Fiscal Disobedience. an Anthropology of Economic Regulation in Central Africa

Article excerpt

Fiscal Disobedience. An Anthropology of Economic Regulation in Central Africa. By Janet Roitman. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005. Pp. xv, 233. $59.50/£38.95 cloth, $19.95/£12.95 paper.

Janet Roitman has taken on an extremely difficult ethnographic and theoretical task in this book. She focuses attention on an area of Africa whose integrity as a unit of study derives from its long term history as a borderland. Nothing so simple, however, as to be on the same sociopolitical border over time. Rather, this area where the frontiers of the modern countries of Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger, and Central African Republic meet on the map has been recurrently occupied over at least two centuries by sundry and changing frontiersmen: predatory slave raiders, herders in search of pastures and markets, customs officers and other functionaries of the state, resistant refuge communities, smugglers, bandits, and profiteers of many kinds. Its business is largely carried on in Arabic, a language that has official status only in Chad. Different currencies circulate together. Transport fosters east-west travel across the African interior, rather than the classic colonial dendritic model from hinterland to port. And the long and porous borders permit herds, motorcycles, and headloaders to cross back and forth without detection. However, these are not distant backwaters of their respective states. They respond rapidly as policies shift. Soldiers fired from the formal army move into border entrepreneurship. Police and customs officials adjust to their local constituents. And changed international trade and state regulations can foster the sudden mushrooming of an entirely new market town, such as Mbaiboum, founded in 1987 and now a major crossroads. Colonial economic maps left these areas blank, implicitly "inutile." But to their successive inhabitants they have offered substantial livelihoods. People can explain themselves-at least momentarily-as united across conventional divides: police, customs officials, and illegal traders are said to be "like family" (p. 186); there is a code, with "its own script" (p. 188); an ensemble of "forms of reasoning" (p. 191); people speak of having "confidence" in each other.

Explicitly avoiding a reductive systematicity, Roitman focuses on fractures and sutures, asking her interlocutors how and where regimes of reason and truth operate, and in relation to which key sociopolitical and conceptual forms. Her most basic assumption is that regimes of truth should be treated as fundamentally improbable; they have to be enacted, enforced, dramatized, and domesticated in order to serve as reference points, particularly for the key commercial and social relationships that entail debt over time. …