André Crashes a Motorbike
André is a wily and experienced motorcycle taxi driver who has spent fifteen years driving without a license because he can neither read nor write. One night in 2015, at a bar in Kigali, Rwanda, he told me about an accident he had had that day. He said that another motorcyclist had turned in front of him at a turnoff and they had collided and fallen. He clearly hadn’t been seriously injured, although he had big scabs on his hands. The motorbike he was riding belonged to the man he works with. He can’t get his own because he has no license. That man rides the motorbike during the day and gives it to André to ride at night. He knows that André has no documents.
When André had his crash, the owner had to come quickly to represent himself to the police as the one driving at the time of the accident, since André has no license and that would only cause more problems. However, this put them in a very weak position vis-à-vis the other rider. They couldn’t really negotiate since the rider knew that André was the one driving and that he was not documented. So, they agreed to pay fifty thousand francs to avoid further penalties.1 André had to leave his ID and the carte jaune (insurance certificate) for the motorbike with the police – so they must have also known that André, and not the motorbike’s owner, was driving at the time of the crash. Presumably, the documents would be returned when the fifty2 was paid.
As it was, the owner of the bike had been able to pay twenty right away, so thirty remained. André was going to pay ten and the boss the remaining twenty. When I met him, he was working hard to find the remaining ten. However, it seemed that there had never been any question of formal charges being laid by the police, despite the irregularity of the situation and the transparency of André and his boss’s deception about who was riding the bike when it crashed. It seemed obvious that the real problem was about not legality per se, but rather making a good deal to avoid big costs – a kind of subversion or resistance. There is thus a strong sense that André is undermining the authority of the police and their power over him in an ‘infrapolitical’ (Scott 1990) game of switched identities and knowing stupidity. Thus, André could be seen as resisting legality, trying to avoid the problems of visibility and legibility (Scott 1998) that the law imposes and the risk of serious difficulties that it might entail.
In Rwandan studies, such accounts of people avoiding or subverting legal process are common. Exactly how they are to be understood, however, is in question. On the one hand, the pervasive influence of James Scott’s (1985, 1987, 1990) work on Rwandan studies means that such subversions are commonly (perhaps typically) understood as instances of ‘everyday resistance’ (Palmer 2014). More recent studies of legal orders in Rwanda, on the other hand, point to the ways in which Rwandans as persons are importantly constituted through their engagement with law and that, as Kristin Doughty (2016: 26) contends, ‘there is limited utility to an analysis that reduces every interaction to coercion or that distrusts any performance … as disingenuous.’ Doughty’s case is that legal forums, especially new (or revived) forms of ‘mediation’ which dominate Rwandan grassroots legal practice, are embedded within social lives while simultaneously providing venues for the renegotiation of the basis of those lives (Doughty 2014, 2015). In other words, legality is not simply an imposition but also a crucial space in which people hold arguments about the kinds of obligations they have to one another, the sorts of communities they belong to and how that belonging is constituted. My case here is similar, in that I argue that legality is central in certain respects to social life. However, unlike Doughty, I focus on illegalities and breaches of rules rather than on legal forums as resources that are mobilised for the creation of social relations.3 I thus concur with Doughty that instead of thinking in terms of law as an imposition and popular culture as a site of ‘resistance’ to it, we ought to understand law as fundamental to Rwandan social life. However, whereas she sees legal forums as places where social norms are contested within legal frameworks, my material leads me to model the production of social life not within or according to legal orders but significantly outside of them, at a tangent to law.
My material for making this case is drawn from ethnographic material that I collected from 2012 to 2015 as part of a project with motorcycle taxi drivers in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. I conducted this research over the course of field trips in 2012, 2013 and 2015, interviewing officials in Kigali City Council (KCC) and other relevant agencies, as well as leaders of motorcyclists’ organisations, and primarily conducting ethnographic work with ordinary motorcyclists in a ‘popular quarter’ of the city (quartier populaire is a common euphemism for a poor district of the city). I did the bulk of my ethnographic work with a group of motorcyclists who congregated at junction in the area of Kigali where I lived from 2012 to 13. Here, the main tarmacked road into town was joined by a major dirt road heading down the hill into Kigali’s rural fringes. The junction was thus a major roadhead for the city, and an important interchange for local buses. At busy times, there might be twenty or more riders sitting on their bikes waiting for fares. It was here, on the stand, where I had the best opportunities to speak with riders informally and to observe and find out about their daily lives. This constituted the bulk of my research activity, later supporting a series of about eighty semi-structured interviews which I conducted in 2012 and 2015. My Kinyarwanda was adequate for day-to-day ethnographic work, but I was ably supported by a research assistant in conducting interviews and in clarifying the complexities of the language.
