Category Archives: Central African Republic

Slavery and the Ngaoundere State

From “Raiders and Traders in Adamawa: Slavery as a Regional System” by Philip Burnham, in Asian and African Systems of Slavery, ed. by James L. Watson (U. Calif. Press, 1980), pp. 46-48:

The Adamawa jihad was undertaken by small groups of Fulbe who were substantially outnumbered by the autochthonous ‘pagan’ groups of the region. Ngaoundere was certainly no exception in this regard, and the rapid integration of conquered Mbum and other peoples into the Fulbe state, which transformed large numbers of former enemies into effective elements of the state political and economic apparatus, is truly remarkable.

The limited information that we possess concerning the organisation of the Wolarbe Fulbe who first penetrated the Adamawa Plateau and attacked the Mbum of Ngaoundere suggests that they were a semi-nomadic pastoral group. Slaves definitely formed a part of Wolarbe society prior to the jihad, and it is possible that some of these slaves were settled in fixed farming villages which served as wet-season foci and political and ceremonial centres for the transhumant families of Fulbe pastoralists. At least a rudimentary system of political offices, with titles for both freemen and slaves, was in operation prior to the jihad and had probably been adopted by the Wolarbe during their earlier period of residence in Bornu.

On analogy between the pre-jihad Wolarbe and better-documented cases of similar semi-pastoral Fulbe groups composed of both free and slave elements, it is probable that the initial group of Wolarbe who took Ngaoundere did not exceed 5,000 in number, including women, children and slaves. But in the course of several decades of fighting against the indigenous peoples of the Ngaoundere region, the Fulbe were able to conquer and reduce to slavery or tributary status large groups of local populations who certainly outnumbered the Fulbe conquerors by several orders of magnitude. These conquests were assisted by alliances between Ngaoundere and other Fulbe states as well as by the progressive incorporation of ‘pagan’ elements into the Ngaoundere army. Conquered ‘pagan’ village populations located near Ngaoundere town were often allowed to remain on their traditional lands. Their chiefs were awarded titles, and the whole village unit was allocated to the tokkal (political following) of a titled Fulbe or slave official in the Ngaoundere court, who became responsible for collecting annual taxes and raising levies of soldiers for Fulbe war expeditions. In return, the ‘pagan’ group’s loyalty to Ngaoundere was rewarded principally by opportunities to secure booty in war, and this incentive was probably the primary factor which allowed the Fulbe to secure the allegiance of conquered groups so rapidly.

The tokke units (plural of tokkal) which formed the basis of the Ngaoundere administrative system, had their origins in the leadership patterns of mobile pastoral society and were not discrete territorial domains ruled by resident overlords. Rather, tokke were sets of followers, both Fulbe and members of vassal peoples, who were distributed in a scattering of different rural villages or residential quarters in town and who were allocated to individual office holders living at Ngaoundere at the whim of the Fulbe ruler (laamiido). Such a spatially dispersed administrative organisation lessened chances of secession by parts of the Ngaoundere state and yet was an effective means of mobilising and organising an army.

In addition to locally conquered ‘pagan’ peoples, the size of the servile population at Ngaoundere was further enlarged by slaves captured at distances of 200 to 500 kilometres from Ngaoundere town itself. These captives were brought back for resettlement at Ngaoundere either as domestic slaves or as farm slaves in slave villages (ruumde). This long-distance raiding, which was a regular occurrence from the 1850s up until the first decade of the twentieth century, was a large-scale phenomenon, and European observers at the end of the nineteenth century estimated that as many as 8,000 to 10,000 slaves might be taken on these raids annually (Coquery-Vidrovitch 1972:76, 204-205; Loefler 1907:225; Ponel 1896:205-207). Those captives who were not settled at Ngaoundere were sold to Hausa or Kanuri traders, and Adamawa soon gained the reputation as a slave traders’ Eldorado (Passarge 1895:480). By the second half of the nineteenth century, Adamawa had become the main source of supply for the Sokoto Caliphate (Lacroix 1952:34).

