In Pursuit of Development

Roadblock Politics — Peer Schouten

Episode Summary

Dan Banik and Peer Schouten discuss the historical evolution of roadblocks and their current functions, how major multinational companies and aid organisations navigate through roadblocks in Africa and what this means for violence and state legitimacy.

Episode Notes

In many parts of the African continent, there are so many roadblocks that it is indeed very hard to find a road that does not have one. But what is the point of having so many roadblocks that are often viewed by travellers to cause considerable inconvenience?

In a brilliant new book — Roadblock Politics: The Origins of Violence in Central Africa – Peer Schouten maps over a thousand roadblocks in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, in order to document how communities, rebels, and state security forces forge resistance and power out of control over these narrow points of passage.

Peer Schouten is Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies and Associate Researcher at the International Peace Information Service. Twitter: @peer_schouten



Professor Dan Banik, University of Oslo, Twitter: @danbanik  @GlobalDevPod


Episode Transcription


Banik               I'm very pleased to see you, Peer. Welcome and Congrats on this fantastic book which I just finished reading. 


Schouten          Thank you so much, Dan, it's my pleasure. 


Banik               Now, roadblocks that you've been studying are often associated with something bad, right? But what I really liked in your book is that you highlight, with the help of very rich empirical material that roadblocks serve all kinds of different functions, and not all of these functions are necessarily negative. So let me begin by asking you. What really is a roadblock? 


Schouten          Thank you so much for that really beautiful introduction and I think that's spot-on moment, or point, to start out with. What is a roadblock? And I think this question is a really good one because a roadblock has certain kinds of physical attributes and those can really vary in a continuum from really nothing at all, just a couple of soldiers standing by the side of the road, to these kinds of very elaborate checkpoints that we associate perhaps with the Israeli kind of “enclavisation” of Palestine, right. So, roadblocks can assume all kinds of different forms and, that’s one aspect of it, the very physical side to it. But then, and I think that's more interesting, they can also assume a variety of functions, and people might have the kind of intuitive thing, actually is to associated roadblock with inhibition, you know, in management lingo, roadblock is a stumbling block, something to overcome. 


Banik               Exactly, it's hindering something, preventing the smooth flow of traffic. 


Schouten          Right. But then if you talk to people who are maybe involved in policing or the state a roadblock is just a very simple kind of apparatus for doing what states do, right, checking people, making sure they are in order with whatever kind of administrative legal regime that is in place. An essential kind of policing quality it has, that is associated to the modern state. But in big parts of the world, and I think that's where we both have more of an interest, in big parts of the world there's a bit more going on. In many parts of the world, actually, roadblocks are encapsulating a much denser kind of network of political connections that make it much more of a kind of central locus of meaning making politically, economically and culturally. And I think that my work, I've been trying to explore these kinds of deeper layers to what these roadblocks mean politically.


Banik               So I'm thinking about a typical journey that I undertake almost on a daily basis when I teach in Malawi, when I travel from the commercial city of Blantyre in southern Malawi to the city of Zomba, where the University of Malawi is located, it's like a 70 kilometer/45 minute/one hour long road trip, and every day I typically start from my hotel around 7:00 AM and I'm in Zomba by 8 because classes start early, and depending on how many roadblocks I encounter along the way, I could be either early or somewhat late. Now these roadblocks are not always very similar. Some are so called permanent roadblocks in that they have, say, cement blocks or some form of barricade, a shed or even a small building on the side of the road for the police officers. Sometimes these roadblocks may or may not be manned by a police contingent, other types of roadblocks are much more non-permanent, or surprise roadblocks. That is when officials from road traffic, usually policemen set up a temporary roadblock or, as some motorists call them, speed traps to slow down, stop and check cars and passengers. In your book, I found this really lovely photo of a young man sitting beside a pond with a small plank of wood and basically charging a certain sum of money to any individual wishing to cross that little pond. So, there are different types of roadblocks, and the state is only one actor involved, as I understand it. It is not just that roadblocks exist along major roads and highways, but a range of actors are actually involved in enacting these roadblocks in very different locations, often in difficult terrain. So, as I understand them, roadblocks encompass a range of activity aimed at controlling movement of people and goods. 


Schouten          Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that the starting point is exactly this kind of empirical diversity which you described. In Central Africa, you know, along these kinds of muddy roads and forests, rivers snaking through central Africa, you have rebels and soldiers, traditional authorities and civil servants, which all kind of erect roadblocks where they deploy the threat of violence to impose their will on passersbys. And these kind of roadblocks or checkpoints, they of course, also an endemic feature of conflict zones around the world, and they often figure anecdotally in reporting, but when it comes to the kind of drivers of conflict or the kind of real political issues going on, those are usually explained in terms of other kinds of concerns, control over people, territory or natural resources. I think that that roadblocks, if you really want to boil it down, embody a form of control of circulation that really narrow points of passage. That can control in turn, can be translated into other forms of power, whether it be symbolic, financial or political. And in the process, of course, they interact with the kind of economic, social and political order with which they are situated. So, to borrow from Charles Tilly, they are kind of like epoch specific repertoires of collective action which compose function as a vehicle for popular mobilization and resistance. But it can also function as tools of repression. 


