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Ikogou-Renamy Lionel Cédrick. — Les économies occultes de l’or blanc au Gabon

Douglas Yates
p. 197-200
Référence(s) :

Ikogou-Renamy Lionel Cédrick. — Les économies occultes de l’or blanc au Gabon. Préface de Florence Bernault, postface de Roberto Beneduce. Paris, L’Harmattan, 2021, 418 p., bibl., ill.

Texte intégral

1Fetishes, spells, magic potions, skulls, zombies, vampires, witches, human sacrifices, Freemasons, Rosicrucians, sorcerers, black magic, and tomb desecrations. These are the subjects of this haunting yet scholarly work, a doctorate from the University of Libreville, the fruit of years of arduous reading and audacious field research in the author’s native Gabon.

2Lionel Cédrick Ikogou-Renamy visited the Libreville cemeteries of Mindoubé, Baraka Mission, Méssôlo, Ambowè, and Sainte-Marie, as well as the municipal cemeteries of Port-Gentil and Atongowanga cemetery in Lambaréné—abandoned, devastated, lugubrious places; taking photographs and interviewing gravediggers in participant observation ethnography. His book presents a great deal of photographic evidence of broken sepulchers, open tombs, bones littered between the rows of gravestones, shattered tombstones, tombs profaned with swastikas, tombstones after the passage of flames, “what remains of a garden,” tilting abandoned graves lost in weeds, the list goes on. He then takes the reader to the marketplace for human organs, with a most macabre Table 13 (p. 318) enumerating body parts and their purported powers: blood (astral projection), skulls (wisdom), eyes (vision of enemies), ears (intelligence on coup plots), teeth (capturing a personality), hair (popularity), breasts (abundance, riches), tongues (casting spells, lies), hands (fraudulent acts), penises (sexual power, domination of collaborators), vaginas (creating links with contacts), clitorises (sexual pleasure). For NGOs used to complaining about mere female circumcision, this list really makes one reconsider the value of human life in contemporary francophone Africa.

3Florence Bernault, a renowned specialist on these matters, has added a laudatory preface which explains why this avid reader of Joseph Tonda, André Mary, Marc Augé, E. E. Pritchard, and Peter Geschiere, embarked upon his doctoral dissertation in desecrated cemeteries, to verify the accusations, and to explain what can be understood about subsequent traffic of human remains in Gabon, “placing into question the usual arguments of Western researchers about such sacrilege of corpses” (p. 24).

4For those of us in political science who frequently hear tales about such occult practices in Gabon, it is fascinating to read between the covers of one book the multitude of journalistic, scholarly, and man-in-the-street accusations of tomb raiding paid for by politicians, ministers, and presidential staff (or family) members, particularly frequent during times of election and/or cabinet reshuffles. “White gold,” a metaphor for the bleached human bones stolen from graves that are sold to witchdoctors, sorcerers, and a variety of practitioners of occult arts and crafts to be thereafter consumed or transformed into charms and fetishes for their purported inherent magical powers, is the kind of subject usually treated by anthropologists. What Ikogou-Renamy has done, following in the footsteps of the older authors cited above, is show the intimate relationship between tomb raiding, the new free market capitalist economy, and political power.

5As the title suggests, Occult Economies of White Gold in Gabon are as much a modern expression of changes in African society as a cultural continuity of traditional black magic: “consequences of the globalization of exchanges where everything is merchandized” (p. 107). Reminding his readers that since the 18th century, “the development of medicine, particularly of anatomy in Europe, has long relied on the violations of burial places to seize freshly dug up cadavers, bodysnatching in hospitals, routine removal of unclaimed organs, purchase of bodies from hangmen, nocturnal expeditions to the gallows to remove penises, sometimes even murder of vagabonds or children” (p. 310), Ikogou-Renamy laments these practices of tomb raiding and trafficking in human remains as reflecting the “expression of individualism” (p. 81) a rupture with organic, collective, group solidarity. In a postface added to the end of the book, Roberto Beneduce of the University of Turin recounts his own past experiences at the Bandiagara cliffs of Mali in 2006, where one old man stood vigil over the tomb of his niece to protect her corpse from graverobbers who regularly exported human organs to China (p. 380) a market for what Joseph Tonda has chillingly called “spare parts.”

6The political uses of trafficked human remains are the most essential theme of this work. “Political power in Gabon is a necrophagous and mortified power,” repeats Ikogou-Renamy (so often that one sometimes wishes L’Harmattan could provide its authors with copyeditors), and he spares no opportunity to draw linkages between the occult practices of graverobbers and the campaign strategies of political elites. His numerous interviews reveal that the number of profaned tombs increases significantly around election time. His investigation also reveals that those who order and pay for these profanations are mostly political entrepreneurs. Gabonese politicians “use symbolic means like occultism to rule politically” (p. 101) in part because they are “incapable of bringing effective and pertinent solutions to the problems of their peoples” (p. 111) and in part because the people have been socialized into believing in black magic: “the Gabonese novel and cinema shows an omnipresence and socialization by/in sorcery” (p. 82). He argues that the logic of black magic and politics are analogous: “the use of occult invisible powers and fetishism to impose, control, influence, terrorize, direct and remain as long as possible in power” (p. 106). Belief in black magic by the population results in “occult forces remaining a sine qua non precondition for pretending to political power” (p. 54).

