In our continuing series of election reports, we are pleased to welcome the following report by Louisa Lombard. Louisa is a Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology at Duke University. She writes a blog about her research in the Central African Republic.
William Easterly recently argued that “good governance” rhetoric notwithstanding, aid to dictators has remained steady since 1972. The rich countries no long have strategic interests at stake, but the “Gerund Defense” enables donors to keep the money flowing: with only a few exceptions, no matter how corrupt or autocratic a regime, it could be said to be “developing” or “democratizing” and hence on a progressive course necessitating assistance. But the dictators hold “farcical ‘elections’” and nothing changes. If we take Easterly’s warning seriously and start to question the progressivist aid ideology, what should we do about those places where elections occur, and aren’t exactly farcical, but meaningful democracy – in which citizens’ grievances and claims are taken seriously and responded to by their political leaders – remains elusive? The Central African Republic (CAR), whose citizens voted in first-round presidential and legislative elections Sunday, is one such place. In the end, the case of places like CAR might prove more insidious, because it calls into question the definitional link between elections and democracy.
First, for the bettors out there, the run-down: current President Jean-François Bozizé, who seized power in a coup in March 2003 before adding democratic credentials in the 2005 elections, will likely retain his post. Competition from the president he ousted, Ange-Felix Patassé, as well as two others with ties to the heavily-populated (by depopulated CAR’s standards, anyway) Northwest, 2005 runner-up Martin Ziguélé and Jean-Jacques Demafouth, means that he may not obtain the super-majority necessary to avoid the run-off scheduled for March. Bozize’s KNK (“Kwa na kwa” – work, nothing but work) party stands to do well in the legislative realm as well.
The elections had initially been scheduled for almost a year ago but were repeatedly delayed. Partly, the delays owed to the cycle of rebellion that took hold with Bozizé’s assumption of power, which spread more than a handful of rebel groups across the country’s terrain. (Most have signed peace agreements with the government but remain mobilized.) And partly, the delays were due to the fact that elections were a much more pressing concern for donors and diplomats than for the politicians who stood to make them happen.
Both government officials and their opponents have given the impression they are acting in a play put on for donors’ benefit. For instance, an independent electoral commission was created, as per the donors’ current best practices, but its constitution slanted subtly in favor of the ruling party. For its part, the opposition wanted to be named to a two-year transitional government, after which elections would be held. This is because incumbents have a crucial advantage: whereas campaigning is only officially permitted in the two weeks prior to the election, those already in power have the resources to start making coffee and t-shirt gifts to constituents whenever they like. I observed KNK cadres stumping a year and a half ago.
Such are the minor irregularities that characterize CAR’s democracy. The opposition has claimed that Sunday’s results should are tainted and should be thrown out, but it’s at least as likely irregularities (voter list/voter card discrepancies) were due to the travails of coordination in a place with such shoddy infrastructure as to covert machinations. Perhaps the biggest problem was that people in the hardest-to-reach parts of the country (such as those areas where Lord’s Resistance Army fighters lurk in the bush and highway bandits plague the roads) could not vote unless they came to a regional capital. That’s another odd thing about elections in CAR: government officials lack control over much, if not most, of the country’s terrain.
The CAR state has historically been highly concentrated in the capital. Before the French colonizers arrived, most people in the area that is now CAR lived in highly decentralized (what anthropologists used to call “stateless”) communities. The French presence outside Bangui was exceedingly limited and parsimonious. Since independence, only the self-proclaimed Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa embarked on any kind of a nation-building project. Controlling the hinterlands, or responding to the needs of people there, are only peripheral concerns of the government, whose officials direct all of their energies toward negotiating aid deals, concessions and other contracts with foreign companies.
To many dispossessed rural youth, it seemed like joining a rebellion gave them an effective way to voice their grievances. The case of the People’s Army for the Restoration of Democracy (APRD, from the French) is illustrative. It has its origins in escalating confrontations between self-defense groups and government soldiers, who had retaliated against the population after thieves targeted a truck they guarded. With the sponsorship of Paris-based Jean-Jacques Demafouth (minister of defense under Patasse), who named himself their leader, they became the APRD. Demafouth only ever spends time on the ground with his fighters when the international community pays for him to go “on mission”, such as to discuss the modalities of the long-promised disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) project. The DDR Steering Committee (various members of the government and leaders of armed groups, with Demafouth a co-president) so dragged out the process that the donor monies ran out before anything was accomplished.
And so those rural youth remain in the same bitter situation. In interviews I conducted with them in November, they lamented that their leaders never come and talk to them like men – on the rare occasions they alight, they make empty promises and then return to the capital where they “eat well”. In the words of one particularly exercised young man: “We see how our leaders are eating it all – how can the donors give like that? How can they accept it? Tell them to go and take back their money! Tell them not to give any more aid! Tell them [donors, ambassadors] to close the airport so that our leaders have to stay here and work things out. When things get bad, they just go to France.”
Though it would be an overstatement to say that Central Africans would be better off without elections, it is hard to see how elections contribute to making people’s concerns heard and responded to by capital-based leaders who like to “eat”. And, especially when the opposition is fragmented, as in CAR, there is a way in which elections make it harder to see discontent like that voiced by the youth above, which is widespread. Bozize will win and cement his legitimacy and the country will trundle along in its present torpor (its GDP is less than that of Pine Bluff, Arkansas). People will have voted, but is the result democracy?