Banik               We'll soon get into the nitty-gritties of the case studies that you meticulously discuss in the book. But Peer, I'm still interested in discussing with you the overall purpose of these roadblocks. When I've been studying roadblocks in Malawi, I viewed these mainly as an attempt by the state undertaken through legislation such as road traffic regulations. There maybe even you know a constitutional provision. Basically, the state is controlling the flow of individuals, animals and goods, and the official version in Malawi is that the state uses the roadblocks not to cause inconvenience, but rather to maintain law and order to catch smugglers to catch people carrying illegal weapons. And the government is basically saying to its people: we want to make sure you're safe, that the buses are not overloaded with goods and passengers, that the drivers are not speeding, that they're actually following traffic rules, that accidents are being prevented by these control measures that we are undertaking, that we are actually catching criminals at these checkpoints. You have this whole range of official explanations. Roadblocks, then, largely according to the state, are being framed as a law-and-order issue. There are all kinds of rules that the state wants to visibly implement and thereby give the impression that, hey look, we, the state, we actually exist. Now, I know you don't necessarily think that this is the only explanation, and so I'm keen to hear what you think about this. What other purposes do you think roadblocks serve?


Schouten          Right. I think it's a beautiful question, but I think that this point you make about the state kind of demonstrated against doing its job towards citizens is really important and really crucial. And that goes for places like Malawi, but also for places like DR Congo which is arguably ranks a bit lower on the index of states, robustness so to speak. There as well, roadblock operators, state agents will say, you know, we are here to prevent smuggling, we know it's rampant to stop all the bandits that are there. And so, a big part of the legitimacy of the presence of roadblocks is always dependent in terms of well, you know, there's security risks, there are concerns, popular concerns for the population and we are trying to deal with those. And that's important to keep in mind because a lot of the contestation around roadblocks involves also what gives you the right, what gives you the right to have this roadblock?


Banik               Exactly. So, they say I live in a democracy, and I cherish my freedom of movement, and this is something that opposition political parties and their supporters often react to in countries such as Malawi, they sometimes even go to court arguing that the ruling party is preventing them from moving about freely and thereby compromising their freedom to assemble their freedom of speech. So that's one side of the story.


Schouten          Right. And I think that's the second trope which is quite interesting is that in the Central African Republic, a lot of rebel groups actually use this very excuse, or this very recent if you will, of freedom of circulation, saying well we have to put these roadblocks here because there are kind of constituencies there, the kind of groups that we that we have emerged from, they don't have freedom of circulation given this conflict, so we have to take off control of this road and ensure this freedom of circulation. So that kind of bid to legitimacy for roadblock operators works across the spectrum of statement state actors. But the second really important factor, and I don't know enough about Malawi to say whether that also holds there, is that some of these roadblock operators, state agents, administrative agents, they are there to check. They're there to check motorcycle, paperwork, licenses of cars and drivers etc. But often they will find faults, even if it doesn't exist, or they will delay, and that might be really rigorous work, they're actually doing exactly their job, but what they're also doing is appealing to you as a road user to perhaps solve this administrative process in another way by, perhaps, putting some money into the pocket of these roadblock operators. And in central Africa, essentially roadblocks are devices for the self-financing, the kind of decentralized self-financing state agents which perhaps don't even receive a payroll salary at all. 


Banik               So here again, I think it's important to distinguish between a main road from, say, more remote locations, which is of course the focus of your book. On a highway the state may be more active in creating enacting these roadblocks, as I see them, because the state is visible through a police presence, or maybe through the military, and my experience of highways and major thoroughfares is that roadblocks are mainly something that one associates with poorly paid police officers who used this opportunity to somehow supplement their meager salaries. So local populations whom we have surveyed in Malawi tell us that the big problem with roadblocks is not the fact that the police are maintaining law and order, but because of what locals call phantom money or what the police also call phantom money. That is offering a policeman, a person or persons, whoever is manning the checkpoints or the roadblocks, a small amount of money and thereby bribing one's way out of a potential problem or paying a smaller fine than what the original sum was being demanded. In some cases, you could have a situation where no crime or offense has actually been committed, but people simply pay a small amount of phantom money to avoid further harassment by the police. And when I've interacted with local police chiefs, they've told me, you know, we are aware of these practices, but if we did something to prevent this kind of corruption, my officers will not do the rest of their jobs, they won't respect us, the seniors. We actually turn a blind eye to this type of petty corruption because we believe the control element the security aspect is more important and cannot be sacrificed in terms of, say, fighting petty corruption. 


Schouten          A lot of that also holds sense in in other countries. In a way, roadblocks allow states which do not dispose of robust budgets to kind of finance a nominal presence around the country on a shoestring in a kind of cost-effective way. Because by allowing your commanders to tell them to deploy, make sure that these troops along the way, and then without asking any further questions, you will know that he will tell his own troops along the way and turn to use these roadblocks to generate a certain kind of revenue which they have to send up to the commander. And that's all fine, it’s intrinsic corruption, but it is a cost effective way from the perspective of people in the capital to kind of have an effective presence of the state in remote areas. 