I begin this article by providing an outline of the motorcycle taxi business in Kigali as I knew it from 2012 to 2013 and in 2015. I then clarify the theoretical issues that the article deals with, fleshing out the suggestion that we should understand social life at a tangent to law. I then explore this suggestion through an analysis of the ways in which motorcyclists understand and relate to the very considerable volume of law and regulation they must deal with in the course of their lives. Finally, I turn to an assessment of how this material might lead us to rethink state-society relations in Rwanda and more broadly.
Motorcyclists in Kigali
At the end of 2012, there were about 10,500 motorcyclists, or abamotari (singular, umumotari), officially registered in Kigali.4 Motorcycle taxis are extremely significant to the city’s transport infrastructure, especially at night, when buses do not run, and at rush hour, when streets can be heavily congested. Most of the motorcyclists I knew were young men – the Rwandan government defines ‘youth’ as people aged fourteen to thirty-five – with limited education. Around half had rural roots, and many had come to the city to drive motorbikes, although most aspired to drive cars, trucks and other larger and more prestigious vehicles. Their backgrounds, however, were varied. I knew several ex-combatants from Rwanda’s 1990–1994 civil war, ex-houseboys and market carriers or thieves, but also high school and university students and assorted tradesmen down on their luck.
Despite their ubiquity, motorcycle taxis are a relatively new phenomenon, first appearing in Kigali soon after the civil war and genocide ended in 1994 (Goodfellow 2015). At this time, road and transport infrastructures were in disarray, and the population of Kigali was in flux. The urban population had both been sharply reduced by an outflow of refugees to Congo at the end of the civil war and increased again by long-term exiles from earlier political upheavals returning to Rwanda and settling in the city (Goodfellow and Smith 2013). Governance was likewise in turmoil at the end of the war. In this confusing and weakly regulated environment, entrepreneurs or ‘bosses’ bought imported Indian motorcycles, which were then arriving on the market for the first time, and rented them out to people who could ride them as taxis. At that time, the number of young men able to do so (with or without a proper license) was very limited, and as a result they could make a great deal of money.
As the country returned to stability, the ikimotari, as the motorcycle taxi business is called, continued to flourish, although according to the riders I spoke to, with rapidly growing numbers of riders, incomes fell and the relative power of bosses to determine the terms of their relations with riders increased. In 2012, the relationship between boss and rider was central to the social pattern of motorcyclists’ livelihoods. Most riders did not own their own machines, which cost around 1.2 million francs, well beyond the reach of most motorcyclists. Rather, they rented them, kuveresa, from bosses at five thousand francs per day. Even those who own motorbikes are always at risk of losing them, since they are common targets for thieves and quickly break down under the conditions in which they are driven.5 Overall, riders I knew were scrupulous in meeting their obligations to their bosses, even though many of them did not know much about the owners of their bikes beyond their bank details, having been recommended and introduced by a third party. Regardless of whether riders’ bosses were kin, friends, neighbours or almost complete strangers, motorcyclists almost always talked highly of their bosses as the people whose good will and trust made it possible for them to make a living. Indeed, from a purely material point of view, it is evident that the boss system is the practical basis of the ikimotari.6
With the exception of people who had previously held better jobs – as lorry drivers or police officers, for example – almost all the motorcyclists I worked with agreed that driving a motorcycle was a good job. They regarded being a motorcyclist as a skilled ‘profession’ (umwuga), albeit a dangerous one, rather than mere ‘work’ (akazi) or despised ‘odd jobs’ or ‘casual work’ (ibiraka). Indeed, motorcyclists’ incomes are potentially very good, although they have declined sharply in recent years as the number of riders in the city has increased. As a benchmark, most riders I knew expected to make a good income of around ten thousand francs a day or more if they were lucky, although actual incomes varied greatly, especially between riders who owned their own bikes and those who rented them from others. Their incomes enabled them in some cases to support large households and to buy their own houses or, in some cases, additional motorbikes which they could then rent out as bosses in their own right.
