A justice that dare not speak its name? Amicable settlements in the commune of Abobo (Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire)
Sirius Jose Epron
Translated and edited by Cadenza Academic Translations
While playing football next to the courtyard of my host family, in the Avocatier- M’Ponon neighbourhood of central Abobo (see Figure 10.1), I met Robben,1 a man in his twenties who was training with a semi-professional club in the hope of being recruited abroad. He told me a story about a recent incident he had been involved in. It took place in Kennedy, a nearby neighbourhood where he grew up with his mother. In the spring of 2018, after a Sunday match, Robben was surprised to be called to the police station. Viko accused Robben of stealing 380,000 CFA francs (around 580 euros). Viko, a family acquaintance, owned a cabine telephonique (a stand selling telephone and internet credit), where Robben had worked before quitting because he was earning too little money there. They were both members of the Dyula community,  but as one of the chefs syndicalistes (union heads) who controlled the public bus routes through the Kennedy neighbourhood, Viko was older and more respected. Robben had a reputation for being calm and honest, and he and his family were surprised and worried by the accusation. Viko had the upper hand, having summoned him to the police station, thus Robben still had to prove his innocence, for he was not presumed innocent, neither by the courts nor by the other youth hanging around in the neighbourhood. After a month of mediation, negotiation, and investigation, Robben was officially cleared of any wrongdoing by a police commissioner, though street youths continued to harass him. The vieuxpere tailed in his attempt to ‘lie about’ his petit,
Figure 10.1 Justice system in Abobo municipality (Abidjan, Republique de Cote d’Ivoire). Source: Ecoppaf (2018).
whom he was hoping to profit from through the accusation. Ultimately, Viko was forced to pay Robben’s family the sum that Robben had supposedly owed him, under threat of being sent to the Palais de Justice and Abidjan prison. One of Robben’s uncles, a gendarme, had to threaten to incarcerate the street youths before they finally stopped harassing Robben and seemed to forgive him.
How was the matter settled, and on what principles? Thanks to his knowledge of the streets, Robben was able to counter the threats of violence from Viko’s elements, and this left him better prepared for the confrontation at the police station. His mother minimised the risk of hasty, irrevocable legal proceedings by asking the accuser’s family for forgiveness. Though Robben’s social status was at first sight inferior to Viko’s, the intervention of his uncle, a gendarme, meant that Robben was taken seriously by the police officer of the neighbourhood. Finally, a third actor, alongside the street and the family, intervened: the police commissioner. Serving as both investigator and judge, he decided the case after hearing two witnesses and reviewing Viko’s business accounts. All of these actors played a role in settling the affair, helping make neighbourhood life peaceful once more, at least for a moment. This chapter examines the complexity of their practices and values to discuss how justice is done in the neighbourhoods of Abobo.
‘Abobo-la-guerre’ (War-Zone-Abobo) is one nickname for Abobo, one of the 10 communes of Abidjan, where I lived and worked between September 2018 and April 2019. During the 20th century, the indigenous Bobos shared their lands with immigrants and displaced persons, who arrived in large numbers from neighbouring countries (Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali) and from within Cote d’Ivoire. After the multiparty system was established in 1990, Abobo was seen as the stronghold of the political opposition, the Rassemblement des Republicans (Rally of the Republicans, RDR) and the Nordistes (Konate 2017). The final battles of the post-election crisis of 2010-11 took place there. The current president, Alassane Dramane Ouattara (RDR), emerged victorious, while the former president, Laurent Gbagbo, was arrested and overthrown. Despite the rhetoric of‘national reconciliation’ proffered by the government since the late 1990s, the conflicts of the past are still present in everyday life. Today, Abobo is a working- class commune characterised by a strong degree of instability, and it is thought of as the home to young ‘ microbes', or bands of machete-wielding thieves carrying on the war in Abidjan. This instability stems mainly from economic insecurity, which affects around 60% of the population, and crime. Abobo is the most densely populated commune in the country (UN-Habitat 2012), and the expanded unemployment rate is over 39% among young people aged 15-24, a demographic group representing the vast majority of the national population (Lefeuvre et al. 2017). In a context of the Ivoirian state’s reconstruction, which includes aiming to put an end to identity politics, exacerbated by xenophobia and nativism, what forms does justice take in these working-class neighbourhoods? What do these neighbourhood-level practices and processes of justice reveal about relations with the state?