Banik               But you know, one important conclusion that I have so far in Malawi, and I have to say that I'm yet to publish these findings, but your excellent book has inspired me to quickly write up this article. One conclusion I have is that people who are stopped and who are harassed are usually the ones living in poverty. They are vulnerable to all sorts of things. They may be taxi drivers or passengers, small traders, students. And I found it particularly interesting that if you are well dressed, if you're driving a fancy car or there's a driver sitting in the front and you're sitting at the back of the car, these people manning the roadblocks, they will actually take a quick look at you and in most instances you can just slow down and you pass through the roadblock, they'll wave you through. So, it is often the overloaded taxi or the minibus that is stopped, and some individual or the driver of the bus who's harassed, the passengers are harassed. The other aspect, Peer, is that in the book you take issue with arguments that excessively highlight state fragility or emphasize the weak state argument. My general impression, at least again from Malawi, which is very different from your two case studies, is that it is, Malawi is, a somewhat weak state and oftentimes invisible state to certain groups of people. So, you have this weak or invisible state that is trying to make itself visible through these roadblocks. The state is trying to project some sort of image of control, a ceremonial state, some would call it. So, what would you say against these kinds of explanations for the enactment of roadblocks? 


Schouten          Right now, I think that's, you really have pushed the button on one of the central points I try to make in the book. Much of the research for the book was done in two of some of the world's so-called most fragile states, right, Congo and the Central African Republic, and by the latest count Congo has offered 120 armed groups. So, in that regard, it's really a textbook example of a fragile state, because like others in that category, it hardly controls its territory or population like so many so-called fragile states, and of course much of Congo, which is roughly the size of Western Europe, frankly, there isn't much to govern either, right. So why would state agents deploy all across a dense rainforest, inaccessible mountains, or empty savannahs? Of course, these places they are important and there's important natural resources in their part of the national territory. But in order to raise cash, in order to control the kind of real economic activities of the country, it makes much more sense for aspiring rulers to simply move to the closest trade route and set up shop, right. And this goes both for states and for rebels because it is longish, kind of very narrow, pathways where flows of aid, minerals or consumer goods pass. 


Banik               You have a state performing some sort of a control and checking function at roadblocks using security and safety as a ruse, as an excuse. I've also spoken with communities who reside along the roadblock who actually say it's really nice to have a police checkpoint, a roadblock, because local shopkeepers told me, that the police presence actually thwarts criminal activity, or has the potential at least of doing so. But it is another matter altogether when I talk to the policeman who complained that even if a criminal activity has taken place close by, close to the roadblock that they are manning, they often don't have the transportation to quickly reach that spot to catch the criminals, they may not even have enough money on their phones to call for help, for reinforcement. What is fascinating I find in your two cases, is that you would have a state sometimes simply not having control over a territory, maybe not even wanting to have control, and thereby you have many other non-state actors coming in and filling the void and extracting revenue in the process. This is in other words and elaborate network of actors, it could be communities, it could be rebel groups. So, tell us, Peer, a bit about what you found in these two cases in these two countries, the DRC and the Central African Republic, how do these roadblocks stories differ from the ones I've been telling you about from Malawi? 


Schouten          I mean, I'll tell you a bit about maybe the genesis of how I came to consider this roadblocks in the first place, I think it's important to know. It was, I think, 2013 when I was sent to eastern Congo to do a research project on how multinational companies engage with security actors, what kind of security actors as a typical multinational company in Congo have to deal with. Being Dutch, Dutch national by birth, I focused on Heineken which is the world's second largest beer Brewer and also coincidentally has, I think, 75% share of Congo’s beer market, which is a huge market by the way. So, I was looking at how Heineken was, what kind of security they had. I was expecting the typical private security company, police army to kind of secure its premises. But my friends told me why haven't you looked at M23? Because at that time there was this March 23 movement, which is now again unfortunately active in eastern Congo, which controlled a big part of eastern Congo. And the armed group actually had ruthlessly taken off a major trade routes and border crossings and set up shops levering the transit taxes. And it turned out that this group made about $200,000 a month from checkpoint taxes. And that turned their kind of yearlong rebellion because it was only a year, into potentially an economically viable and self-sustaining enterprise, right. And it's also for that reason that that one M23 Roadblock operator could claim in an interview to me that here in this part of the road passes through here, by pointing at his pockets. And it turned out that Heineken was not examined, and that the multinational beer company had paid tens of thousands of dollars to M23 at these checkpoints in terms of the beer distribution, because beer, you know, it's a commodity. So, all these beer trucks going out of deep depots in Goma and Bukavu passed through rebel held territory and were submitted to these checkpoint taxes.


Banik               Yeah, I think that is fascinating because you refer to in the book how The Economist Magazine once asked how does Heineken survive in the Congo? And in many ways, that really is the question. 


