by Louisa Lombard
For the most part, I passed through roadblocks with little difficulty. Perhaps the barrier worker would give a cursory glance at my ordres de mission, and perhaps he would eventually lift the barrier only with marked languorousness. As an expatriate passenger in NGO vehicles, I benefited from a variety of unofficial diplomatic immunity. There were exceptions, however, especially in rebel-controlled areas. (The rebels were no longer officially rebels, given that they had signed peace agreements with the government, but they retained the label socially as long as they waited for disarmament. They had not given up their rebel-roadblocker occupation.) Whenever I talked with rebels about the roadblocks they operated, they explained that people volunteered to give them money out of appreciation for the work they were doing. One day in November 2010 I had a chance to volunteer some money to roadblockers. Though I did indeed volunteer it, the process of encounter was anything but voluntary.
I had spent days in Kaga Bandoro attempting to speak with Colonel Lakue, the APRD (Army for the Restitution of Democracy) rebel commander for the area, but I could never find him. Eventually, equipped with a letter of introduction from an APRD captain I’d met in Bangui, I decided to make a trip to their base, eighteen kilometers outside of town and see if that would present a more direct means of communication to the Colonel, who was out of town. Marcel, my research assistant, hired a moto-taxi, and the three of us sped off down the dusty red-ocher road. We drove a bit more than ten kilometers and then arrived at a barrier. Just the short, y-joint-topped poles on either side of the road were in place; the horizontal bar lay to the side, leaving the road open. Here, we would turn off to the left, up a narrow dirt track, and continue five kilometers further into the bush, where the base lay. We idled so we could explain ourselves.
Four roadblock workers, all APRD, lazed in the shade of the roadside vegetation. They slowly roused themselves. Two held locally-made rifles. The others brandished machetes or other large knives. I pulled out the captain’s letter. The most authoritative took a quick glance (I’m not sure he read French) and then declared, “Okay, you can pass.” As we made to depart he added, “But I’m hungry.”
I took the point but was unsure how to respond, so I stalled: “We’ll discuss more when we return.” He assented, but reminded me to be quick. “I’m hungry.” This time he rubbed his belly for emphasis.
After a brief visit at the base and a promise my letter would be expedited to the Colonel, we emerged back out onto the road. The barrier remained open, and the workers remained visibly bored where they hid out in the shade. I asked if I could take their picture, and they agreed provided they could stand next to the motorcycle. The driver agreed to their request.
After the photo shoot the driver, Marcel, and I started packing ourselves back on the bike. “Eh, regler! Regler!” called out one of the roadblockers in a chiding tone: we have accounts to settle. The others joined in the chant. A bit of laughter edged into their chorus, but I heard seriousness, too, under their jokiness.
I tried to reason quickly, but my thinking went in circles. I could probably stiff them this once, but if I needed to return they could cause endless problems for me. Then again, whatever I handed over now, they would likely expect more the next time, and I was short on cash. With reason coming up short, I let the contents of my pocket decide for me. Amid the lint my hand found a crumpled 2000 CFA (about 5 USD) note, which I handed over. Before they could decide whether to complain, we drove away. As we bumped along, I thought about how “voluntary” roadblock transactions are profoundly shaped by the possibilities for relationships among the people involved and by a rapid process of mutual sizing up.
Now, three years later, almost to the day, the APRD is no longer operating roadblocks. This is due to the successful March coup by a disparate assortment of men-in-arms from throughout the region (united mostly by their name, Seleka, or alliance). Its aftermath has left a new landscape of roadblocks. They seem to be more pervasive and more capriciously managed than ever. Automatic weapons are more widespread, too. In the process, roadblocks’ noncentralized effects have multiplied. The mutual sizing up that occurs on roadblocks, and its uncertain outcomes, yet again require the development of new navigational tools.
Lombard’s full article, Navigational Tools for Central African Roadblocks, is available in Volume 36, Issue 1 of PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review.
Lombard, Louisa. Navigational Tools for Central African Roadblocks. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review Online, 18 December 2013, https://polarjournal.org/2013/12/18/navigational-tools-for-central-african-roadblocks