In contrast to the situation in neighbouring countries, the motorcycle taxi business is heavily regulated in Rwanda (Goodfellow 2015). In 2006, the government of Rwanda began to require all workers in informal occupations, apart from peasants, to organise themselves into co-operatives (Sommers 2012). Co-operatives, as defined by law, were in principle civil society organisations, which people were free to form and join (Republic of Rwanda 2007). In practice, especially in urban areas, they have been used as a means to control and oversee the economic activities of the poor and to render them legible for taxation purposes (Honeyman 2016). Since ikimotari has such a significant role in the life of Kigali, it was the target of particularly close supervision by KCC through a co-operative federation, FERWACOTAMO (Fédération Rwandaise des Convoyeurs du Taxi-Moto).7
While co-operative membership is in principle voluntary, it is compulsory for motorcyclists if they are to be properly documented, since licenses to carry passengers can only be obtained by riders who can demonstrate their membership of an appropriate organisation – usually a co-op (RURA 2015). Likewise, in order to join a co-op, riders must (in principle) be able to show a driving license, an insurance certificate (carte jaune) and a business tax certificate (patente) – documents that demonstrate their legal right to ride a motorcycle. As part of their role in the formal regulatory system of ikimotari, co-operatives thus vouch for the legal identities of their members, promoting the legibility of the sector. To reinforce this role, since 2012 the details of all riders operating in Kigali have been entered into a database, which also includes the frame and registration numbers of their motorbikes, as well as addresses and contact details of both rider and owner. Each rider is also issued a unique identifying number, which codes their co-operative, the area they work and the taxi stand they are registered to. This code number is displayed on a jacket that the rider must wear and on a corresponding identification card.
Such regulatory structures, however, are clearly frequently subverted, as the story of André’s crash with which we began demonstrates. To understand the relation between this legal and regulatory environment and the everyday business of riding a motorcycle, I first critique some prevalent conceptions of the relation between law and everyday life in Rwanda, before turning to my ethnography.
Law and Everyday Life in Rwanda
The state and its law and everyday life are commonly thought of as quite different in Rwandan studies, not only belonging to different cultural traditions but in many senses talking past one another. This perspective is evident in Christopher Taylor’s (1999) analysis of the significance of local ideas about pathology and misfortune during the Genocide against the Tutsi of 1994.8 Based on his earlier work on healing practices (Taylor 1992), Taylor shows that the symbolism of killing in the genocide was shaped by local understandings of the flow of life-giving fluids within and between bodies, and ultimately between the heavens and Rwanda in the form of imana9 (divinity). Tutsis, understood as beings who blocked these flows, were themselves blocked, at roadblocks or by impalement, for example, and eliminated – in a potent piece of symbolism – by being dumped into the rivers that flow out of Rwanda. This symbolism, Taylor (1999: 145) argues, was not ‘political in the ordinary and instrumental sense’ but rather ‘logically prior’ to this instrumental politics, arising from a substrate of Rwandan cultural forms of long standing. By contrast, he understands state activities including rules, regulations and orders as representing ‘power in its overt, ideological manifestation’ (146, emphasis added). State and law are therefore thought to be (1) unproblematic or transparent (overt) – that is, non-cultural – and (2) logically secondary to cultural life proper. State law, in other words, is not really part of everyday social life.
This modelling of the relationship between laws and cultural life is particularly significant in understandings of everyday resistance in Rwanda. Susan Thomson (2013) examines the post-genocide Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) government’s policy of national reconciliation and strict laws against ‘genocide ideology’ and ‘divisionism’.10 Thomson argues that peasants– not only prisoners or genocide suspects – generally see this policy and its associated judicial apparatus as an imposition. Members of the majority Hutu population, who have been made collectively responsible for genocide (Doughty 2016; Eltringham 2004; Reyntjens 2016), feel especially victimised by this process. This is especially true since they understand that, as Hutus, they are always at risk of being accused of harbouring genocide ideology or engaging in divisionist politics (Thomson 2011, 2013). Thomson understands peasant responses to this predicament through the lens of Scott’s (1976, 1990) notion of ‘everyday resistance’.