Schouten          Right. I've been doing fieldwork in the Congo area, travelled a lot of roads, sometimes you need to travel a couple of hundred kilometers just to reach a mining site. And along the way you pass maybe 30-40 roadblocks. I just saw them as a nuisance forgetting to where the really interesting stuff was happening. After I learned, you know, this M23 Heineken relation to checkpoints, I was like wow, how is it possible that a global international company was actually involved in financing armed rebellion. And if this was just like one company and one arms group, then what if you would try to look at all these companies and all the different kinds of roadblocks? And that practical question that the bigger ones in terms of, well, what if Congo’s conflict economy isn't just about material resources, or control of territory, but maybe there's something else going on here, which is which is control over circulation. And after having met 800 roadblocks in eastern Congo, I really started to take the question seriously that maybe roadblocks form an entry point into forms of political order which are somehow, that remain invisible in conventional state theory. So, we did, it doesn't fit with scholarship about what drives conflict in this part of the world, right, but it's hardly surprising that anytime you ask people in eastern Congo how this kind of conflict situation impact you: it is very likely that the first thing they say is, you know, roadblocks taxes is going crazy. So, it's kind of endemic condition in this part of the world. And it's also quite intuitive for anyone with a claim to power to kind of flock through a trade route. And roadblocks indeed finance the exploits of many Central African armed groups. Particularly so if, like in M23, they don’t control any mineral holding territory. 


Banik               I really like the fact that you published this agreement between Heineken and M23. I think about the number of bottles that were transported or stopped, checked the roadblock


Schouten          With RCD, it's with the predecessor of M23. 


Banik               Yeah. So, the story appears to me one of, you know, I scratch your back, you scratch mine. How could Heineken then make RCD’s operations more profitable? So that would be one issue, and vice versa, how could RCD make Heineken profitable by making sure that the beer supplies were not disrupted? So, you have the whole global supply chain involved here. 


Schouten          Yeah, I think what is interesting is that was a moment during the so called Africa World War, the Congo Wars, in which larger arms groups existed that made a claim to territory, so they could negotiate, and all companies had to negotiate, for access to minerals. So, this was kind of territorial state politics as usual. But the problem is that after this Congo wars many of these rebel groups kind of fragmented into a much larger patchwork of small groups, it's very all very opaque, it's very difficult to keep track of what's going on, even though the good people of the people security check are trying to do so by publishing an updated map everywhere. And global companies have adapted to that in a really fascinating way. They realize that this kind of old politics in which as a multinational company you agree on a kind of blanket access agreement to national territory has stopped making sense. So besides having an agreement with the central government, you need to be able to navigate this increasingly pluralistic political landscape in not just Congo, but much of Central Africa and other parts of the world. So, what they did is that companies like Heineken abandoned models of companies in which they would themselves be in place, and in which they have integrated kind of vertical operations in place, but instead they start outsourcing their operations to increasingly local and informal economic operators and transporters. In a way this outsourcing, the responsibility of having to engage with this kind of opaque conflict, to increasingly local economic operators. 


Banik               Yeah, you make so many good points in the book, but I really like the argument that a conventional understanding of this arrangement would typically be that this is yet another actor or rebel group or a state impinging on the free flow of goods, engaging in rent seeking behavior, extracting resources, and thereby blocking something from being more efficient. Rather, you actually argue that the relationship between, or the relationship that RCD or other groups have had with Heineken and with other commercial actors, is also a way of legitimizing these rebel groups within these territories, that by showing that such groups are not just extracting money but also making the population aware and telling them listen, things are normal, you can go about your business, it's just that you have a new master. It's no longer, it's no longer those guys, it's us, we're controlling the movement of goods. It's not just about extracting resources, but also deriving legitimacy that these groups are derived by allowing commercial actors to go about their business activity. 


Schouten          Absolutely. Yeah. And I think that for any kind of aspiring militia, to gain self-respect and to get recognition, you do that based on the kind of, there's something I think for Rene Girard equals to mimetic desire. What you want you derive from what you attribute to a significant other, that other person wants. And in Central Africa, the people have had, their experience with the state has mostly been of agents by the wayside, taxing their daily business. If you are a rebel group and aspiring to be taken serious as such, as a kind of public authority, what you want to do is then to imitate or emulate what you see states effectively doing. So, any self-respecting roadblock operator or community militia will want to also operate a roadblock just for the mere fact, of course, of filling your pockets a little bit and sustaining your mobilization, but also, and that is often much more important, to obtain this kind of recognition of being meaningful political actors. I mean, on my last trip to Ghana, I was driving outside of town and just buy the kind of officials soldiers roadblock, there were kids of 5-7 years old playing roadblock with a stream of wire, two kids were taking a string wire, putting them across the road every time a big truck came they laughingly ran away with it, but if there was just someone on foot carrying some food, they would keep it there as a kind of joke, and to start a confiscation. So, this whole idea of blocking the roads and controlling passage, control over the trims of passage is really a kind of key vector of how people imagine political power and public authority. 


Banik               So when you write about the concept of roadblock politics, what do you mean by that term? What is it about politics along the roadblock that you find interesting? 


