"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


magic and war

Reuters' Mark John:
For many of the combatants in Ivory Coast conflict, magic counts just as much as military might.

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.

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?

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?


Anonymous zunguzungu said...

When you speak of communal identity and conceptualizing victory, I wonder how you differentiate what is happening there from when, for example, baseball players prepare for games by refusing to change their underwear or steal the other times sacred objects or whetver. Not that it's the *same,* of course -- nothing is ever the *same* -- but if these kinds of rituals do an important social work for baseball players -- in an environment in which there is zero social infrastructure for making people think it's *real* -- then you'd have to allow that it probably does a similar kind of work here. But while baseball players do the craziest things to get their mojo working, I've always assumed that there was still a clear line between off-field and on-field; when they're sitting in the dugout spitting, they have plenty of time to entertain themselves with fetishes and stuff, but not so much once they're on the field. The on-field decision making process is always the same.

Would that kind of distinction obtain in CdI, I wonder?

In other words, it seems like focusing on goals is exactly right: an important burden of proof be figuring out where and when the "superstition" goes above and beyond helping people carry out separately articulated goals and objectives, and when it becomes an organic part of the decision-making process itself. Or is even asking that question to fall into the trap of thinking that "superstition" and "normal decision making process" are distinguishable?

Food for thought. Interested to see where you go with this.

Sunday, April 10, 2011 7:57:00 PM

Anonymous Blaise said...

The Ivorian writer, Ahmadou Kourouma, describes very well the magic component of African wars and politics. You can read for instance his last book "Allah n'est pas oblige" about a child soldier in Liberia.

Sunday, April 10, 2011 8:53:00 PM

Blogger Miss Marmelstein said...

if you haven't read luise white's "speaking with vampires," that's a good place to start. peter geschiere's "the modernity of witchcraft" is also really good. i think stephen ellis has also done a bit of work about magic and witchcraft in the liberian civil war.

i think this sounds like a hugely important project, and i'm really happy you're doing it.

Monday, April 11, 2011 1:09:00 AM

Anonymous Bradford said...

I'm sure you are aware of this, but it seems worth pointing out anyway, that symbolism, community, and superstition/faith are important elements of the psychology of fighting for "western" fighting groups as well. The Boykin scandal of a few years ago jumps to mind: "I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol." And the irrational, but psychologically important, practice of some groups of never leaving a body behind. It seems like there are lots of examples like this. (The national anthem, after all, is about being sustained through combat by the knowledge that a symbol of your side has not yet fallen.) While the details of the CdI anecdote seem exotic, the form is not foreign at all.

Again, I know you weren't suggesting otherwise, but I thought it was worth adding anyway.

Monday, April 11, 2011 3:19:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might find the work of Ellis and Ter Haar helpful .

Monday, April 11, 2011 4:05:00 AM

Blogger Our Man in Africa said...

I was with the Reuters journalist for four days last week and you or a researcher would find it very interesting to be with the pro-Ouattara forces, almost all northerners.
- there is a widespread belief that until all the 'monuments' of Gbagbo are destroyed he can never be defeated
- when a pro-Gbagbo attack coincided with a heavy downpour, it was said that magicians in Anyama (just north of Abidjan) were using magic to attack with the rain
- most fighters have amulets - often lots

Monday, April 11, 2011 4:24:00 AM

Blogger brendan said...

Besides the Ellis and Ter Haar book mentioned above, also check out
The Mask of Anarchy- The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War by Stephen Ellis.

Another good book is The Modernity of Witchcraft-Politics and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa by Peter Geschiere

Monday, April 11, 2011 10:01:00 AM

Blogger Houston said...

I really enjoyed Finnstrom's Living in Bad Surroundings. He did a good job of exploring how people in northern Uganda coped w/ uncertainty without passing judgement. I wrote my Master's dissertation on a similar subject, but looking at the LRA. If interested email me at houstonshearon (at) gmail and I can send you a copy.

Monday, April 11, 2011 11:27:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Many thanks for the suggestions and thoughts, everyone!

Monday, April 11, 2011 11:32:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear texasinafrica,

RE: "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" -- you caught my attention with those three sentences exactly. I think that's a fascinating topic, and would be interested in hearing how the research develops. Are these questions we should be asking about combatants in Libya and Afghanistan, as well? How many conflict zones are there in which belief in the supernatural plays a role in combatants' psychology and tactics? (And should the US be or become involved in those conflicts, how can we better exploit that strategically?)

An aspiring officer candidate

Monday, April 11, 2011 5:33:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Aspiring officer candidate, I don't know, but that's certainly something I'll be looking into as the project develops. Please let me know if you come across anything on it in those contexts.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011 7:22:00 PM

Anonymous kristof titeca said...

hi laura,

really interesting subject. Nathalie Wlodarzyck has written a very interesting book on Magic and Warfare in Africa

There's a special issue of the Review of African Political Economy on this subject (religious practices, ideology and conflict)

and i've also written on this - but with regards to the LRA - in Koen Vlassenroot and Tim Allen's book on the LRA

Wednesday, April 13, 2011 10:57:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks, Kristof and everyone. Very, very helpful.

Friday, April 15, 2011 7:58:00 PM

Blogger savina said...

You might want to check on the literature on possession cults/rites, personhood and power for some ideas for this (very very interesting) project. Also, if by any chance you haven't seen it yet, the classic "les maitres fous" by Jean Rouche http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32hkIwutxf8

Thursday, April 21, 2011 9:35:00 AM


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