This chapter takes as its subject ordinary' conflicts and attempts to resolve them in the working-class neighbourhoods of Abobo. The research belongs to an anthropology of justice that looks beyond the judicial institution and its procedures. It does not follow a penal conception of justice, which would focus on the relations between the legislative and executive powers, or between national and international jurisdictions. Instead, by following the process of judgment as a whole and in all of its complexity, in order to display a contextualised, practical justice (Ewick and Silbey 1998), the image of the neighbourhood offered here is distinct from those produced by crime-based or sovereignty-based approaches (Buur 2008). Using Robben’s case, justice in the neighbourhood is expressed through what my interlocutors called ‘amicable settlement’ (reglemcnt a I’amiable), involving the spheres of the street, the family, and the state. These correspond to forms of justice - sometimes contradictory, often compatible - that work together for the agonistic realisation of justice.
The value of my argument lies less in the truth of the facts that my interlocutors report than in the processes of conflict resolution and production of justice that they reveal. I begin by highlighting the complexity of the frameworks of legitimacy that permeate the neighbourhood (Weber  2013). I then analyse the practices that characterise ‘amicable settlement’, through which different places of justice interact. These practices, I argue, seem to be reappropriated by the agents of justice, who are happy to earn money and to live together, following the legal ethos that has been forged at the neighbourhood level. I conclude by defining ‘amicable settlement’ according to its different meanings and its ambivalent effects. This case study, set in the commune of Abobo, sheds light on the mechanisms by which ordinary cohabitation may be achieved during postconflict periods in an African megalopolis such as Abidjan.
Justice in the neighbourhood
Along with fraud and assault, theft is one of the three major ‘problems’ named by the neighbourhood’s inhabitants, and it is the primary reason for incarceration in the Centre d’Observation des Mineurs (Observation Centre for Minors). An hour by public transport from Abobo, the judicial institution nicknamed ‘justice du pays' (the law of the land) is based at the Palais de Justice in the Plateau commune. Because it is discredited, remote, and expensive, the neighbourhood has developed other ways to settle cases before turning to the judicial institution. But these alternatives are inscribed in different normative registers and are irrigated with power relations and conflicting interests. I use the general expression ‘neighbourhood justice’ both to highlight what it means to do justice in a local space and to draw a detailed cartography of justice in Abidjan.
Threats and nouchi mediation
In Abidjan, and in Cote d’Ivoire more generally, the most common understanding of justice comes from nonchi urban culture. Starting in the 1980s, nouchi began as a language used by young residents of Abidjan who wanted to pursue criminalised activities discreetly. By extension, nouehi can also refer to a person who speaks and acts in this way. Today, nouehi culture is prevalent more broadly among urban youth caught up in consumerism and, in some cases, illicit activities, as Sascha Newell’s engaging ethnography of contemporary Cote d’Ivoire shows it (Newell 2012). Viko is part of this culture, controlling public transport lines by demanding that each driver pay him a toll. Robben is also involved; he goes around with his friends from the area during holidays, taking on the role of a vigilance committee, to prevent older people from being attacked by gangs (Favarel-Garrigues and Gayer 2016).
What role does nouehi culture play in social relations, and how tar does it inform practices of justice? Robben’s case highlights two features of nouehi culture with regard to justice: there is always the possibility of violence, which may be used to intimidate or mobilise; and there exist relations of reciprocity, even clientelism, between a vieuxpere and his elements. As Robben explains:
Here in Abobo, when you go out, you have to tell yourself you’re a gangster. If you bump into a tramp and he starts shit with you, you have to double up: what he did, you have to do twice over to him. That way he’ll be scared of you. ... It’s like being in a jungle, and in a jungle, it’s survival of the fittest.
This is not so much the law of an eye for an eye but a strategy of threat. This technique - always accompanied by the latent possibility of violence - is deployed according to the power relations of any given moment. Faced with other young people, whom he can challenge, Robben can make use of nouehi culture without having to fight; faced with Viko, whom he knows is stronger, he deactivates the logic of revenge and uses other techniques.