Schouten          Thanks. I think that that's a good question. Of course, I needed a whole book to answer it, so what I'm going to do here is try and sketch it out just a little bit. I think the first layer is, of course, is to point out that in many places, politics isn't essentially concerned with control over territory or population or resources, but over circulation. So in places where there's a lot of bush or forests or mountains or desert, you don't want to focus your police actors by deploying them on borders because they don't really make sense, they don't want to control the whole territory population. It is much easier to set up shop along these kinds of narrow pathways, the kind of key routes where people actually pass through. So that's the first thing, right, and to demonstrate that I kind of give a longer history of states in Central Africa, showing how key, in fact, this was, how central this was to state formation, and I hope we can get back to a bit later. Now second layer, after this kind of idea of saying it isn't territory resources, population, but it's the roads you pick, a second point would be to say that what is really important, given this first condition, is looking at circulation struggles. That's what Joshua Clover calls them; I was really inspired by his work. So that means that if control over circulation is the key factor of state formation and public authority, then the kind of struggles over terms of circulation become a primary field of political activity, of political contestation that is meaningful for everyday experience of politics for people in these places. I mean, I just talked to a PhD student who did a PhD about checkpoints in Syrian novels, because apparently checkpoints are so important in Syrian novels because it's just so many. This kind of a prime, it is always there in people accounts of their lives. So, the second thing would be to point out circulation. I think that there's a third annex to that which I think is really important is that it is really easy to talk about checkpoints in terms of corruption, predation or, of states trying to impose and extract something from populations, but the opposite might also be the case, and here you might you might hear James Scott looming over my analysis, but the number of time that I found checkpoints which were run by local communities, self-defense groups, as a response to what they perceived potentially dangerous outside forces was really high. In many cases roadblocks are a reflection not of the extension of centralized state power over people and their movement, but rather people’s efforts to try and deal with various side effects of outsiders and things that come from very far away. 


Banik               So this is the perfect time then to dig deep into the history of the origins of roadblocks which you devote a considerable amount of space during the book, Peer. You point out, and I found this fascinating that roadblocks took off during the Atlantic trade in the 1500s with capital intensive activities taking place, then gradually, of course, you have a surge of travelers coming in, strangers from faraway places, before it was much more regulated as to who came to your area. Suddenly you have all of these strangers coming in, which then provides you with an opportunity to extract revenue, but it could also be security related issues that you're concerned with, you want to check the intentions of these travelers who have come to visit your area. I think you come up with this explanation that it isn't a top-down state led process, rather roadblocks are much more of a bottom-up initiative, that there was not fear but maybe a bit of curiosity together with an economic opportunity, and then later on, these incentives also proved to be fertile grounds for establishing groups that begin to challenge the authority of the state, such as rebel groups. So that was my very short summary of the origins of roadblocks. But you've written this brilliant book, so take us briefly through these three or four major historical periods that you cover in the book in terms of how roadblocks came into being. 


Schouten          You basically get the story completely right. But what I'm trying to do is I'm trying to set up a kind of historical prioritization in terms of three periods. At first one being long distance trade in which there wasn't a kind of centralized control over territories, so long-distance trade was just something which afforded the opportunity for people anywhere, basically, to forge power, profit, and authority out of the capacity to block long distance trade, so long trade is also difficult, it was tough business. Then afterwards you have second period which I call infrastructure empire, which lasted only relatively shortly. That was the period, kind of the heyday of the of the modernistic, ambitious state in central Africa where colonial administrations try to expand their control over trade routes and other forms of territories at large by building transport infrastructure and forcing all mobility through these kind of narrow pathways inside their colonies. And then I think roughly after independence, but more precisely in the 70s and 80s, this kind of infrastructural power of the state, that was built up in colonial times, starts to crumble again. And what you see in the kind of ruins of these transport grids from colonial times is that once again, it becomes possible to forge power out of local control over the terms of trade. And I think in this first period, this period of long-distance trade, I was really stunned by how widespread the mention was both of transit taxes in the text of explorers. I mean, I've read, try to read as much as possible, firsthand accounts of Swahili traders as well as Western explorers, and it is stunning. You cannot turn a page without coming across them complaining about what they call blackmail or corruption or bribes of these nasty, I mean, the useful kind of the derogatory language for the African chiefs that they feel are imposing these transit taxes on them. But what unfolds if you read carefully, and I've tried to do so to kind of piece together from all these accounts what was actually the system, if you look carefully, it turns out that's as long distance trade intensified in the 19th century, you see that there's an increasing number of traders who want to trade directly from Zanzibar, from Tripoli, from other kind of coastal ports into the interior of Africa. Because the ivory at the coast is finished, elephant herds and ivory is really what most of them are after anyway, and so they want to go directly into the interior without any intermediaries to drive up the price, and this is not something that the communities along these routes are used to, and these passing strangers who do not wish to sit down and get to know the community and exchange gifts, etc. It's not possible to forge relationship of friendship with them. So, what they do is instead to well, then we will bring you something which we call transit tax, it's a simple recognition of your power of chief over this portion of the road as well as a way for these communities and their chiefs to gain a portion of the wealth circulating through their territories. It is after all weird that there's people moving through your land, and they do so with the purpose of profit, and they have all kinds of intentions, and their presence has all kinds of effects because you shouldn't forget that this kind of caravans were often thousands of porters, so that it's really quite something. And so within a span of 30 years, there's this long, along the Zanzibar-Congo kind of highway, there is something called Hongo, and it's really a kind of standardized transit tax that communities levy over all the caravans, and as the caravan trade increases, there's actually chiefs in communities moving from the hills down to where these trade routes are because they say, hey, this is actually an opportunity and this is something we want to get it cut out of. 


