An Uncivilised Clash of Civilisations

by Thomas Colley

Menschenfresserin (by Leonhard Kern, 1650)
Leonhard Kern, 1650

The BBC’s account of an incident of cannibalism in the Central African Republic conflict has shocked many in recent days. In this case, a Muslim victim of a Christian mob was cannibalised by Ouandja ‘Mad Dog’ Magloire in an act of revenge for the murder of three of his family members. At a time when the president of the CAR has just resigned, and the country stands at a crossroads, this post briefly examines the impact of this most gruesome act and its international media coverage.

Cannibalism represents one of the ultimate taboos of human behaviour. Humans are perfectly willing to feed their livestock reformulated feed made of the same animal, and then eat that animal, but the idea of consciously consuming a member of your own species is unthinkable to most. Few behaviours are considered more deviant.

Yet the motives for cannibalism are often misunderstood. In a number of cultures, cannibalism has been an important ritual practice, thought to confer powers upon the consumer, from intelligence and insight to invulnerability. Although it is not difficult to understand that such rational choice explanations for cannibalism are unacceptable to the overwhelming majority. Yet as obviously disturbing as cannibalism is, it is still a politicised concept. Colonial powers used accusations of cannibalism to indicate the primitive nature of people they wished to subjugate or ‘civilise’. Charles Taylor in Liberia and Jean-Bedel Bokassa in the CAR are but two leaders accused (though not found guilty) of participating and sanctioning cannibalism in recent decades.

The identification of a Muslim victim of a Christian mob killing represents a frame rarely seen in Western media coverage. Indeed one could speculate how different the coverage would be had it been the other way round. As the BBC notes, diplomats in the CAR blame some of the West’s media for fomenting conflict by presenting a ‘clash of civilisations’ between Muslims and Christians. It is understandable to see why, though the blame may be misplaced. The BBC cannibalism article talks of a crowd of Christians singing that they are going to kill Muslims. It is unlikely that those on the ground had their identities hardened from the outside by Western media coverage. At the same time, presenting a Muslim-Christian clash is arguably the best way to raise the profile of a conflict in a state that most in the West could barely name, let alone recognise on a map.

This brings us to the problems posed by media coverage of a brutal act of cannibalism at a time when the CAR needs more assistance than ever. On the one hand, ‘Mad Dog’ and the mob that helped him to stab the victim in the eye, beat him to death with rocks, set him on fire and hack off his legs, have given much needed publicity to the CAR when it desperately needs it. The problem is that such gruesome coverage risks distancing people from the conflict, relegating the CAR to yet another stereotypical example of African instability.  Rather than a conflict between rational actors with legitimate political, social and economic grievances, the conflict is reduced to an ‘uncivilised clash of civilisations’, with Muslim pitted against Christian, but this time fought by people somehow less civilised, as evidenced by their willingness to cannibalise each other. The misplaced idea that parts of Africa continue to represent Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and continue to participate in barbaric, uncivilised practices, will only be reinforced by such coverage.

The BBC article ends stating that the fact that the cannibal was cheered as a hero by some is not a good sign for the future of the CAR, effectively asking rhetorically what chance a state has got if its people are quite literally willing to eat each other? However, this misses the point. By focusing on the actions of one cannibal, and by implying that this behaviour is the sort of thing that happens in the CAR, it is easier for the wider world to distance itself from and dehumanise the conflict. If conflict in CAR involves behaviours beyond the realm of human understanding, then presumably there is little external powers could do to solve it.

The danger in presenting such an argument is to risk reinforcing it. That is not the intent here. With the resignation of President Djotodia only a few days ago, there is tentative optimism that steps to resolve the conflict in the CAR could follow. Others fear continuing sectarian violence. Certainly a cessation in hostilities would allow for much needed aid to reach the hundreds of thousands that need it (20% are reported to have already fled their homes), the millions of CAR citizens unjustly forgotten for so much of the conflict and the coverage thereof. At this febrile point in the life of the CAR, with the world watching and hopefully willing to help, it needs images of people that desperately need and deserve help. In this sense, reports of one act of cannibalism could not have come at a worse time.

Thomas is a PhD student at King’s College London studying the use of strategic narratives in the War on Terror. Having lived and worked in Uganda for two years, he also has a keen interest in East African politics and conflict.

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