Summing up the demographic situation at Ngaoundere in the nineteenth century, we can say that at no time following the establishment of the Fulbe state did the proportion of slaves and vassals to freemen ever fall below a one-to-one ratio and that for most of the period, the ratio was probably more like two-to-one. Modern census figures, although they can be applied retrospectively with only the greatest of caution, tend to support this interpretation. Thus, in 1950, there were approximately 23,000 Fulbe living in the Ngaoundere state as compared with 35,000 non-Fulbe who were still identifiable as ex-slaves, vassals, or servants of the Fulbe (Froelich 1954:25). It goes without saying that in modern conditions, when all legal disabilities and constraints on movement have been removed, the proportion of servile to free would be expected to drop. But nonetheless, as late as 1950, we still encounter almost a three-to-two ratio.

Whatever the exact number and proportion of slaves in the pre-colonial period, they were not all of uniform social or legal status, and it is instructive to attempt a classification of the various forms of servitude in practice in nineteenth-century Ngaoundere. The Fulbe language makes a distinction between dimo and maccudo, meaning respectively ‘freeman’ and ‘slave’, a discrimination paralleling the basic one made in Koranic law. Membership in the legally free category was attainable through birth to two free parents, through birth to a slave concubine having relations with a freeman, or through manumission. A slave concubine herself, having borne a free child, would also become free on the death of her child’s father. Free offspring of slave concubines were not jurally disadvantaged and as the decades passed after the conquest, many of the Ngaoundere aristocracy and even several of the rules had such parentage.

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Sectarian Standoff in Central African Republic

This update on the sorry state of affairs in the Central African Republic (CAR) is in memory of my closest brother, who died a year ago today just before his 64th birthday. He served as a Peace Corps Volunteer on rural health projects in what was then Emperor Bokassa‘s Central African Empire during the late 1970s, and later went on to become one of the tiny handful of academic experts on the country. For his memorial service, his old Peace Corps colleagues recommended redirecting contributions to Water for Good, which builds wells to provide clean water throughout the CAR.

The following excerpt is from a detailed and depressing firsthand report in Foreign Policy by Ty McCormick headlined ‘One Day, We Will Start a Big War’: Outgunned by powerful rebels in the Central African Republic, the U.N. can’t even protect civilians. Now it’s pushing for early elections that could destroy a fragile peace.

There are scarcely 200 paces of tarmacked road in Bambari, a sprawling city of rusty tin kiosks and crumbling concrete edifices, smudged with rust-colored clay, deep in the heavily forested interior of the Central African Republic (CAR). They span the length of a single-lane bridge across the Ouaka River, a muddy torrent that cleaves Bambari in half from north to south. They also happen to be the most important 200 paces of road in town, though for reasons unrelated to the quality of the driving surface. The bridge marks the boundary between two dangerously divided communities, a red line across which visitors from the other side risk death, occasionally by decapitation.

The east bank of the Ouaka is controlled by remnants of the Seleka, a largely Muslim rebel coalition that pillaged and raped its way across CAR before seizing power over the country for a brief period in 2013. The west bank belongs to the anti-Balaka, the knife- and machete-wielding Christian self-defense militias that sprang up to counter the Seleka but managed to make the Muslim rebel coalition’s abuses look relatively mild by comparison. “Muslims are too afraid to travel to the [west] bank,” the mayor of Bambari, Abel Matchipata, told me recently. “Some Christians are traveling to the [east] bank, but they are doing so with a lot of fear.”

Bambari’s stark divisions mirror those in the rest of CAR, a Texas-sized swath of rainforest and savannah that is sandwiched between Chad, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among other troubled neighbors. Even before the latest crisis, CAR was “worse than a failed state,” according to the International Crisis Group. Now, after two-and-a-half years of turmoil stemming from the Seleka coup, the country is de facto partitioned: anti-Balaka in the southwest and former Seleka fighters in the northeast, where they fled after the coalition was disbanded and its leader stepped down under intense international pressure in January 2014. (They are now known as ex-Seleka, an umbrella term that refers to a smattering of armed groups lacking an organized central command.) Outside of CAR’s capital city, Bangui, virtually nothing is under government control. At least 6,000 people have been killed and 832,000 displaced — 368,000 inside the country and 464,000 abroad. About half of the country’s 4.7 million inhabitants are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.

