also wanted to put this in context; on another thread on 'democracy' on this website Boris Popovic raised the problem that often anthropologists are engaged in showing that whatever it looks like their informants are "are not fooled, not crushed, not homogenized; indeed they are creatively appropriating or reinterpreting what is being thrown at them in ways that its authors would never have anticipated" and that sometimes, by taking that interpretive stand, it can start to seem that anthropologists are complicitous with with those who praise global market forces. 

In certain ways what intrigues me is that, from your description of the Nande, they are economic libertarians in a more explicit sense than anthropologists would often recognise: they are people who have seized on a marginal economic advantage in the military chaos of the Congo and have built a relatively thriving micro-polity for themselves. Hence, they are not simply creative consumers of the situation they find themselves in; they are active in a way someone like Hayek might well have approved of (I am being a little provocative to find out more about what your view on this is). This is in part why I was interested in finding out a little more about how that micro-politics actually works on the ground; issues of social control in Butembo and social redistribution.

John McCreery said:

An extraordinarily interesting paper. Allow me to begin with one question—What prevents the war that has claimed four million lives from spilling into Butembo? 

 

Thank you John for your question. I think that the manin reasons the war did not reach Butembo is that Nande businessmen with the catholic hierarchy literally paid off for the peace. During the 2006-2006 war that toppled Mobutu, the most dangereux soldiers were the Mobutu soldiers who were running from the kabila army (coalition of Rwandasn and Ugandan soldiers). What Nande traders did in 2006-2007 was to provide means of transportation to Mobutu soldiers to pass through their territory without looting or killing as they were doing elsewhere. So trucks with deserting Mobutu soldiers passed through Butembo to Ituri and the Oriental Province. Had the Nande not provided these means of transportation, things would have been different.

However, two invasions of Butembo were tried but failed. The first one was coming from Goma with CNDP (Rwandan Tutsi) rebels in 2005. Since CNDP was backed by the Kigali government, they were very well equipped and the Nande militia couldn't stop them. According the some narratives in Butembo, President Kagame of Rwanda managed to convince the State department during the Bush administration that nande were trading uranium with Alqaida. It is only that way that the Bush administration gave its green light for the invaion of Butembo. But, always according to the Nande narratives, the bishop of Butembo went to the Vatican to explain that there was no uranium in Butembo. The Vatican then sent somebody at the State Department to explain the same thing. A woman from the State department was sent to Butembo and had discussion with Nande trades and the bishop. The Nande told her that there trader gold and not uranium. The CNDP attaks were alted soon after these discussions.

The second attempt to invade Butembo came from up north through Bafwasende. It was lead by Jean-Pierre Bemba and his soldiers who are mostly former Mobutu soldiers from equateur region. The nande could not resist Bemba's army. They them called the international media, including the RFI, BBC and Voic eof America to accuse Jean-Pierre bemba's soldiers of brutal killing of pygmees and of acts of canibalism. The accusation was manufactured, but had a great impact on Jean-Pierre Bemba who was warned that he might face international Tribunal because of his military campagne called "Effacer le tableau" (clean de blackboard) against the pygmees. Bemba's soldiers never reached Butembo and had to stop their progression.

I am in the position to affirm that this accusation of cannibalism was manifactured because i interview some pygmees who were involved and denied that they were victims of Bemba's soldiers cannibalism. However, the bishop of Butembo confirmed that it was the only wa to stop Bemba.

 

Thank you Huon for your question. The most important person in Butembo is the Catholic bishop. He has the final decision on all issues regarding Butembo. The mayor who was there when i was doing my filedwork was his appointee. Traders respect him and listen to him. The association of traders called (FEC: Federation des Entrepreneurs du Congo) has its own courts where disputes, especially around land, are settled. The militia in concertation with traders seem to have the upper hand for the coercion business. It seemed to me that there was a sort of Alliance between the traders who basically deal with the economy of the region and the Catholic Church who run the development work (schools, hospital and orphenages,..) and finally the militias who are in charge of the coercive power. However, the state functions like the mayory, policing basically work with the financial contribution of traders. I witnessed a Catholic priest going to put a person in jail without going through the normal process. When I asked him why he couldn't hand this person to the police first, he said that he didn't need to go though all that because in this tacit arrangement (alliance between the Church, the FEC and the militia) he had the power to take somebody out of jail or to send somebody in jail.

Huon Wardle said:

Patience, this paper gives us a fine insight into the Congo well beyond the news stereotypes. I am extremely taken with the counterpoint of transnationalism, local ethnicity and cross border trading you offer. John's question is a good one. It would be helpful if you were to enlarge on that by explaining something about how order is maintained and how power is exercised within the space of Butembo, the urban settlement you are focusing on.

Yes, you are right Huon to see a kind of economic liberalism in this part of Congo. But, the difference with Ayek is that the community here is very important because these businessmen can exist only because they are able to strick a balance between a space of dependence (Butembo) and the space of engagement (overseas where they do their business). They cannot conceived themselves being completelly imerged into the community because thier business will collapse due to many African cultural mecanism of forced redistribution. They cannot totally immerse into the space of engagement because of the fear of being banned from the community. That's the most dangerous thing who could occur to an African man. So the importance of the community where the wealth is produced makes it very difficult to compare the Nande traders's procedures to the Hayekian liberalism.

Huon Wardle said:

Patience, I wanted to add that what you are doing, the way that you are deploying your ethnography of the Nande in this argument, is important and valuable.

