Book review: “The Eyes of the World” by James Smith and “Roadblock Politics” by Peer Schouten

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These two excellent ethnographic works probe the persistent civil conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Many recent investigations of contemporary civil wars in Africa have focused on the role of mineral resources in motivating and financing fighting forces. Smith studies the mining and sale of so-called blood minerals, such as coltan, tin and tungsten, but his account focuses on artisanal mining communities, their practices and their own complex understanding of the world in which they operate. Accusations by non-governmental organizations that these minerals have supported and exacerbated violence have led to measures such as the provision in the US Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 that sought to ban the resources of mining activities linked to local militias and warlords of global trading networks. Although the law forced the most egregious warlords out of mining, Smith argues persuasively that the next effect of this legislation was to shut down artisanal operations that benefited thousands of miners and their families. and allow large private companies, often in cahoots. with Congolese state actors, to take over the mines. Smith’s book is sometimes repetitive, but it is full of fascinating details about the people and communities who lived off mining in the chaos of Congo’s wars.

Anyone who has driven through the West or Central African countryside has likely been stopped at roadblocks manned by armed men seeking some sort of payment. In his surprisingly original study, Schouten rarely mentions blood minerals, but instead dwells on the thousands of roadblocks that exist in eastern Congo. Schouten shows how local community leaders, rebel forces and state security actors seek to gain power and resources by controlling the road networks that cut through the thick forests of this region. The presence of such roadblocks in the Central African Republic also suggests that it is a broader socio-political phenomenon in tropical Africa, and in fact Schouten links them to older pre-colonial and colonial practices in the region that sought to regulate populations and their commercial activities. Not only local people and traders using these roads are forced to pay tolls, but also international non-governmental organizations and local agents of large multinational corporations, such as the Heineken beer company. The result, Schouten shows in this authoritative analysis, is the collection of substantial and fairly reliable revenue by the forces controlling the roadblocks, which deeply fuels long-running conflicts and hampers institution-building efforts in Central Africa.

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