Banik               I thought your discussion of the Hongo was fascinating because you cite all of these travelogues people like James Augustus Grant, by Speak, the Belgian explorer Becker, writing that no traveler can escape such roadblocks. So basically, you're saying it's not just extortion, it's not just blackmail, it is something else. And the question then is, what then? 


Schouten          The funny thing is, is that it is easy to assume as not having, you know, not having any kind of knowledge of this history, that this must have stunned these explorers, right.


Banik               Yes. 


Schouten          But it doesn't. It doesn't, because at exactly the same time in Great Britain there were around 8000 turnpikes and tollgates. There’s this number of romantic paintings of couples on their horses, by a turnpike or by a toll gate, right. So, France at the same time had 4000. 


Banik               So they are all used to this, and Grant spent seven or eight days negotiating with the local chief to get his goods through. So, he isn't shocked.


Schouten          Absolutely. Absolutely. No and so for them it's actually a hallmark, they recognized as something which states do. I mean before the transport revolution, Western states as well, they had to confine themselves to controlling taxes circulation. There wasn't much else they could do. So, this was the kind of essential premise of the state they recognized back in Europe, and they saw the mark of authority when they had to engage with these chiefs, while it wasn’t Africa, it was purely African invention to levy these transit taxes, but it was something that these explorers recognized from back home as the mark of 70. Because they do so, some of the first treaties that were made to found what would later become the Congo Free State, are explicitly treaties to transfer the right to levy Hongo (36:04) to these Belgians. So, there's a number of written treaties that I also discuss in the book where these kind of first explorers having passed maybe 50 or 100 of these Hongo levying chiefs, they arrive at the place which would become Congo, and what they do to kind of create a contract to take over that control over that place, was to say, “You local chiefs hereby grant me Hongo”. Hongo is the kind of hallmark of the state, it is what chiefs do effectively so, thereby, if you want to take his over Hongo is then this kind of entry point. So, Belgium Congo started as a roadblock polity, and there is a marvelous picture that was published in a Dutch newspaper from 1890, which shows Leopold the second, which was the King of Belgium and the private owner of the Free State, as a roadblock operator. Because what did he do? He took over control of trade routes and started levying taxes over all kinds of traders, ridiculously high taxes to foreign traders who were interested in trading in the Congo Free State. So, this kind of idea that control over transport, taxing transport as strategic notes is the kind of central hallmark of the early kind of African state, and also the early kind of colonial state which adapted to this kind of African reality, revolves around roadblocks is not so far-fetched perhaps.


Banik               So returning to Hongo again, Peer, I really liked reading about James Grant traveling, I think in northern Tanzania, and when he's confronted with this tax or the Hongo, he refuses to pay and he tells the emissaries of the of the chief go away, I won't pay. And then later, of course, he's attacked by the Chiefs men and then the negotiations between the parties end soon. I think the crucial aspect here has to do with the enforcement capacity of whoever is levying the tax. But Peer, where and how does conflict begin to feature into roadblock politics? Is it when groups begin to challenge the legitimacy of the state to impose a tax? Is that when the violence begins?


Schouten          At no point should be assumed that this was not a violent history. I mean, I'm telling it here in the ground, kind of in the big lines, but these caravans in 19th century Africa were, they carried weapons and they were willing to use them, whereas perhaps initially Hongo was something that all chiefs maybe kind of came to, it turned out quickly that you can't just sit down claiming because these people, they have these very advanced rifles which were not perhaps so widespread, so this African chiefs started becoming interested in obtaining these weapons and in gaining a measure of worldly powers which had not been part of the vocabulary of African chieftaincy at all before. But all of a sudden, worldly powers, concentrating powers in one place around one kind of thing, became a kind of effect of roadblock politics on traditional authority. So traditional authority in Africa among these traders transforms drastically because in order to be able to levy transit taxes, you need to be able to say, well, I really want you to, please, instead of just saying pretty please, you have to say actually you won't pass. So, there's always this imminent threat of violence looming in the background of any roadblock encounter. And that is what makes it so nerving still today to travel in many of these places, is that, yes, it's just a banal bribe even if its rebels and they look pretty daunting. But there's always the risk, and there's always the possibility that, and very often, roadblock encounters do escalate into something much more violent. 


Banik               To fast track back to modern day roadblocks, Peer, you're absolutely right in the sense that when I pass a checkpoint is actually quite daunting, especially when the military is there with all that, all those automatic rifles. It's like going through customs at some of our airports, you have nothing to declare, but even then, you feel a bit nervous, so something can always go wrong at these roadblocks and I've interacted, like you, considerably with people manning these roadblocks. Sometimes I've met drunk policemen, I've been unsure whether they'll get upset with something I say or ask, so I've learned that one must always be polite, I'm always polite. There's always a fear of violence, I think, at these points. And I mentioned earlier that it's even worse if you’re not seem to be somebody important. I really like many of the quotes you actually have in the book, and I have this one in front of me by Jean, A Congolese rebel turned army commander who you were trying to interact with, and he was very difficult to get hold of. But when you did find him, he said, and I quote, “the first thing you do when you are deployed somewhere as an army commander is to build a hut against the rain. The second thing is to set up a roadblock and get food and make some money”, end of quote. And this quote actually reminded me of a group of police officers I once met in Malawi on the way to Lake Malawi where they did not explicitly ask me for phantom money but with a smile that told me they were hungry, and they wanted some fish because I was going to this area by Lake Malawi. It was a way of telling me, to put something in an outstretched hand. And then you have state agents just like I mentioned earlier about the police chief who wasn't very keen to investigate allegations of petty corruption among his officers. You have the case that you highlight in the book of President Mobutu in Zaire, saying basically, don't steal openly but steal cleverly. So please tell my listeners Peer, is this a very well-coordinated system of revenue sharing among state and non-state actors? Or are these instances largely dependent on a particular individual who's extracting a revenue at a roadblock and not sharing it with others? In other words, are these mainly individual or small group activities, or is there a huge collective effort behind these roadblocks? 


