magic and war
Reuters' Mark John:
For many of the combatants in Ivory Coast conflict, magic counts just as much as military might.This piece no doubt provides "proof" to those who believe that Africa is a monolithic whole full of savages who kill each other over superstition and/or due to atavistic hatreds, but let's try to focus on substance. My next project is about identity in the Congo and its relationship to the wars, the nature of the state, and political behavior, so I've been thinking a lot about this lately. I've also been working on (and by "working on," I mean, "wrote ten pages a year and half ago and haven't looked at it since") an exploratory paper about what conceptions of African identity mean for the way we think about and study war. It touches on a lot of issues - the nature of communal identity as opposed to Western-style individual identity, the way that this matters in thinking about winners and losers in conflicts - including that of belief in supernatural forces as significant actors in politics, conflict, and society in general. What I'm trying to think through is what implications this has for the reasons conflicts start, the ways that they end, and how local and international actors may miss one anothers' points completely as a result of not understanding these differences. If two groups understand causality in completely different terms, what might that mean for getting things done?
As rival forces of Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara pursued their battle for Abidjan on Sunday, a small group of pro-Ouattara soldiers went to the northern entry point of the port city intent on destroying a roughly cut block of stone on a pedestal.
"This is the stone erected when Laurent Gbagbo came to power, to put Abidjan under his spell," explained Lieutenant Daniel Dodo as soldiers took turn to bash away at the monument with a mallet.
"By knocking it down, we are liberating Abidjan," he said as a final blow of the mallet sent the stone block crashing to the ground.
From inside the pedestal, soldiers pulled out dirty rags of red cloth which Dodo said had been treated with a spell by a fetishist from the tiny Central African island state of Sao Tome.
"Red is symbolic, they say human blood is needed to give power to the amulet," said Dodo, who like many pro-Ouattara troops wear a black tee-shirt with the French words "battalion mystic" -- "mystical battalion" -- on the back.
No official comment was available on the origin or meaning of the stone monument, which had been almost hidden from view in the long grass between two lanes of the urban motorway going to central Abidjan.
What I'm explicitly trying to avoid in this research is the passing of value judgments vis-a-vis the question of scientific rationality vs. belief in supernatural forces. Because I honestly don't think that what is real is what actually matters here. It's all about perception. It doesn't matter whether a stone with a bunch of cursed red cloths inside really affects whatever will happen to Monsieur Gbagbo, whose days seem numbered by any standard. What might matter, however, is whether all or some of Ouattara's troops believe that taking out that stone is key to their victory. It could affect how they fight, their strategy, and what they are willing to sacrifice at the negotiating table. Likewise, the nature of communal identity, in which the "we" is far more important than the "me," means that concessions or defeat may not just be perceived as the defeat of M. Gbagbo - it's the defeat of all who share his identity. That might explain in part why concessions are harder to come by in this situation, as does the point that Gbagbo seems to genuinely believe that God doesn't want him to leave.
It's something to think about, and something I will be working on full time once my book manuscript is finished. Any thoughts or suggestions for reading that might help me along?