Here, despite Thomson’s attempts not to separate state and society, the notion of resistance compels her to make a strict distinction, quotation marks notwithstanding. As recent critics of the notion of everyday resistance have repeatedly remarked (Gledhill 2012, 2014; Theodossopoulos 2014; cf. Holbraad 2014; Pedersen and Holbraad 2013; Rollason 2017), Scott’s theorisation of resistance compels such a hard division between ‘the powerful’ and ‘the powerless’ because of how it imagines peasants to take power as an object of their calculations. They cannot be part of ‘power’ because they objectify and represent it to themselves.
acts that individuals undertake knowing that there is a risk of sanction from “the state.” This means not that individuals necessarily violate a law against the act in question but more simply that they take a calculated risk to maintain their position vis-à-vis the state. In the relationship of power, the dominant group will do what is necessary to maintain its position of power, which in turn gives the subordinate many grounds to resist the relationship.(2013: 15, reference omitted)
This problem is compounded by the way in which Thomson, closely following Scott (1990), envisages the causes of resistance, namely in the maintenance of dignity. With Scott, she understands the demands of the powerful – in her case, for unity and reconciliation – to result in humiliations of one kind and another, which directly motivate peasants to resist. Thomson (2013: 151, see also 179–180, 182, 186) regards this resistance as ‘a response of ordinary peasants to assaults on their dignity’. A peasant whose dignity is assaulted by laws, regulations and government directives is necessarily one culturally formed prior to the imposition of those laws and so on. Dignified peasants can only be ‘prior to power’, not formed by it; correspondingly, Thomson (2011) seems to regard a ‘sustainable’ life as one which maintains that dignity and therefore its independence from the state. The architecture of everyday resistance thus tends to produce an image of peasants and subalterns more generally as independent from state, law and government in a way that sits oddly alongside the notion that the Rwandan state ‘saturates everyday life’ (Thomson 2013: 8).
In short, the deployment of notions of everyday resistance involves a specific image of state power and law. This involves the strong presumption that (1) law is something imposed on ordinary people. Therefore, in many cases, (2) it encodes norms antithetical to the lives of ‘ordinary folks’. It follows that (3) the significance of law is mainly in what it encodes, its content, in relation to the different contents of local cultures. This stress on the content of law is consonant with dominant approaches in legal anthropology. Describing the functions of law in a broad, legally pluralistic way intended to capture both codified and non-codified forms of law, Sally Engle Merry (2013: 2) declares: ‘Law defines identities such as citizen or alien, allocates who can use which spaces, provides belonging through mechanisms such as birth registration, offers security of ownership to land and houses, and serves as an authoritative source for creating knowledge and history.’ Here it is clearly law’s content, the way in which it specifies certain relations, roles or identities, that makes it significant – either because it tells people what to do or because, as in Thomson’s argument, it opens up a gap between local life and the letter of the law.
Thomson is by no means alone in positing a hard and fast distinction between peasant culture and the relations, including law, by which it is governed. Both Catherine Honeyman (2016) and Marc Sommers (2012), for example, regard current regulations – relating to small businesses and housing, respectively – as impositions on everyday social lives that operate on rather different social or cultural principles. A similar construction is also evident in sources relating to the pre-genocide period, notably in David Newbury and Catherine Newbury’s (2000) account of peasant interests in relation to central government and the late colonial royal court. While in certain cases, especially where distinctions follow material and cultural divisions imposed by regional or class origins (as in D. Newbury and C. Newbury 2000), these divisions may be warranted, it is a mistake to assume they must exist (cf. Rollason 2017). It is true that the current regime draws its senior personnel primarily from a pool of Tutsi families who fled Rwanda during social revolution and independence (1959–1962) – the ‘old case-load refugees’ (Chemouni 2014; Doughty 2016). Senior government and military figures therefore often form a distinct, overwhelmingly urban and Anglophone cultural set. However, as Nicola Palmer (2014; see also Doughty 2016) argues, at a local level, ‘state’ or ‘government’ functionaries are very much part of the social lives they seek to regulate and control; the state can only be separated from everyday life as an abstraction, whereas in practice it is fully embedded in cultural life (Hahirwa et al. 2017). Law, regulation and government themselves might be better understood as being part of, and not separate from, everyday cultural experiences – and crucially to be involved in the formation of persons whose (culturally specific) ‘dignity’ must itself be bound up in law.