Schouten          I mean it's a really big question and it's a question that I often get asked, especially by people concerned with security sector reform, or DVR or, other kind of intervention efforts to try and say, well, what can we do about security sector in Congo and South Sudan, or the Central African Republic, because it's just local individual people in control and it's actually a lack of control that is the problem, then that has certain implications. But if instead this is essentially steered system, then the problem is really different, right, is it too little central control or is it too much central control? You could almost simplify the question. And unfortunately, as always, I think the question lies a bit in the middle in the sense that you could almost see it as a kind of franchise operation, you know, like maybe in Oslo as well you have these food delivery services and you are a partner, you get the uniform of the company delivering the food, 


Banik               The logistics manager, as you write about.


Schouten          Right, and so Wolt, I think the company is called. So, you get the jackets, it and you get the bag with the same thing, the Congolese army works the same way. So, you know you get the uniform and you get the gun, but you are a kind of, it's kind of platform economy in that sense. But of course, if you as a soldier police agent want to be deployed in a place where there's a lot of traffic, a lot of juice, a lot of money to be made, then you have to send money upwards. If you don't perform well as a police agent alongside the road, if you don't send up enough money every week to your commander, you will be put in what they call the “dèserte”, a place where there's no profits to be made, a kind of roundabout or dead end. So, money making and sending this money upwards is part of the kind of patronage politics which is really crucial in this place. It's about friendships and connections, but these friendships are also mediated by gifts. So, a commander will give you a post because he likes you, but of course you can only keep this post and retain it if you make enough money. There's a certain measure of dependency, but there's also a certain measure of autonomy, and that goes all the way to the very top. But of course, if you're in the very top, it is a problem because all along the chain of command, or the chain of hierarchy of the system, money is being put into pockets, so it's very difficult for you to say, I want a big portion of this. And actually, very recently, it was uncovered that President Kabila, when he was still the President of the DRC, he had hired a foreign company to build a toll road, all tolls would be just for him, and so it's a kind of way to circumvent, but this is state building in a kind of gamekeeper state, roadblock logic in its most beautiful exemplify. He realizes, Kabila is like, for my foot soldiers I will never get my cut, right, so I need to have someone build me a private road from which I can get my taxes. 


Banik               I think the point that some posts are more attractive, more wet than others, is absolutely crucial. I've done some research on Indian bureaucrats and how there's always this attractiveness of being posted to certain areas where there's a greater chance of extracting a rent or a bribe. But in order to be posted to these “wet posts” you actually need to have the right contacts. So let me go back to the differences between the two countries that you've studied Peer, the DRC and the Central African Republic. Now DRC, Congo is obviously a huge country, you have many, many more roadblocks than in the Central African Republic. Why did you choose these two countries and how are the roadblock politics similar or different in these two contexts? 


Schouten          So in the Central African Republic, it's a fairly big country as well, but I mean, DR Congo is of course the biggest. In Central African Republic there is simply a lot less economic activity going on. It is just not as demographically dense. It's not as fertile. There's not as much, you know, Congo…


Banik               So lesser roadblocks?


Schouten          Lesser roadblocks, but that’s just one part of it. I mean, for the whole Central African Republic we met with 300 roadblocks along all of its main roads against eight hundred in just two Congolese provinces, and pretty small ones at that. And we met eight hundred not because there weren't more, but just because we ran out of money. So even in these two provinces, there's likely double that amount. But there's also a very different logic at work. In the Central African Republic what people do is saying long distance trades, if you go very far, or you come from very far, you're a stranger, and then you have to pay. So, they don't even care about women going to the market carrying something, small motorcyclist, no, the only thing they look at is trucks, trucks or kettle. So, there's certain kinds of commodities, certain forms of trade and certain kind of distances involved, which are important. So, in a way, it's kind of extroverted system, which much resembles in its logic, this kind of precolonial situation in where it's long-distance trades, truckers from afar, cattle being herded by mobile populations, which are subject to roadblock taxation. And armed groups fight indeed only over this kind of big trade routes along which these circuits work. Not only do they try to text them, but they also try to structure it, who can participate in this, in these circuits. So that's Central African Republic in a nutshell. Now in Eastern Congo things are much more complicated. I mean, even if you're just a peasant farmer going from your field to your village at the moment of harvest, there will be a pop-up checkpoint, a pop-up roadblock first by the local rebel group, then on the way to the village you will maybe meet the soldiers, three soldiers who will take something to get access to the market. So everything that moves is really taxed in Eastern Congo. Eastern Congo is also a patchwork of different kinds of communities, using the word ethnic is difficult, but I think affiliation has really become important in today's conflicts. And because these communities were shuffled around so much and displaced, the kind of landscape of this Community is also very patchwork-like with small enclaves, and so this means that the kind of tapestry of roadblocks, because everybody wants to have their own, is also extremely complicated, reflecting this very diverse society. So not only is there more economic activity, there's also more fractured political fabric, and circulation is much more contested Eastern Congo.


