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  • Parcours administratifs dans un État en faillite: Récits populaires de Lubumbashi (RDC)
  • Benjamin Rubbers
Théodore Trefon, with the collaboration of Balthazar Ngoy. Parcours administratifs dans un État en faillite: Récits populaires de Lubumbashi (RDC). Paris: L'Harmattan, 2007; Tervuren, Belgium: Musée royal de l'Afrique centrale. Cahiers Africains—Afrika Studies series no. 74. 154 pp. Bibliography. Appendix. €15.00. Paper.

Trefon and Ngoy's ambition is to account for the persistence of the postindependence Congolese state, despite the failure of its modernizing project. To do this, they follow the everyday life of ten inhabitants of Lubumbashi, focusing on their relationships with the local administration. The reader thus meets familiar faces of the city, such as a Greek baker, a street foreign exchange dealer, and a coalman. Portrayed in a very lively style and borrowing expressions from Congolese French, the images that emerge of these ten urbanites are based on life stories collected by students of the University of Lubumbashi.

This book deals with an issue neglected in the literature on the state in Africa—namely, the functioning of public services at the local level. Yet despite its absence in writing on Africa, the local administration is omni-present in the daily life of Congolese urbanites, who adopt an ambivalent [End Page 198] attitude toward its agents. Indeed, the people interviewed by Trefon and Ngoy's team often express their sense of injustice about the way civil servants treat them. At the same time, they show resignation toward their lot, and even sometimes admit that they draw advantages from the existence of an administrative structure. Though its agents are corrupted, the state remains the highest authority: any citizen has the opportunity to take steps to enforce, suspend, or renegotiate the law to his benefit. Moreover, in places like Lubumbashi, some public institutions such as state-run companies (electricity, water, railway, and so on) still offer services to the population, even though they are of poor quality.

According to Trefon and Ngoy, negotiation—and more specifically the bargaining over public services—is a permanent feature of the relationship between state agents and citizens. In view of the ubiquity of the state, this institutionalization of negotiation raises questions about the relevance of a formal/informal dichotomy when talking about economic activities. While it is hard to evade state control, taxes are always haggled over, more or less in compliance with regulations in force. Accordingly one does not deal with formal or informal activities, but with various administrative paths that differ according to the bargaining power of actors.

Trefon and Ngoy's reflections about the local state are very stimulating. However, one point seems to be missing. In their discussion of the relationship of civil servants to citizens, the authors' analysis comes down to the observation that the relationship is negotiated. The frames in which this negotiation takes place—the organization of civil services, the social embeddedness of bureaucratic relations, the different discourses legitimizing corruption, and so on—are neglected in favor of the stereotypical image of the grasping and unscrupulous state agent extorting from the population. This simplification probably results from the research methodology, which privileged citizens' critical points of view to the detriment of civil servants' discourses and practices.

In the end, the life stories offered in this book provide a captivating glance at the tactics through which people in Lubumbashi negotiate their relationship with administrations. But one wonders if these stories answer the question posed in the introduction: Why is the administration still there? When the authors tackle the problem, they themselves use their materials only in part, to stress the fact that some public institutions still fulfill some functions for the population. Otherwise they invoke the instrumentalization to which the administration is subjected by political leaders and civil servants. It would be interesting to reflect upon this claim with a more anthropological approach, by continuing the research on the side of administrations. [End Page 199]

Benjamin Rubbers
Université de Liège
Liège, Belgium


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pp. 198-199
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