When Disorder Has a Value: Denunciation and Liberty in Armed Conservation in the Central African Republic

Prepared for the March 2 – 3, 2017 seminar, Theorizing (Dis)Order: Governing in an Uncertain World, organized by the winners of the 2016 – 2017 WPF Student Seminar Competition. 

Approaching order and disorder non-normatively

When asked to participate in this conference, I immediately thought of Marilyn Strathern’s remarks on the assumptions social scientists usually make about order and disorder, namely that order is the proper state of society, and society itself is imposed upon individuals who are by natural propensity asocial beings…. As expanded by anthropologists, this model classifies societies as everywhere attending to the same ends, including the management of disruptive behaviour manifested at the level of individual conflict (1985: 113).[i]

In other words, order is the purpose of society. Disorder is therefore always a failure of society or otherwise undesirable, and the purpose of social mechanisms is to contain and process conflict. These equations whereby order = good and disorder = bad, have often been taken to be key elements of what Geertz critically called the “consensus gentium” (nuggets of cultural universals)[ii]. But there is good reason to question whether the values embedded in those equations are indeed universal/neutral.

In a brilliant article, Judith Scheele argues that for the infamously-anarchic Tubu-speakers of northern Chad “ ‘disorder’ is not perceived to be a problem, but rather is seen as something to be proud of, a sign of personal and group courage and assertiveness” (2015: 35). By focusing on the value people see in disorder, Scheele is able to conceptualize order and disorder in a nonnormative way. Avoiding normative thinking is itself a value, one particularly cherished by anthropologists like me. But whether you share that value or not, understanding the meaning and values that inspire disordered or violent practices is a necessary first step toward other aims, such as decreasing any deleterious effects that accompany them.

This does not tend to be the way that the study of conflict is approached. Often, it is instead approached as a function of interests, whose content and universal applicability are taken for granted. These are chiefly profit interests (often given a negative valence, as “greed”), but also include an interest in claiming and controlling territory and/or populations, as well as a more general desire for power (“power-hungry”). The Enough Project tends to exemplify this way of thinking, but it is widespread in other sources, policy-focused and academic approaches alike. Consider the following sentence from a recent UNSC report on CAR (all abbreviations refer to armed groups): “FPRC elements attacked UPC positions in Bria on 21 November, largely in response to UPC expansion into FPRC areas of control, competition over natural resources and the UPC refusal to join a reunified ex-Seleka movement” (2017: 5). Sentences like this map out who does what and when. But there is important texture that is lost when social values are taken as prior principles. That is, accounts like this one tend to take for granted that money, territory, and power are things that those engaged in armed conflict inherently, naturally want, and that these motives are therefore the key to explaining everything else. But while interest-focused (“greed and grievance”) models have illuminated certain dynamics they have obscured others — particularly other social values, which might be more important.

The excavation of interests must be accompanied by a search for values, both those expressed verbally and those expressed through practice. So in this note I follow Scheele’s suggestion to make value a more explicit element of considerations of order and disorder. Drawing on my research on armed conservation in northeastern Central African Republic (CAR), I show that practices that could be considered “disorder” are a means of protecting values of liberty — particularly in its negative but also positive forms.[iii] Disorder, in other words, is not simply the opposite of the good.

Liberty and Denunciation in Northeastern CAR

Our setting is the country’s remote northeast, a vast and sparsely-populated area that the central government has never had much interest in administering in a steady way. Most of this area is consecrated conservation land — national parks and hunting reserves. Hunting and herding in the area increased dramatically beginning in the late 1970s. More muscular policing of the protected areas was one response to this turn of events. This was done not by the government (as in other contexts for coercive conservation, like Kenya or Tanzania) but by a variety of different actors and entities operating in the name of the absent state. The most steadfast participants have been the various European Union-funded extra-statal militias, which operated from 1988-2004 and 2007 to the present (though they have not been very operational since 2011). Even during those years, though, others have been involved. These have included safari hunting lodge operators and their guards; French soldiers operating to “secure the border,” and a private association employing former French Legionnaires and Central African guards. At times, the various antipoaching patrollers in CAR said they had effectively pushed out the hunters and herders; at other times, and especially recently, they have themselves been overrun.

