Raiding Politics

Hunting Game: Raiding Politics in the Central African Republic, by Louisa Lombard (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Reviewed by Valerio Colosio, Social Science University of Ankara

Hunting Game builds on Louisa Lombard’s previous work, in which she historicized and problematized uprisings and instability in the Central African Republic (CAR). In this theoretically engaging new book, she explores how analysis of a “buffer zone” in northern CAR and its dynamics of raiding and hunting can enrich social science. Lombard follows Achille Mbembe in emphasizing the importance in Africa of areas without a clear and exclusive dominating power – the buffer zones – and calls for researchers to explore these areas and the practices developed there as sites of production of specific logics and theoretical tools. Lombard argues that “raiding is not, as it is often considered, archaic. It is a way of being in the modern world” (p. 22) and anthropologists need to explore the peculiar logics of this practice. Anthropologists have often described hunting and raiding in “acephalous societies” as practices antithetic to the state or even “organized against the state”, according to Pierre Clastres’ formulation (p. 4). On the contrary, in northern CAR the local acceptance of raiding practices can coexist with a desire for a stronger state presence and articulate political struggles in original ways. She explores this topic through a concept of “sovereignty” defined from the experiences of people on the ground; and investigates the social connections that may generate some forms of sovereignty in connection with the practices of hunting and raiding. These practices are entangled with northern CAR history and have produced specific local skills and codes. The focus of her ethnography is the ambiguous roles, and agencies of the pisteurs, the “tracker-guards” fighting against poachers in northern CAR. Here, big-game hunting and the fight against the poachers overlap with local struggles to extract resources and exert sovereignty, echoing precolonial slave-raids and the manhunts connected to colonial violence. Lombard connects past and present through the exploration of these practices from the points of view of the local actors involved in them.

The book has a rich historical introduction as a first chapter. Chapter 2 problematizes Dennis Cordell’s idea of northern CAR as a “frontier” between Muslim and Christian societies, emphasizing the continuity of raiding practices by Muslim slave-traders and Christian explorers, and the peculiarities of slave raids at the local level, which were never aimed at conquering or consolidating a central power, but rather at violently seizing resources. Chapter 3 explores the continuity in the violent control of the territory under colonial rule, when manhunts remained a crucial practice for imposing a “head tax” on local farmers and violently recruiting forced labor. Chapter 4 frames the emergence of game-hunting in colonial northern CAR, where the weakness of the central state contributed to the reproduction of the existing system of raiding. This chapter emphasizes the continuation of these practices with the conservation projects funded by the European Union since the 1980s: violent raiding remained key to exerting sovereignty locally and was used by both the local militias of pisteurs formed to prevent poaching and hunters looking for big-game. Moving from these considerations, the four ethnographic chapters that follow explore the limits of law in a buffer zone (Chapter 5), and the concepts of camouflage (Chapter 6), denunciation (Chapter 7) and rebellion (Chapter 8). These chapters are based on stories the author collected on the ground and aim to highlight the logics and moralities regulating hunting and raiding. What emerges from these stories is the lack of a “coherent system of reciprocal obligations or duties” (p. 125) among social actors in the buffer zone. Hence, they had to develop specific skills, such as “camouflage”, which Lombard frames as “a means of managing visibility in the context of relationships that entail neither explicit collaboration nor avoidance” (p. 157), or give different values to actions such as “denunciation” – generally oriented towards “freedom from molestations” (p. 178) – or “rebellions”, considered a “display of force”  (p. 213) tactically aimed to get political recognition. These examples show the contributions that analysis of a buffer zone like northern CAR can offer and are duly summarized in the conclusion (Chapter 9).

The book is ethnographically very rich, and presents in an engaging way the vast experience of the author in northern CAR. The connection between contemporary forms of violent acquisition and the history of the area, where hunting and raiding have long been a way to exert power, is strong and well framed. Lombard excellently contextualizes the diverse points of view of locals, which are often ignored when analyzing buffer zones, as if violence and instability are an inevitable consequence of broader political dynamics that local people passively suffer. She overcomes the limit of the classic approach in political anthropology that considered buffer zones as exceptional areas and shows the complex agencies and logics of political actors in their effort to create local forms of sovereignty. Another interesting element is the reflection on the growing role of military drones, whose use is mainly studied in relationship to conflicts and wars, but which might impact heavily on the political dynamics and livelihood of areas like northern CAR. However, the problem of technologies such as drones in a buffer zone appears only in the conclusion. Similarly, the transformations brought by the monetization of the economy represent a very important issue that emerges only partially from the rich ethnographic material. In general, despite the ongoing geostrategic struggles in northern CAR, the contemporary political context is mentioned only in passing. Although this does not constitute the focus of her research and the book mainly addresses fellow anthropologists with its rich ethnography and theoretical reflections, some additional information might have helped the reader to contextualize the actors and dynamics on the ground and make Hunting Game more appealing to a broader audience. Hence, if I have to find a weakness in this very rich ethnography, it is that some relevant contemporary problems are mentioned but not fully explored, whereas they could have offered additional threads to engage less specialist readers and lead them through a very interesting and understudied context for political anthropology.