I also wanted to put this in context; on another thread on 'democracy' on this website Boris Popovic raised the problem that often anthropologists are engaged in showing that whatever it looks like their informants are "are not fooled, not crushed, not homogenized; indeed they are creatively appropriating or reinterpreting what is being thrown at them in ways that its authors would never have anticipated" and that sometimes, by taking that interpretive stand, it can start to seem that anthropologists are complicitous with with those who praise global market forces. 

In certain ways what intrigues me is that, from your description of the Nande, they are economic libertarians in a more explicit sense than anthropologists would often recognise: they are people who have seized on a marginal economic advantage in the military chaos of the Congo and have built a relatively thriving micro-polity for themselves. Hence, they are not simply creative consumers of the situation they find themselves in; they are active in a way someone like Hayek might well have approved of (I am being a little provocative to find out more about what your view on this is). This is in part why I was interested in finding out a little more about how that micro-politics actually works on the ground; issues of social control in Butembo and social redistribution.

Those are fascinating responses, Patience; they take us much further into the ethngoraphic situation than I could possibly have imagined. I am struck by the alliances between businessmen, militias and catholic priests. I will also want to know more, in due course, about the African worldview you hint at and how it sets limits on economic action.

Without being essentialist, i think that some elements of African family structures could be detrimental to capitalist mode of accumulation. You could find the same theory of strong or weak embeddeness in Granovetter's work. The community is organized in such a way that its survival is secured. Each member of the community is responsible for this task. The social pressure to redistribute stems from that. So, for a rich person, it is generally difficult not to redistribute because of the generally accepted worldview that success is communautarian rather than individual. The interest with the Nande case is that they manage to keep both the capitalist form of accumulation and the African communautarian understanding of economic success. That is why the space of engagement is as important as the space of dependence.

Continuing the thread started by Huon's question about African worldviews and Patience's mention of Granovetter, what strikes me in Patience's account of the situation in Butembo is that the African traders in Butembo occupy a structural position similar to that attributed to Chinese and Indian traders both in Africa and other parts of the world,both distancing themselves from the local community to avoid redistribution and seizing opportunities offered by global networks. In those situations the ethnic boundary between local and trader can become a flash point for violent confrontation (I think here of Amy Chua's book _World on Fire_, with it's controversial thesis that economic development and democracy do not go hand in hand, at least in these kinds of situations, where traders support authoritarian regimes that protect property threatened by populist/democratic movements.) I find myself wondering if the traders in Butembo see themselves as ethnically or, alternatively, religiously different from other Africans and how strongly these boundaries are drawn.

See the post after the next one for six comments that were deleted and are now restored in one place.

Continuing with the religious theme, Patience, I was struck, when reading your account of Butembo as a city ruled by a bishop, by Henri Pirenne's Medieval Cities. Here the three elements you mention -- militia, traders and the church -- also combined to generate the rebirth of urban civilization in Europe. The city was first fortified in a strong place with walls (Bourg). Then markets tended to develop outside the city walls (in order to avoid paying taxes) and these suburbs (Faubourg) became the home of a new merchant class (Bourgeoisie). But in many cases, the city authority was a bishop. Indeed even in England the definition of a city until recently was a settlement with a cathedral and a bishop. The wider authority was split between the Pope in Rome (religion) and the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna (politics). All of this is vividly evoked by your story of the bishop using the Vatican to get Washington (the emperor) to call the Rwandan invasion off Butembo. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. It is not hard to find medieval counterparts for the images of uranium and cannibalism that you report. This is not to say that the DRC is an evolutionary throwback to medieval Europe, but there are structural analogies and historical/cultural continuities in this case, especially the absence of an effective centralised state or empire.

I have long been interested in the lands between France and Germany which were highly fragmented in the middle ages and for a time were known as Lotharingia. A typical example here of an independent city run by a bishop into early modern times was Liege in Belgium. You have studied in another at the Catholic University of Leuven, one of Europe's finest. What interests me about this area is that it stretches between Northern Italy and Switzerland in the South and the Lowlands in the North which between them launched the European Renaissance. The state of Burgundy emerged as a fraction of the traditional aristocracy capable of mobilizing a proto-European bourgeoisie from Italy, Austria, Flanders and elsewhere and then it was crushed and divided by France. But more of that another day.

To return to the main point of your paper, what are the implications of this case for African political development? There are numerous studies of Catholic and Protestant missionaries in the period of colonial empire and after. I am thinking for example of the Basel mission to which one of Europe's strongest African Studies Centres is linked historically. The Peres Blancs are also well researched. But I am not sure that the role of the Catholic church after independence has had much attention. Here you could bring us up to date. There is also a lot of work on Pentecostalists, Sufists and other bottom-up religious movements with their own versions of making stateless connection to world society. This is a huge topic, but it seems to be central to rethinking paths to African political maturity.

Finally, I find it a bit odd that you seem to want to pin a demonised theory of the state as potestas on poor old Max Weber. Both in his essay on "The City" in Economy and Society and his brilliant posthumous work, General Economic History, Weber emphasized plural dimensions of political and economic development. Rationalization for him was developed in tandem by market and bureaucracy (Rhineland capitalists and Prussian military organization). He was obsessed with the decline in moral and religious dimensions of political order (the legitimation crisis) etc. But maybe we can come back to that after we have examined potentia/potestas more closely.

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