When I visited Bambari last month, ahead of planned elections that many fear could be destabilizing, the city of just under 50,000, the third-largest in CAR, was still reeling from its latest spasm of violence. On Aug. 20, a Muslim taxi driver was plucked from his car outside the city and beheaded by anti-Balaka fighters. The incident provoked a backlash from the Muslim community and a counter-backlash from the Christian community, both of which have acquired a healthy appetite for revenge. By the time the dust had settled, at least 10 people were dead and dozens more wounded, including two aid workers from the Red Cross.

The unenviable task of keeping Bambari’s residents from each other’s throats falls mainly on a single battalion of U.N. peacekeepers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is itself home to the largest peacekeeping operation in the world. The Congolese are part of a 12,000-strong U.N. force in CAR known by its French acronym, MINUSCA. Authorized with a robust Chapter VII mandate to protect civilians and support the transitional government that replaced the Seleka, MINUSCA has been dogged by persistent charges of abuse and incompetence since taking over for a beleaguered African Union force in September 2014. U.N. peacekeepers have been accused of rape and of firing indiscriminately on civilians. They have also struggled to halt periodic outbursts of violence, like the spate of clashes and looting in late September that paralyzed the capital for close to a week. “Plagued by accusations of sexual abuse and facing mounting violence, MINUSCA threatens to turn into a disaster for the U.N.,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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A Linguistic Rediscovery Close to Home

During my dissertation fieldwork in Papua New Guinea over thirty years ago, I discovered that a bunch of Austronesian languages in Morobe Province mark their relative clauses in a manner that is pretty rare from a typological point of view: they mark both the beginning and the end of the clauses. An English equivalent would go something like, “The language [that they were speaking that] sounded vaguely familiar,” or “The language [which they were speaking such] sounded vaguely familiar.”

The only other place where I could find languages that did the same was in Central Africa, and my dissertation cited a 1976 article by the great French linguist Claude Hagège which mentioned by name two Nilo-Saharan languages, Moru and Mangbetu, and two Niger-Congo languages, Mbum and M’baka. Over the years, I lost track of anything pertaining to those languages except their names.

But I got curious again recently as I worked on updating for publication an old paper on clause-bracketing in PNG Austronesian languages. So, yesterday, after googling those names and finding out that Mbum and M’baka (= Ngbaka) are spoken in the Central African Republic, I emailed my historian brother in Strasbourg, whom I recently visited, to ask whether he knew of any CAR languages that bracketed their relative clauses. He had spent years working in the (at that time) Central African Empire for the US Peace Corps and USAID while I was writing my dissertation in linguistics, and he later wrote a dissertation himself on Japan-Africa relations before World War II.

My query didn’t ring any bells with him at first, but after some reflection he came up with some examples in Sango, CAR’s national lingua franca. And then he emailed to ask his linguist friend Raymond Boyd at CNRS whether he could think of Adamawa-Ubangi languages that used such markers for relative clauses. Boyd replied:

Right off, I can’t think of one that DOESN’T. In languages like Sango and Chamba, opener and closer can be the same. In Zande, the opener is etymologically an indefinite and the closer is a locative. I’ve been reading a dissertation on Mambay (an Adamawa language closely related to Mbum and Mundang) where there is only an opener, but I take this to be perhaps a Chadic influence (I’d have to check this on a much larger range of data).

It was a Eureka moment for both of us.

I can’t believe I never thought to ask my own brother before! Back in January, when he took us to the used book vendors in place Gutenberg in Strasbourg, I discovered a book I couldn’t resist buying—despite the 30€ price—for no other reason than that I had mentioned the language it described in my dissertation. It was La Langue des Makere, des Medje et des Mangbetu, par A. Vekens, Dominicain (Editions Dominicaines Veritas, 1928), and the pages were still uncut. But even then, it didn’t cross my mind to quiz my brother about the CAR languages he had worked on.

Here are some examples of bracketed relative clauses.

