Fiscal Disobedience: An Anthropology of Economic Regulation in Central Africa

Fiscal Disobedience: An Anthropology of Economic Regulation in Central Africa

by Janet Roitman



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691118697
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/17/2004
Series: In-Formation
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Janet Roitman is a research fellow at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris.

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Fiscal Disobedience

An Anthropology of Economic Regulation in Central Africa
By Janet Roitman

Princeton University Press

Janet Roitman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0691118698

Chapter One


IN HIS 1993 televised campaign speech, John Fru Ndi, presidential candidate and head of the main opposition party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF), referred to the ambitions the people of Cameroon harbor for their children. He spoke of the environment and the economy: "The land is rich, we are hardworking. So why can we no longer afford to send our children to school?"Cameroon has some of "the best engineers, doctors, teachers... and bayam-sellam in the world." A pidgin term, from "buy and sell 'em," the bayam-sellam are mostly peddlers, itinerant traders, and small-scale merchants generally associated with the opposition to the Rassemblement Démocratique du Peuple Camerounais (RDPC), the reigning party led by President Paul Biya. In his address, Fru Ndi urged the people to vote for "change" as opposed to continuity, insisting that thirty years of "terror" has "destroyed the imagination and energies" of Cameroonians. Just after Fru Ndi's speech, a campaign advertisement run by the incumbent, Paul Biya, also made reference to "the ruined economy." Cameroon had been "brought to its knees," declared Biya. This, he said, was a result of "vandalism" and "banditry" committed and inspired by the opposition, insinuating that the bayam-sellam, who largely follow the opposition, participated in their own economic demise. Against images of street violence, mass demonstrations, charred cars, and smoke-filled streets, Biya asked, "Is this change?" This footage was ostensibly taken during the mass strikes and demonstrations of the opposition-led "dead cities," or Opération Villes Mortes, campaign. But it is not clear whether the smoke-filled atmosphere was caused by burning cars and tires left in the wake of demonstrators or rather by tear gas sprayed on the latter by the police and army. A Mr. Gassagay then appeared on screen to withdraw his candidacy. As leader of the Front National du Progrès (FNP), "for youth," he explained that he was stepping aside "in the name of peace." He was choosing "peace over wealth."1

This choice between peace and wealth seems to be archetypal insofar as it partakes in the perennial history of social mobilization for redistribution. And yet despite its generality and durability, the specificity of such an option is, of course, found in local histories; its terms are not universal. This book is an attempt to appreciate the terms of that history and thus to understand the nature of present-day conflict and change in a particular part of the world. Today, references to "wealth" and "peace" structure debates in Cameroon, and in the Chad Basin more generally. To a great extent, these debates can be described as controversy over historical understandings of, on the one hand, the appropriate or legitimate foundations of wealth and, on the other hand, the forces that transgress or destabilize representations and idioms of sociability and unity.

At a very basic level, then, this book is about the work of historical inscription of truths about wealth creation and sociability. This involves, in part, continuity of practices, of modes of representation, and of narrative acts. However, while often efficient, the process of historical inscription takes place in a heterogeneous field. The possibility for variable and conflicting appropriations of concepts and practices is thus part of what defines a power situation and makes the exercise of power a ceaseless endeavor, being reactualized in myriad situations and against all other possible ways of rendering particular ideas and judgments conceivable. Furthermore, such situations often occasion moments of rupture or intense disagreement about appropriate and valid behavior insofar as they entail the redefinition and refiguring of key concepts that regulate social relations. In that sense, although this is a story about historical inscription and its effects on a particular community of people, it is also an account of the creases and fractures that can be discerned by tracing the various sources of political vocabularies and conceptual domains from which economic notions have arisen.2 History implies contingency, and the very fact of heterogeneity means that concepts about the economy, or of the economy, are shot through with multiple histories.3 While ever present, the latter are most evident to us in times of conflict, when the terms of logical practice are interrogated and the intelligibility of the exercise of power is not necessarily taken for granted.