Neighbourhood justice is therefore not limited to threats of disproportionate violence, lynching, and score-settling. It also enables mediation and negotiation between litigants who know how to use their social relations. Viko filed the complaint from a police station closer to his home, where he hoped to take advantage of his own acquaintances rather than the legal code. Simultaneously, Robben went to other trade unionists to persuade them that their colleague was guilty, creating trouble for Viko on his own turf. By examining urban culture in Abobo through the prism of conflict resolution, we can underscore how closely it is intertwined with other, less stigmatised and possibly institutionalised, forms of justice.
Father Achi Frederic, who worked as a priest in Abobo-Те for five years, where he led discussion groups after the war in Abidjan, explained to me:
It’s rare for a conflict involving people from the same neighbourhood to reach the police station or the courts. There’s a first sort of justice that dare not speak its name, but which is very effective, between the inhabitants of the same neighbourhood or those who belong to the same ethnic group.
This neighbourhood justice may seem fair in itself, but it also intersects with established or institutional practices, which may be official or legal without strictly belonging to the state. Suppose there is no clash in normative registers between the so-called lawless jungle and the rule of law: What are these other institutions that make the two intersect and shape neighbourhood justice?
Family and community institutions
Before going to the police, Robben, his mother, and his uncle went to the home of the alleged victim, following the steps expected in the neighbourhood community. Whether in shared courtyards or on the street corner, over a glass of alcohol or a cup of tea, small groups come together to chat when disagreement arises. Different notables are summoned or arrive on their own initiative to take up the primordial role of intermediary, ‘there where they always are’. They may be the head of the family or neighbourhood, or the president of a youth group, an association, or a bistro, accompanied by the grand-fr'eres of the neighbourhood and the bons petits of the vieux peres. These family practices, nuclear or extended, are characteristic of the ethos of the neighbourhood.
Representing a milieu broader than the family, this ‘community’ (as my interlocutors put it) is an additional institution of justice in the neighbourhood. But what kind of community is it? Based more on religion than ethnicity or village kinship, it binds its members around values transmitted by the sages. However, communities are not devoid of tensions and power issues, as Robben’s case illustrates. Cote d’Ivoire is unsecularised and predominantly Muslim, and communities play a major role in the subjectivation and organisation of neighbourhood life. As Sheikh Abdoulaye, the imam of the mosque on my street, explained to me:
Often, when there’s a problem in the community, conflicts between believers in the neighbourhood - between mum and dad, a father and his kid, or between friends - the officer can say to the imam: ‘Rather than coming to the police station, tty to settle it between yourselves and sort it out over there’. But that’s not official.
Capable of transcending ethno-religious boundaries, imams, priests, pastors, and prophets tty’ to reach agreements. As the Jesuit priest Mathurin of Abobo-Sagbe told me, this is ‘so that it doesn’t go to court, so that the official file opened at the police station doesn’t go any further’.11 These actors justify their extra-legal or para-statal authority by channelling popular anger and by taking advantage of their knowledge of the area. At the same time, they avoid some cases that might be of interest to the corps habilles (the police, gendarmerie, and military), the defenders of the state who oversee each neighbourhood. We can see here a complementarity, even a subsidiarity, between the state and the communities.
But in spite of the aims of this ‘(religious) community’ to control the neighbourhood through its ‘traditional legitimacy’ (Weber  2013), almost all contemporary problems - marriage, dowry, death, and conflicts between spouses or relations - fall outside its normal areas of expertise. It is ‘charismatic legitimacy’, instead, that seems most effective in the neighbourhood, even when the case is taken over by the police commissioner. The latter also bears a ‘rational- legal legitimacy’ specific to ‘state justice’, located beyond the neighbourhood. Starting from an ordinary conflict, which develops within the neighbourhood and the community, the police station ends up connecting state justice, family justice, and popular justice. What are the practices that allow these different forms of justice to combine?
Reappropriating forms of justice
Robben’s story' presents a number of unexpected and novel features which indicate that there is no pure, pre-existing form of justice that may be corrupted or requisitioned for other ends. Unlike systematisations of multiple justices that have been offered through the lens of the state, my experiences suggest that these different justices do not operate in parallel ‘without ever intersecting’.  State or community, urban or rural, modern or traditional, justice takes multiple forms that coexist and develop as practices of justice are (re (appropriated (Elechi 2006; Ellickson 1991).