Throughout these decades, many people have been killed. But while most accounts of armed conservation describe clear classes of hegemons and victims, I struggled to apply that framework to understanding the violence around armed conservation in CAR. Both guards and those they targeted were killed, and frequently, in what seemed a rather disordered way. Sometimes peasants effectively threatened the anti-poaching guards, but other times a person (“poacher” in the conservationists’ parlance) was killed without any outcry or retaliation. Central Africans would often divide the problems of poaching into those owing to “local” poachers (small time, not nefarious) and “foreign” ones (rapacious, interested only in profit). The locals were broadly in favor of conservation and just hunted for subsistence, they said, while the foreigners were against conservation and would fight it to the death. But that did not reflect the full range of practices going on. Locals could be insistent about their right to use parkland resources as they saw fit, at the same time as they said they wholeheartedly supported conservation. Anti-poaching guards could turn a blind eye to some offenses (and even participate in illegal activities themselves), while reacting vengefully against others. Some villagers and guards worked together, only to have that trust broken by another. What was going on?

Of course, people could make money by playing with the rules, and they appreciated the money they thus gained. Anti-poaching guards might sell access to or finance diamond digging in protected areas, only to have another guard wait just until the moment of return on investment and step in to seize the proceeds. And the area was large enough that for the most part people in villages near conservation areas could profitably “play the conservation game” (Roulet 2010) and also do the hunting, fishing, and mining their conservation participation was supposed to proscribe without these projects coming into conflict. But a desire for profit does not fully explain the disorder, if such it was: why did certain deaths or certain police actions elicit outrage, while others did not?

I found that the differences derived from a relationally-activated defense of liberty. Many people living in the conservation areas were eager to participate in these projects. They also, at times, decried the excessive force used by the guards. But they did not question that force should sometimes be used. They questioned, rather, not in general but in specific situations, against whom it should be used. And that “whom” was not stable but changed. It was not my group (a village, say) against yours (anti-poaching patrollers), with the integrity of the group the threatened value, as in models of social substitution (Kelly 2000). Rather, when particularly egregious abrogations of the value of non-molestation against particular people (liberty) occurred, people who felt related to those targeted would mobilize to denounce those abrogations. Joining in both signaled that you shared in that value and established you as among those who would enjoy the privilege it conferred when restored.

Consider a series of events near Idongo, the conservation projects’ “model village.” The town had gained this status in part because people there had signed on to conservation so eagerly. It abutted several profitable hunting concessions, which meant that people there would benefit handsomely from the conservation project’s taxation revenue-sharing scheme. In return, residents were to refrain from hunting. And indeed, the project brought welcome resources to the village. As one glowing journalistic account noted in 2003, modern forms of security and governance had arrived in Idongo: “the elderly have a right to a small pension” (AFP 2003). But later that year anti-poaching guards caught several people from Idongo hunting in a protected area and seized their guns. The next night, the guards caught Idongo’s conservation committee president’s son, as well as a few others, in flagrant délit, in the act of hunting, and jailed him. So far, so familiar: peasants coerced and oppressed by those with guns. However, the following morning many Idongo residents, joined by people from nearby villages (eye witness estimates ranged from eighty to three hundred) stormed the conservation project base. They destroyed the radio post. They attempted to confiscate the anti-poaching guards’ weapons. Some were shooting their own guns (mostly in the air). Villagers ripped the clothes from at least one guard’s back. Others living in the area had been dispossessed/jailed before, without any popular uprising. But in this particular case, people were rallied. This time, it was the conservation committee president’s son who was among those targeted, and his father had influence and capacity to mobilize, such that people were convinced that the anti-poaching guards’ actions were egregious and must be stopped. Not just immediate family members of the detained but others too felt implicated in this affront to such an extent as to participate in denouncing it. That is to say, they felt inspired to say we are not those who can be walked all over like that. When people from Idongo attacked the anti-poaching base, they sought both to get vengeance and to protest their being treated in a way that struck them as devoid of the most basic consideration, facilitating negative liberty.