Banik               A final issue Peer, that I'd like to discuss with you has to do with these transnational companies, and one of the things I forgot to ask you earlier in our conversation is that the Heinekens, the Nestles, or any of these big companies that are involved, obviously from their perspective, as well as from the rebel group perspective or whoever is manning the roadblocks, it appears to be a win-win formula. The rebels say, you give us a certain tax, you pay a certain amount of money and we’ll allow you to transport and sell your goods. But as you discuss in the book, outsiders don't always have the ability to trace these payments made of the roadblocks. You can't trace these back to the big companies because there are so many different actors involved, including local sellers, traders. But I'm particularly interested in hearing your views on how, and to what extent you believe, these big companies, the extent to which they can be criticized for undermining state legitimacy, for undermining an already weak state`s inability to generate taxes for the greater good. How do these companies make their decisions? Are they just concerned with profits? Some of the criticism leveled against these companies could be that they are, through their activities, supporting rebel groups and thereby promoting more violence.


Schouten          This is, I think, a really sore spot, right, and this is where it potentially becomes sensitive because not only is it multinational companies, but also increasingly so I found unfortunately aid, supply chains of aid work in exactly the same way as multinational companies work. So, aid organization will outsource it to a local organization, and for the transport they will hire a logistics company, maybe a multinational one like Bollorè, for instance, who will in turn then outsource this to a national transport company who will in turn engage local transporters. So, it's like five layers of outsourcing between these multinational company on the one hand, and an encounter of a truck, a better truck at that, carrying either eight or commercial goods for a global company, and rebel. Because these layers of outsourcing are modulated in such a way, they are engineered to hide these roadblock encounters. So, I am very well aware for my encounters with people working in aid logistics, or I’ve talked to many people working in transport companies for international companies in these places, how do you navigate this? How is this possible? They say, we are very well aware of these roadblocks. It's a huge cost, right, it's 25% of transport costs, at least. 


Banik               They factor these costs in, right? 


Schouten          They factor them in and they hide them in bulk invoiced. Transport companies cannot invoice the specifics of why it is so expensive to do transport, but they have to do blanket invoices for kilometer costs. But of course, on the side they have to report how much was actually paid to the roadblocks, how much was the fuel, because the companies of course want to keep track of this costs. So, you have, like a purposefully perverted accounting system, accounting made illegible, it’s again James Scott, right, its purpose for the illegible actually. Because maybe under capitols in wealthy Europe and the US, people are very well aware of these roadblocks, but of course this forms a big embarrassment if this came out. Now what this does, it increases the impunity for roadblock operator. Because if companies would, and aid organizations would report on incidents of them being taxed by the rebel groups, then this would perhaps tear up something and there would be interventions. But that is not the case at all. As a rebel you can perfectly set up and tax the world’s biggest aid organizations, the world’s biggest multinationals, and it will never get out, and the local transport company has no incentive at all to report on it, or to stop paying. He knows he can invoice these costs, that you as a rebel charge him, so he will just pay up. Maybe it's a bit less, if pocket money, he could put his own pocket but, so there's multiple layers to this. So, this is the problem. The problem is thus that global supply chains are like machines of unaccountability, and they are purposely engineered to extract wealth from places in the globe where informality and conflict are just part of everyday life, and if you really want to do something about all this, we need to have better rules for global supply chains. I mean, EU was about to vote in November to do so, to make corporations based here responsible for the whole supply chain, because there were so many calls from civil society, coalitions of civil society, so it became a proposal and they followed it down because there's so much pressure to make trade, profitable, supply chains are under pressure, there's always a good argument against it. But it means that that on the level of national politics in countries like Sweden, Denmark, Norway, decisions are being taken about how accountable companies are, and how we, what do we want to know about the supply chains? Where are they sourcing from and what does it mean? Efforts have been done to hold accountable people who source minerals, right, from Central Africa, are these conflicts minerals. But even then, American companies have to report on this, I think it's like 90% cannot even confirm or deny that the minerals come from Congo, let alone that they finance conflict zones. So there's something about these supply chains because, we live in an age where companies are states at this unprecedented surveillance capacities to track and trace packages across complex supply chains. So, why is it so difficult? It cannot be so difficult, right, to find out about this. So, there is a measure of intentionality involved, which is beautiful because it provides an opportunity for communities, state agents and rebels to forge wealth out of the capacity to deny access to these global supply chains. 


Banik               Peer, congratulations on a fantastic book. I've really enjoyed our chat and thank you for educating me on roadblocks. I thought I knew quite a bit about roadblocks, but having read your book I realized I really need to delve deeper into the topic. So thank you again for coming on my show today. 


Schouten          Dan, the pleasure was absolutely mine, I wish we could talk for hours more because it's been such a delight interacting with you.