  • 1 E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande, Oxford, Oxford University P (...)

7Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard noted half a century ago, in his Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande (1937)1 that, “In Gabon, politics is sorcery.” Have things changed?

8For Ikogou-Renamy the answer is not much. He begins his book with a content analysis of one hundred newspaper articles from between the years 1984 and 2012 reporting on ritual crimes, profanation of corpses, and calabashes with human blood left at crossroads, to mention only a few of the strange and curious practices that proliferate around election time in Gabon. Guardians at cemeteries complained how so many tombs are profaned that one finds human bones scattered everywhere, with little or no government action taken, suggesting complicity. One story, told by one of his interviewees, recounts how professionals use power tools to drill holes through tomb walls and then simply vacuum out the bones and body remains into sacks. In the government newspapers, these are treated as unsolved crimes; in the opposition press, they are treated as acts of witchcraft ordered by members of the elite who rule Gabon.

9These human remains are then transformed into fetishes to be used, with their inherent magical powers, by politicians and other members of the government to acquire promotions, win elections, or retain offices. Even those who do not believe in such things will admit that political control over death—what Achille Mbembe calls “necropolitics”—and the fear this inspires in powerless ordinary people, provides the ruling elites with another source of political power. Dynastic longevity of the Bongo regime is often attributed to practice of black magic, and many examples are given by Ikogou-Renamy, although he is careful to work with published documentary sources when repeating such accusations, given the harsh lèse-majesté laws which prevail in Gabon.

  • 2 E. Terray, “Le pouvoir, le sang et la mort dans le royaume asante au XIe siècle,” Cahiers d’Études (...)
  • 3 M.-E. Gruénais, F. Mouanda Mbambi & J. Tonda, “Messies, fétiches et lutte de pouvoirs entre ‘les g (...)
  • 4 C. Henry & K. E. Tall, “La sorcellerie envers et contre tous,” Cahiers d’Études africaines, XLVIII (...)
  • 5 F. Bernault, “De la modernité comme impuissance. Fétichisme et crise du politique en Afrique équat (...)

10I can think of few journals better to review this book than Cahiers d’Études africaines because so many of its articles are cited. Ikogou-Renamy is clearly an avid reader of CEA and fluent in current francophone research on the political anthropology of black magic in sub-Saharan Africa: Emmanuelle Terray’s study of “power” and “death” in Ashanti land (1994)2; Marc-Éric Gruénais, Florent Mouanda Mbambi, and Joseph Tonda’s study of “fetishes” in the quest for power in Democratic Republic of Congo (1995)3; Christine Henry and Emmanuelle Kadya Tall’s study of “sorcery” (2008)4; Florence Bernault’s studies on the “fetish” in Equatorial Africa (2009) and “merchandising” corpses in Congo-Brazzaville (2010)5. In a way, this is the kind of book that one would expect from a francophone African scholar who often reads CEA and other literature coming out of Paris. It is representative of a kind of sophisticated political anthropology that concerns itself with aspects of political life that ordinarily are treated like circus freak shows, and if he manages to continue with his research paradigm during upcoming elections in 2023, he may unearth new discoveries in this macabre and deadly sideshow of Gabonese political life.

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Notes

1 E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1937.

2 E. Terray, “Le pouvoir, le sang et la mort dans le royaume asante au XIe siècle,” Cahiers d’Études africaines, XXXIV (4), 136, 1994, pp. 549-561.

3 M.-E. Gruénais, F. Mouanda Mbambi & J. Tonda, “Messies, fétiches et lutte de pouvoirs entre ‘les grands hommes’ du Congo démocratique,” Cahiers d’Études africaines, XXXV (1), 137, 1995, pp. 163-193.

4 C. Henry & K. E. Tall, “La sorcellerie envers et contre tous,” Cahiers d’Études africaines, XLVIII (1-2), 189-190, 2008, pp. 11-34.

5 F. Bernault, “De la modernité comme impuissance. Fétichisme et crise du politique en Afrique équatoriale et ailleurs,” Cahiers d’Études africaines, XLIX (3), 195, 2009, pp. 747-774; “Quelque chose de pourri dans le post-empire. Le fétiche, le corps et la marchandise dans le Mémorial de Brazza au Congo,” Cahiers d’Études africaines, L (2-3-4), 198-199-200, 2010, pp. 771-798.

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Douglas Yates, « Ikogou-Renamy Lionel Cédrick. — Les économies occultes de l’or blanc au Gabon »Cahiers d’études africaines, 249 | 2023, 197-200.

Référence électronique

Douglas Yates, « Ikogou-Renamy Lionel Cédrick. — Les économies occultes de l’or blanc au Gabon »Cahiers d’études africaines [En ligne], 249 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2023, consulté le 15 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/etudesafricaines/40954 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/etudesafricaines.40954

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