Mangbetu (Vekens 1928) in Congo

A belu [si kesia né môlô ta kira ne] kambuba e faranga môkôtu.
Les hommes [ceux font le travail avec intelligence ceux-là] gagneront des francs beaucoup.
‘Those who work smart get plenty money.’

Sango (my brother, pers. comm.) in CAR

Tene [so mo tene so] ake nzoni ape.
word [thus you say thus] is good not
‘What you say is no good.’

Jabêm (Dempwolff 1939) in PNG

Lip [tec aê gawa nec] gêjac mocseŋ teŋ.
trap [Dem I I-set Dem] it-catch bushfowl one
‘The trap I set caught a bushfowl.’

South Watut (Holzknecht 1989) in PNG

Jek i-ra jiyaʔ ri naip a [ti ra-gin afu ŋga]
Jack he-cut tree with knife [Dem I-give to Dem]
‘Jack cut the tree with the knife which I gave him.’

Patep (Lauck 1980) in PNG

Ông ob tyoo yii yuu nuhu [wê ob lam ge]
you will dodge spear two arrow [Rel will come Rel]
‘You will dodge the spears and arrows that will come.’

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Darfur Conflict Spreads into Central Africa

Lydia Polgreen of the NYT reports on the southward spread of yet another conflict not worth stopping, although France has intervened at the request of the current government of the CAR.

KALANDAO, Central African Republic — The Central African Republic — so important as a potential bulwark against the chaos and misery of its neighbors in Chad and the Darfur region of Sudan — is being dragged into the dangerous and ever-expanding conflict that has begun to engulf Central Africa.

So porous are its borders and ungoverned are parts of its territory that foreign rebels are using the Central African Republic as a staging ground to mount attacks over the border, spreading what the United Nations has already called the world’s “gravest humanitarian crisis.”

The situation is so bad in some places that 50,000 residents have fled the Central African Republic to find refuge in Chad, of all places, while starvation threatens hundreds of thousands who remain.

“This is the soft belly of Africa,” said Jerome Chevallier, a World Bank official who is trying to help stabilize the Central African Republic. “It has little protection from whatever might strike it.”

There’s much more on Darfur and the fighting in Chad at Passion of the Present.

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Former Haitian President Aristide’s New Hosts

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Bangui grants Aristide asylum ‘on humanitarian grounds’

BANGUI, 2 March (IRIN) – The Central African Republic (CAR) has granted former Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide asylum at the request of Gabonese President Omar Bongo and for humanitarian reasons, a government minister said on Monday.

“When a man in need knocks at your door, you do not consider his colour, his race or his rank, you welcome him and offer him the little you have,” Parfait Mbay, Communications Minister, said in a statement read on state-owned Radio Centrafrique.

He added, “At the request of his counterpart and dean of central African heads of state Gabonese President Omar Bongo, the president of the republic [Francois Bozize] accepted to receive the former president of the first black republic in the world, Jean Bertrand Aristide.”

By receiving Aristide, the CAR had confirmed its reputation as a land of asylum for people in difficulties, Mbay said.

Mbay, four other ministers and the CAR army chief of staff, Gen Antoine Gambi, received Aristide when he arrived on Monday at the Bangui-Mpoko Airport.

Mbay said that Bozize had consulted Vice-President Abel Goumba, Prime Minister Celestin Gaombalet and the chairman of the National Transitional Council, the country’s law advisory body, Nicolas Tiangaye, before allowing Aristide into the country.

“It is with sincere gratitude that we address the Central African Republic’s authorities for receiving us this morning,” the radio quoted Aristide as saying on his arrival in the capital, Bangui.

Referring to and paraphrasing Toussaint Louverture, the historical Haitian hero who was tortured and killed by French colonisers 200 years ago, Aristide said: “Today, in the shadow of Toussaint Louverture I declare: by overthrowing me, they have cut down the tree of peace but this tree will grow up again because its roots are Louverturian.”

The CAR government’s decision to welcome Aristide is perceived as an attempt to draw the attention of the international community to its own situation. The country is currently in a transitional period since the 15 March 2003 coup that brought Bozize to power. Since then, the authorities have been seeking international recognition. Now, with Aristide in exile in Bangui, the task may likely be easier.

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Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004

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