The denunciation of the captured Idongans was not just the overt expression of separate groups with a latently-hostile relationship to each other; at other moments they were close collaborators. Nor was the denunciation just a function of a desire for profit (that is, of rule-breaking and ruleprotesting being ways to make money). Other values were important too. And in this case, the most important value seems to be freedom from excessive molestation, or negative liberty. In rallying people to enact this value — that is, in denouncing a molestation — a moral community is conjured, if only temporarily. It’s not just about “groups” that are protecting their own; it’s about calling into existence an association of people who share in feeling that it is important to uphold certain moral principles. In so doing, they create exceptions for themselves, and maintain the ability to create further exceptions to rules, as opposed to being ever-more subject to uniformly-applied rules. This ability to be exceptional begins to slide toward a value of positive liberty, the ability to pursue one’s life as fully as one sees fit, including in the form of benefiting from project beneficence. Positive and negative liberty are closely related but in this case, people experience the latter as a precondition to the former.

In an article and book in preparation (Lombard in preparation a, b), I further explore the workings of denunciation in armed conservation. I have found that while people might not like violence in and of itself, they might also think there are things worth fighting for. Joshua Craze (2016) sums this up well in describing an aid project supposed to end cattle raiding in South Sudan, which began from two absurd assumptions: that raiding is considered morally bad, and that the international community can stop it. Since the beginning of the civil war, I have spoken to many people whose villages have been burnt, their cattle stolen. They are angry, lost, and they want to go raiding to get their cattle back. That isn’t to say that all raiding is considered good, but that cattle raiding is part of a complicated moral economy, full of shades of grey, and not simply the antithesis of a good life, lived under the watchful eye of the UN.

Without describing these values as “cultural” (they are products of histories of domination as much as anything else, and they are in some instances shared by people from the region and those from afar, such as expatriate military trainers), there are interesting resonances to be further explored between these values around denunciation and the moral politics of the region’s historic “divine kings”: “all most Africans ask of their sacred kings is what most Europeans demand of their welfare states: health, prosperity, a certain level of life security, protection from natural disasters”; “however, most do not feel it necessary or desirable to grant them police powers in order to accomplish this” (Graeber 2011: 6-7).

Works cited

AFP (Agence France Presse). 2003. “A Idongo, les anciens ont même droit à une petite pension.” Bangui: AFP.

Berlin, Isaiah. 1958. Two Concepts of Liberty. Oxford: Clarendon.

Craze, Joshua. 2016. “The Mission of Forgetting.” Chimurenga Chronic. 5 April.

Geertz, Clifford. 1972. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.

Graeber, David. 2011. “The Divine Kingship of the Shilluk: On Violence, Utopia, and the Human Condition, or, Elements for an Archeology of Sovereignty.” Hau: A Journal of Ethnographic Theory. 1(1): 1-62.

Kelly, Raymond Case. 2000. Warless Societies and the Origin of War. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Lombard, Louisa. In preparation a. “Denouncing Sovereignty: Exceptional Violence and Claims to Liberty in Northeastern Central African Republic.”

Lombard, Louisa. In preparation b. Hunting Game: Politics in the Central African Interior. Under review at Cambridge University Press.

Roulet, Pierre-Armand. 2010. Rapport d’expertise: Proposition de zonage concerté de la zone cynégetique villageoises Koukourou-Bamingui. Bangui: ECOFAC.

Scheele, Judith. 2015. “The Values of ‘Anarchy’: Moral Autonomy Among Tubu-Speakers in Northern Chad.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 21(1): 32-48.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1985. “Discovering ‘Social Control’.” Journal of Law and Society. 12(2): 111-134.


[i] Cited in Scheele (2015: 34).

[ii] Geertz argued, convincingly in my view, that such a search for universals would result

only in a supremely watered-down understanding of what it means to be human.

[iii] Here I am drawing on Isaiah Berlin’s distinction (1958) between negative liberty

(freedom from molestation) and positive liberty (freedom to lead as full of a life as one desires).

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