The summons is one practice used to effect neighbourhood justice, alongside testimony, medical certificates, and counsel. It marks a certain social distinction, both symbolic and financial. Officially a means of guaranteeing impartiality and fairness in confrontations, in the neighbourhood it is instead used as a technique of intimidation. It can even be used as a form of accusation before any trial takes place, with the accused facing social stigmatisation in public spaces. This was true for Marie, a street vendor in the middle-class commune of Cocody, Abidjan, who was assaulted by the owner of her apartment while he was inspecting the property at the end of her tenancy. Thanks to her formal legal training as a student, she showed him that she could change register, appropriating practices that went beyond the nonchi or family cultures to which she might seem confined:
But when you say, ‘I’m going to the police’, people ask you to pardon them!
‘Better to leave it be, the police are no good. Better not to go!’ ... When
you’ve messed me around or violated my rights, I’m not going to leave it be,
I’m going to go [to the police station].
Marie emphasised the central role that the state judicial machinery plays in the neighbourhood, and how it is used to scare and to take revenge. The weapons of the state - stigmatisation, debt, imprisonment - are used either by default, when the accuser loses its case with the neighbourhood notables; or out of excessive violence, when the accuser wants to deal out a far greater punishment than he is capable of individually.
The pardon d Tivoirienne
Listening to Marie, I also understood that rarely is the pardon simply a humanistic and self-sufficient way of restoring the peace, and neither is it much concerned with a religious principle to forgive wrongdoing even before it is committed. As a mark of politeness or respect, ‘pardon’ usually means ‘please’ in Ivoirian French (see the comic strip in Figure 10.2). Following the national model of conflict regulation that flows vertically through the whole social body (the aptly named dialogue a Tivoirienne, examined by Toungara in 1990), what I call the pardon a Tivoirienne is part of a strategy of power to tighten the bonds between a group of individuals: asking for pardon requires the accused to recognise the clemency of the alleged victim and to become indebted to them.
The tears that Robben’s mother shed before his accuser may not have saved her son all by themselves, but they were not in vain. In ordinary' practices of justice, requests for pardon are used to suspend an accusation, to appeal for a truce, and to win time to bypass the authorities that are supposedly competent to hand out punishments or compensation. Within a very' hierarchical social organisation, asking for pardon is the final means of persuading an accuser in a position of superiority (an elder, a corps habille, a leader) to drop a charge. Exaggerated humility and feigned sincerity' are common and accepted attitudes. They may seem hypocritical, but they are not dishonest. Rather than strict factual truth, they aim to align with what seems just or normal, which often aligns with the recognition of the established order, in Abobo to be precise.
A justice that dare not speak its name ? 143
Figure 10.2 ‘Sergent Deutogo’ no. 984, cartoon by Xavier Konan (2018). Faced with a policeman who is only interested in getting back his two 100- CFA franc coins (in nouchi, his two togos), the laundry worker prefers to hand them over than to explain himself to the corps habille. While the police station functions as a threat, amicable settlement functions as a fireguard. Ironically, the sergeant emphasises his mercy towards the comforted wrongdoer.
Summons and pardons make up the fabric of everyday life in Abobo, involving individuals with different religious beliefs, political opinions, and ethno-national identities in a common experience of justice. These ordinary methods of resolving conflicts within the neighbourhood, so unusual in appearance from a Western or statist point of view, operate differently from legal practices of administering justice. What, then, are the effects of die interactions between diese different spheres of justice?
Greed and cohabitation
The practices described above are not confined to seeking justice for oneself, from a rational, individual perspective. There is nothing neutral about using a tool or a resource, either for the tool or resource or for the user. It can also be a novel and transformative seizure of power. This is what characterises popular justice, as I understand the analysis by Sten Hagberg and his colleagues (2017) in the introduction to their book on security in the Sahel. Popular justice is distinct from the rule of law, which claims to guarantee the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial; it is also distinct from lynching or trial by a revolutionary court. Popular justice consists of the public ‘taking the law into their own hands’.