This point becomes clear when one considers, for example, how economic concepts and institutions, such as tax and price, are political technologies that serve to constitute "that which is to be governed" or, in this case, a field of regulatory intervention based on a set of presuppositions about the nature of economic life and economic objects. Such political technologies are mechanisms that render aspects of social life both intelligible and governable. They are thus not simply instrumental methods for obtaining or assuring power; they are, rather, the very material form of power itself.4

Claims to Wealth: Incivisme Fiscal

My fixation on the problem of regulatory authority arose, quite frankly, because the topic was thrown up to me by the people among whom I lived. From 1992 to 2002, I lived, during various extended periods, in the northern part of Cameroon and in N'Djamena, Chad.5 This part of Cameroon tapers into a slight triangle, pointing up to Lake Chad and thinning out between the economic weight of its westerly neighbor, Nigeria, and the explosive power of its incessantly warring eastern neighbor, Chad. The northern region of Cameroon is the home of the late Ahmadou Ahidjo, who presided over the country through the one-party state, the Union Nationale Camerounaise (UNC), from 1958 to 1982. Ahidjo rose to power in the wake of almost a decade of armed struggle for decolonization, which makes Cameroon somewhat of an exception on the African continent (cf. Um Nyobe 1984, 1989; Mbembe 1989, 1996). The nationalist movement failed in its endeavor, leading to the installation of personalities who had been long-standing or were newly formed clients of the French government, many of whom came from the northern part of the country. During this time, the fairly arid savanna region of the north, which depended largely on groundnut and cotton production, benefited greatly from financial advantages accorded to northerners, such as nonguaranteed bank credits and contracts for public works projects. Ahidjo retired from the presidency in 1982, leaving his place to Paul Biya through a constitutional succession. In 1984, tensions between the northern-based old guard, still led by Ahidjo, who had retained the presidency of the UNC even after his retirement from state power, and the newly installed regime led by Biya resulted in a coup d'état. The attempted putsch failed, and Biya consolidated power by ousting northern political figures and by forming, in 1985, the RDPC, which replaced the UNC as the only legal political party in the country (see Bayart 1979, 1986). The RDPC has retained its hold on power up until today, despite recent modifications in the political landscape.

One of the most significant of these changes occurred in 1990, when independent political parties were legalized in Cameroon. This was a response to pressures from international donors, whose interventions increased during the late 1980s with the dramatic downturn in the once very prosperous economy, and the emergence of a national movement demanding political reforms.6 While the legalization of opposition parties was accompanied by plans for multiparty elections and increased freedoms for an independent press, the Biya administration refused to respond to certain demands of the opposition. The call for a national conference to devise a new electoral code and revise the constitution in keeping with political reforms was most notably ignored. Nevertheless, Cameroonians pushed for change in their spring of 1991 (see Champaud 1991; Noble 1991; Africa Confidential 1991a, 1991b; Monga 1993; Kom 1993; Roitman 1996). In the face of the regime's intransigence, the declaration of a state of emergency that put seven of ten provinces under military administration in May 1991, and in the context of extreme conditions of austerity, the National Coordination of Opposition Parties and Associations organized the Opération Villes Mortes campaign. On May 26, 1990, a pro-democracy rally was organized by the leader of the SDF, John Fru Ndi, in response to the legalization of multiparty politics and concomitant delays in the authorization of this same party. Similar demonstrations followed in other towns and cities. On the whole, Opération Villes Mortes entailed a strategy of civil disobedience, which involved a prolonged general strike, work boycotts, the refusal to pay taxes, and the use of clandestine services to deny taxation.

The Biya regime dubbed the movement incivisme fiscal, thus indicating that participation in the pro-democracy movement and refutation of certain instances of state power represented "uncivil" fiscal practice, being beyond the pale of civic behavior. The regime thus countered the movement by posing the question of who is a legitimate citizen. In the face of that rather extensive interpretation of the campaign, the opposition remained explicit about its aim: to undermine the fiscal base of the regime, which was said to utilize public monies in ways that did not benefit the populace. This interpretive battle is both the point of departure and the structuring theme of this book. As I observed the unfolding of this struggle between the state and its citizens, it became more and more clear to me that the pertinent question was not the outright rejection of regulatory authority or fiscal authority. Instead, I seemed to be witnessing disagreement over the intelligibility of its exercise. In an effort to understand the terms of that disagreement, I chose to study the ways in which tax, price, and even ideas about licit wealth and licit modes of appropriation have emerged and transformed historically in northern Cameroon, taken as part of the historical region of the Chad Basin.7 Instead of assuming the nature of "tax" or "price," and hence simply analyzing contemporary resistance to taxation and fiscal authority, I attempted to clarify the ways in which certain forms of economic extraction have become normalized as part of fiscal relations. I asked certain questions: How has the right to a part of people's wealth become an acceptable idea? How have specific forms of wealth been construed as legitimate targets of regulation? How have particular economic concepts, such as tax and price, emerged in a discursive field that engenders certain forms of power situations, including debt? How has the right to extract wealth via violent means (e.g., seizure) come to be deemed acceptable practice at certain moments in time, while it is rejected at others? Through these questions, I sought to understand not only how these historical institutions (tax, fiscal relations, the fiscal regime of truth) induce certain kinds of behavior (giving over tax once a year) but also how they establish the very limits of what is considered legitimate or reasonable practice.