From this point of view, Thomson’s (and Scott’s) notion that humiliations, inflicted by an exterior law, for example, result in resistance arise from the ‘Western’ notion that persons in their ‘normal condition’ are independent, critical and active subjects (and not objects).
Western culture imagines people as persons existing in a permanently subjective state; this is their natural and normal condition, and a person can dominate another by depriving him or her of the proper exercise of that subjectivity.… Thus a person may be made to act in such a way as to deny her or his subjectivity and personhood. A subject can be turned into an object.
Such ‘dignified’ subjects do not need to be at the heart of state-society relations or the operations of law, however. Jean-Francois Bayart (2009), for example, demonstrates the ways in which African state systems operate exactly on the basis that the state is inseparable from putatively ‘private’ interests. Rather, he regards it as operating by a logic of ‘extraversion’ that uses every possible means to extend relations facilitating enrichment or other advantages. State power, law or regulation, therefore, are not necessarily significant because of what they say or because of how their content imposes, or not, on ordinary people’s lives. They are, rather, important for the way in which they enable certain kinds of connections to be formed, connections whose logic systematically runs counter to any distinction between public authority and the private interests of particular people (see also Mbembe 2000; Mbembe and Roitman 1995).
Such a predicament may result in very different forms of subjectivity and power, as Achille Mbembe (2001) argues. Mbembe regards the postcolonial African state as attempting to define and control the meaning of everything in the political and social spheres. This arrogant assertion of its supremacy is not, however, its real mode of operation, since its power is never transcendent but always brutally corporeal – commonly located in the person and violence of the ruler – and thus domesticated. This domestication takes place because, while the state attempts to be everywhere and control everything, its omnipresence is embodied in a specific person or people and made evident in violent and ‘excessive’ acts. The personified state (the ruler) therefore makes his way into everyone’s home, but not in an abstracted form. He rather appears as a person, with whom everyone ‘cohabits’. Practically, cohabitation with the state is actuated as a series of domestic or household relations, in a manner very similar to Bayart’s (2009) extraversion. Salaries, modes of sharing and gifting, eating and being ‘eaten’ and other forms of consumption are what binds political power together. There is thus a fundamental disjuncture between the appearance of statehood (the seals and insignia, the speeches and offices) and the bodily exercise of control. The formalities of law, as in Bayart, are always worked out in corporeal form.
In this respect, Mbembe explores in an ‘Africanised’ register Michel Foucault’s (1995; see also Mitchell 1991) observation that, especially in the modern period, law is not in fact the prime vector of social control. For Foucault, writing specifically of the extension of psychology and psychiatry into penal operations, it is not the ‘letter of the law’ but the practices that inhabit legally defined contexts and activities that control the shape of social life. Law may exist, but it is what is done within and around codified rules that is socially effective. As in Mbembe, this is an embodied and practical vision of law, a far cry from the strict separation between law or power and ‘everyday’ embodied people introduced by the notion of everyday resistance.
It is therefore possible to invert the three points with which we ended the previous subsection. Here, (1) law appears not as an imposition but as something internal to its subjects in their everyday lives; law is domesticated. (2) What law says or encodes is not necessarily significant; the extent to which its content is in tune with cultural norms is irrelevant. By implication, (3) what law says is only tangentially related to its effects; what it enables is significant. Thus, whereas Thomson sees law as an imposition on an independent social life, which opposes it through ‘everyday resistance’, I will make an ethnographic argument for understanding law as producing a social life in which it is thoroughly embedded and which does not oppose it as much as it is formed in a definite relation, tangential to it. My perspective likewise differs from Doughty’s (2016), as noted earlier, since my argument focuses less on the social productivity of legal processes, like court proceedings or mediations, and more on the capacity of illegal acts themselves to create social relations of certain kinds.