But this does not amount to a freedom to do as one wishes. Certainly, the ethos of those in the neighbourhood who are answerable to the law is shaped by arbitrary individual behaviour. But in the neighbourhoods I studied, the mobilisation of various frameworks of legitimacy was primarily driven and inflected by two impersonal tendencies that were relatively decisive. First, the desire for money, both in the poorer and the more affluent neighbourhoods, seemed to be the main reason for conflict: whether it was a matter of recovering lost money or collecting a loan, or gambling on being able to profit from a conflict. Money can be both the fundamental cause of the initial disagreement and of the impossibility of reaching an amicable settlement.
Nevertheless, any institution of justice, however violent or oppressive, is inseparable from the hope of living together as well as possible. In this context, some practices are more effective than others in enabling coexistence and mutual respect. As Robben told me, one is advised to be pious, generous, and gratefi.il today, in order to ‘prevent nine becoming six’, that is, to prevent the wheel of fortune turning against you. Within the neighbourhood, the relational and social nature of conflict resolution encourages a model of collaboration rather than one of competition.
What forms does justice take in the commune of Abobo, and what relationships do litigants have with the Ivoirian state? To answer this question, I have suggested that we examine ‘neighbourhood justice’, focusing on the ordinary practices and local processes of defining justice. Through Robben’s case, we have seen that an interest in mediation is shared by non-state institutions, which clearly exist: nouchi culture, the extended family, and the religious community. These frameworks of legitimacy correspond to different normative registers, embodied by points of contact that can go between them: the vieuxpere, the elder, or the spiritual leader. But while these authorities do not necessarily follow the legal code, they remain connected to ‘state justice’, represented by the corps habillcs.
Insofar as neighbourhood justice is expressed through amicable settlements, I have described various established gestures that make up this type of conflict resolution. Summons and pardons enable connections between state justice, family justice, and popular justice, and participate in the (re)appropriation of these most common forms of justice. In so doing, they create a kind of neighbourhood justice. Finally, from the interaction of these different uses of justice, two effects emerge that characterise an ethos among those involved in conflict in Abobo’s working-class neighbourhoods: the quest for socio-economic success and the attempt to reach a satisfactory form of coexistence in the neighbourhood.
These two constitutive trends of justice underline the importance of affinities and social relationships in the production of justice. An uncle who works for the state can intimidate, a friend in the police force can try to speed up legal proceedings, and a shared acquaintance can urge reconciliation. Even when requests for pardon are granted in order to gain a person’s services, it is a matter of creating, reproducing, and mobilising links between actors who have in common a number of neighbourhood practices. Intensifying and expanding one’s network requires litigants to be able to play, more or less at will, the role of nouchi, parent, or citizen, depending on the strategy that should be adopted in a given situation.
It is thus understandable that ‘amicable settlement’ causes debates, both in the neighbourhood and the Palais de Justice. The term, which comes from legal vocabulary, has become a common expression, and this way of handling conflicts operates on the margins of legal procedure and beyond the limits of the law, to which it is often mistakenly limited. The Ministry of Justice claims that such extra-legal irregularity must be brought under control. In order to justify its policy of decentralising the penal apparatus, and in the name of ‘social cohesion’, the ministry' emphasises that such arrangements typically fail to consider the victim and work to the detriment of sexual minorities, cadets sociaux, those considered illegitimate (immigrants, foreigners, deviants), and anyone whose networks of solidarity are weak. While this is sometimes true, judicialising such practices can also lead to the legitimisation and generalisation of unjust forms of domination.
Those within the neighbourhood who make use of amicable settlement argue that this practice demonstrates a certain effectiveness that should be preserved, however un-amicable it may be. As in the ‘enclaves of peace’ during the Ivoirian post-election crisis, which gave individuals a way of taking control of their own lives (Forster 2017), neighbourhood justice can reduce and even prevent otherwise uncontrollable and unbearable social injustices. This is, for the moment, the result of my research, which will continue by looking at neighbourhood associations, police stations and the future First Instance Court. While amicable settlement seems necessary' in order to preserve collaboration at the local level, the question remains whether this is enough to dispel the ‘distrust’ that has been omnipresent since the crisis of 2010-11, whose causes and remedies lie on the national level (Picollino 2017).
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