The Concepts and Targets of Regulation

This problem of legitimacy can only be addressed if the economy is apprehended as a political terrain. Because conflict over regulation and redistribution means taking issue with the very rules that organize and govern economic life, such strife can only be understood by examining the very conventions that give rise to the concepts and objects of an economy. In Cameroon today, debates over the nature and legitimacy of certain economic relationships (e.g., fiscal), categories (e.g., the informal sector), or events (e.g., incivisme fiscal) all involve interpretive battles over political vocabularies or notions of propriety, equity, justice, and social order. These controversies structure the plot of this text. In that sense, this book is about the material effects of representations. It aims to explore the relations between representational forms and social practice, or how economic truths and "true" economic practices-being dans le vrai-are produced in and through a discursive field of concepts and objects. This is a matter of studying, as Paul Rabinow puts it (1986: 240), a "regime of truth as an effective component in the constitution of social practices."8 It illustrates how historically specific discursive domains that establish social order, the natural state of society, the free individual, or the peaceful community inform manners of conceptualizing the economy. Nevertheless, this attempt to trace the historical constitution of economic categories and economic practices is not an effort to show how "culture" informs the objectification of the economy. Even though the pitfalls of culturalist explanations of social life have been spelled out ad infinitum (Marcus and Fischer 1986; Clifford and Marcus 1986; Clifford 1988; Appadurai 1986; Bayart 1996), economic practice and economic rationalities are still often depicted as being induced by culture, or as being influenced by particular "cultural backgrounds" or symbolic repertoires. And culturalist readings of economic life have been given new vigor with the emergence of debates about "globalization" and the new wars over values (as is evidenced in Huntington 1997; Bourguinat 1998; Méda 1999; for a critique, see Roitman 2000). This approach is of course problematic, since it slights the heterogeneous practices and regimes of signification that constitute the worlds of any individual or community. As we know, reference to a person's or to a community's "culture" is in many ways nonsensical, since all persons and communities take part in synthetic and seemingly contradictory symbolic practices (religious, ritual, linguistic) and manners of affiliation.

To avoid the hazards of such reductionist explanations, I pay specific attention to the point that practices and concepts (economic or otherwise) have histories. By looking at the institutionalization of certain concepts and practices-for instance, the institutionalization of "tax" and "price" in Cameroon-we can glimpse the various ways in which specific economic concepts and metaphors have been assumed and performed by local actors. And by studying the institutionalization of these concepts or historical institutions, we see how their practices involve various modalities, or how they are both assumed and yet also disputed as forms of knowledge, which carry political and socioeconomic consequences for those involved.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xiii

Chapter One: Introduction: An Anthropology of Regulation and Fiscal Relations 1

Chapter Two: Incivisme Fiscal 23

Chapter Three Tax-Price as a Technique of Government 48

Chapter Four Unsanctioned Wealth, or the Productivity of Debt 73

Chapter Five Fixing the Moving Targets of Regulation 100

Chapter Six The Unstable Terms of Regulatory Practice 129

Chapter Seven The Pluralization of Regulatory Authority 151

Conclusion 200

References 207

Index 227

What People are Saying About This

Peter Geschiere

I very much enjoyed reading this book, both for its originality and the seminal way its author links vivid ethnography to sophisticated theoretical reflections. Janet Roitman worked in a very special area, the Chad basin, which is dominated by ongoing civil war, an almost complete informalization of the economy, and spectacular forms of smuggling. She admirably succeeds in showing that even in such an apparently chaotic context new patterns of control and regularity emerge that give terms like 'economy' a special tenor. The prose is highly accessible, not only because of its clarity of style but also because the author, in a very evocative way, constantly returns to the realities she examined during her fieldwork.
Peter Geschiere, University of Amsterdam, author of "The Modernity of Witchcraft"

Arjun Appadurai

Janet Roitman's is a major and original voice. An unusually innovative, indeed subversive anthropology of economy and state, her book contains fascinating debates and engagements with a wide variety of issues that arise from the historical ethnography of an African region but are clearly of general interest.
Arjun Appadurai, New School University, author of "Modernity at Large"

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