FORGING PERMITS AND FAILING HOPES: AFRICAN PARTICIPATION IN THE GABONESE TIMBER INDUSTRY, Ca. 1920 - 1940(1)

By Rich, Jeremy | African Economic History, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

FORGING PERMITS AND FAILING HOPES: AFRICAN PARTICIPATION IN THE GABONESE TIMBER INDUSTRY, Ca. 1920 - 1940(1)


Rich, Jeremy, African Economic History


In 1930, a French colonial court in Libreville, the capital of Gabon, heard the case of Theophile Owandault and Néré Meyo. These two African businessmen had broken a series of laws in a vain attempt to ride the boom of timber exports in the 19205.2 Their ingenuity in manipulating bureaucracy for their own benefit knew few limits. Meyo's relative, Theodore Nkogo, had run a small lumber firm from 1924 onwards. Owandault and Meyo took over the business at Nkogo's death in 1926, but neglected to inform the government of their partner's demise. The two men kept forging their deceased colleague's signature on invoices listing off timber exports until 1928. Not only did the duo take on the identity of a deceased relative under his name, they hired workers who had deserted from other camps to cut lumber and petitioned the government to punish stateappointed chiefs. The administrator who judged the case lamented their decision. He said, "Why did you do this? You have a good salary, many wives, and lead a way of life impossible for most natives. Theodore Onwandault, you have a very comfortable house and are always well-dressed..." Both men had served long careers as clerks in the colonial administration and for private firms, yet succumbed to the lure of lumber lucre.

The administrator's bewilderment about Onwandault's motives is puzzling in itself, because Gabonese entrepreneurs knew full well how profitable timber exports could be and how far officials would go to eliminate African competition to European businesses. Discriminatory regulations led men like Onwandault to consider breaking the law. In the thinly-populated Gabon Estuary, the sudden formation of timber camps in the 19205 sparked competition over scarce manpower, access to trees, and control over land. Stateappointed chiefs, Gabonese and West African businessmen, local and migrant laborers, and European timber firms struggled with one another to maximize their profits. Chiefs manipulated their state patronage to control labor and resources in great demand by timber firms. Gabonese and West African entrepreneurs tried to use their familiarity with colonial bureaucracy to their advantage. Ordinary Gabonese workers found African firms were willing to hire deserters who had broken their state-mandated contracts with European firms. Administrators and the newly formed colonial forestry service tried to regulate the frantic circulation of trees, workers, and revenue that the chaotic timber trade created. Although officials claimed to be impartial, they greatly favored European firms over their African rivals, and forbade most Gabonese people from legally harvesting the highly-valued okoumé tree. It was no surprise that Gabonese workers and entrepreneurs flagrantly violated state mandates that curtailed their ability to turn a profit.

Frederick Cooper suggested over a decade ago that although European governments in Africa may have exercised ruthlessly coercive force to command their subjects, the limited resources of the state constructed an uneven geography of power where Africans could find ways to manipulate or evade state authority.3 Ralph Austen and Rita Headrick have pointed to the reliance on violence by colonial authorities in Central Africa as indicative of the limited resources and budget of the colonial occupation; the weak colonial presence had to rely on force rather than on persuasion.4 Examining African participation in the timber industry is a useful way to determine the limits and the strengths of state action in Central Africa. French and Gabonese timber dealers could use the colonial government to supply them with needed land and manpower while bypassing attempts by the government to collect revenue at times. Ultimately, though, the colonial state had the upper hand. Officials successfully ordered thousands of men to work for little pay, and created an elaborate set of procedures designed to track and control the timber trade.

Gabonese engagement with the lumber industry fits into a larger story of disenfranchisement of independent African traders in the early colonial period. …

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