Volume 9, Issue 4
Fall 2007

Fiscal Disobedience: An Anthropology of Economic Regulation in Central Africa. Janet Roitman. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. 233 pp.

Travelers in Central Africa know the risks of mobility in an age of declining economic fortunes and increasing violence, whether from poor roads or from authorities demanding gifts, money, and proofs of identity. Traders and workers struggle to operate as officials and independent entrepreneurs exact payments or pillage trucks and stores. Since many supposed bandits are in fact directly or indirectly serving government authorities themselves, it is little wonder that so many Africans have questioned the legitimacy of African states and challenged the ability of the state to monitor and organize commercial activity. How do different people and institutions construct what are legitimate and illegitimate forms of obtaining wealth and intervening in commerce? This study examines the political rationalities and discursive foundations of economic regulation in northern Cameroon during the 1990s. Drawing extensively from Michel Foucault's concept of governmentality and the ability of power relations to both control and create subjects, this book seeks to uncover varied understandings and techniques of fiscal classification dating back to the era of the Sokoto caliphate. For historians and anthropologists trying to understand the problematic nature of state economic regulation and constructions of licit and illicit behavior, this is a fascinating work, even if much of the author's contentions lie on a relatively thin amount of evidence that cry out for further research.

This study should be considered a collection of related essays rather than a coherent anthropology of fiscal regulation. In keeping with the author's post-structuralist framework, the book eschews linear narratives. Roitman contends that political sovereignty over economic and other matters should not be taken as a given, but rather as a concept that emerges from configurations of power that are continually remade and undermined. Such state-sponsored initiatives as forcing Africans to pay taxes in francs, the creation and dissolution of prices controls, and the use of censuses to track mobile and fluid communities helped to construct subjects of fiscal regulation. She takes a genealogical approach to trace the emergence of political rationalities and vocabularies, such as the efforts by colonial and post-colonial regimes to insert and impose notions of tax and price on people in northern Cameroon. Older Hausa market hierarchies determined what made a price just through the exclusion or subordination of non-Muslims or newcomers, and continue to influence understandings of what are acceptable or unacceptable economic behaviors and actions today.

A strength of this book is its presentation informal economic activity as not a sign of the weakness of state authorities, but rather as a constructed area of activity that allows for the production of wealth and state intervention. Despite many public condemnations of unregulated economic activity, officials themselves regularly permit and engage in smuggling and robbery. Young men engaged in demanding payments, taking spoils from passing trucks, or selling gasoline without any permits contend they are entrepreneurs seeking wealth and opportunity, and argue in varied ways that they ought to be or in fact are favored by state authorities. Colonial officials presented mobile traders and state-appointed chiefs as both agents of order and unscrupulous producers of wealth much as their contemporary counterparts in the military-commercial nexus are embodied as both vicious criminals and disciplined businessmen in northern Cameroon. Ethnographic discussions of the views of petrol vendors, wary robbers who prefer to present themselves as foot soldiers seeking to make a living amidst bigger power struggles, and debates over proper behavior by butchers make for interesting reading. More analysis of these excerpts would have strengthened this book.

However, there are some serious conceptual and methodological problems here. It is hard not to share the author's mixture of concern and respect for her informants, but how representative are they of informal commerce and state interventions in the economy as a whole? Women traders are almost entirely absent from this account. It is highly unlikely that they would engage in shaping and challenging fiscal regulation in the same way as the entrepreneurial armed and mobile young men who take center stage here. Are conditions elsewhere in the “Lake Chad Basin,” from northern Nigeria to southern Chad and the western Central African Republic the same as northern Cameroon, as the author seems to suggest? The historical accounts of understandings of proper and improper ways of appropriating wealth and constructing economic categories from the Sokoto era to French colonial rule are insightful, but would be better seen as recommendations for further inquiry than reliable in themselves, since they draw on second-hand accounts or a selection of colonial reports. One would think that the period of German rule might get some attention as a transitional period of plural understandings of fiscal regulation, for example. It actually is never discussed at all. Finally, one needs to be forewarned about the prose that awaits them in this book. What may appear to some as provocative exegeses of Foucauldian concepts can appear to others as rough going.

This book merits reading as an inspiration for new research approaches and as a creative mediation on governmentality in a post-colonial context. However, if one is searching for a comprehensive review of informal and formal economic activity in northern Cameroon , or in contemporary Africa generally, they should look elsewhere. Instructors selecting books for undergraduate classes should stay away from this work, but it would make for interesting reading for graduate courses on economic anthropology or the state in modern Africa.

Jeremy Rich
Middle Tennessee State University