Crucially, this official regarded the ‘bad behaviour’ of motorcyclists as essentially a class issue. Because motorcyclists are poorly educated, often the sons of peasants or members of the urban lower classes, they cannot be expected to have discipline. This is a common refrain in Rwandan politics; the government and state agents typically take a paternalistic attitude, especially to peasants, whom they regard as ignorant and in need of education or ‘sensitisation’ to relieve them of their ‘backward mindset’ (Ingelaere 2014; Sommers 2012; Thomson 2013).
Most of them didn’t have good upbringing – because some of them are street children, others from villages or unruly children who come to sit and maybe learn how to drive a motorcycle and get a permit.… So: we are having all of those problems with them – we try to tell them to keep on the right side of the road, but they are not doing it – so we have many problems with them.
Underscoring the personal, moral message of his remarks, Jean-Baptiste concluded:
If you drive with two passengers; if you have no driving license or a fake driving license; if you take drugs or spirits – don’t bring me into that. That’s your mistake. I can come and speak for you, but I also have to look for your mistake. You can also contribute – if you see someone smoking ganja, call me or 112 [the police]. Likewise, if you see someone trying to abuse someone’s rights, call me or the police. Don’t just say that it wasn’t me and it doesn’t bother me.12
In locating obedience as a moral imperative – in the name of Jesus – and personal responsibility of his members, Jean-Baptiste’s address echoed official the official ‘sensitisation’ campaigns and enforcement of individual responsibility that are a prominent part of the Rwandan government’s development strategy.13
Please do what you are allowed to do; other things – don’t do them.… You have to be an example. Our co-op has only been working five months [KORANEZA was an upstart operation] – look at the speed with which we have worked – in the name of Jesus. I hope that soon, people will say, ‘Why don’t you work like KORANEZA?’
The policing of ‘bad behaviour’ in ikimotari, then, is part and parcel of a broader rhetoric that emphasises the definition of proper behaviour and its enforcement through regulation, much as Thomson might suggest. In the case of motorcyclists, this means obeying rules and laws and being subject to punishments when they do not comply.
In other contexts, however, motorcyclists said it was impossible to comply with all the regulations to which they are subject. On one occasion, I went out to a bar with Abdul (my research assistant) and a motorcyclist friend named Xavier. Xavier was talking about the problems motorcyclists can have with the police. ‘If you get stopped by the police, it’s a problem,’ he said. ‘If you make a mistake [ikosa] three times, they charge you a fine and take the motorbike – but the fourth mistake, they like to take the license and ban you from driving. That’s a problem because all abamotari have mistakes [amakosa].’ I queried this – why do all motari have mistakes.’ Is it part of the job? Xavier said that it was. ‘When there is traffic standing in a traffic jam, a moto will weave its way through. That’s a mistake that could lead to you being caught by the police. But it’s also necessary and everyone does it. All motari have many mistakes.’
The prevalence of breaches of rules and laws, or ‘mistakes’, amongst motorcyclists that Xavier pointed out is only sometimes an effect of their relation to driving rules. In many respects, it is conditioned by the structure of the whole moto business. Motorcyclists’ livelihoods do not materially depend on the co-operatives or other structures that regulate their business. Rather, the social and economic basis of the ikimotari lies firmly in Kigali’s informal economy. Motorcyclists’ simultaneous involvement in the formal system of regulation of ikimotari and an informal relation with their bosses produces a crucial tension in their livelihoods. While co-operatives may issue fines to riders without adequate documentation, a boss who is not paid is likely to take back their motorcycle. Losing access to a motorcycle is a disaster for most motorcyclists, who otherwise have no way of making a living. As a result, riders often bypass laws and regulations in order to ensure that they have enough money to pay the rental on their machines.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the loan of motorcycles between riders. At the stand where I did the bulk of my fieldwork, the motorcyclists, as noted earlier, congregated at one side of a junction behind a bar. Behind them, a grassy bank rose up from the roadway, up under the shady eves of the bar building. Here, another group of men congregated, lounging in the grass, smoking and talking quietly together, occasionally engaging one of the motorcyclists or another passer-by in conversation. Such apparently idle groups of men are a feature of Kigali’s popular quarters. Generally, they are made up of people waiting for an opportunity to work, often as builders’ helpers or in other ‘basic’ or ‘fucking’ jobs (ibiraka). These men, it turned out, were no exception: they too were motorcyclists without bosses and thus no access to motorbikes. These men are colloquially called abarobyi (fishermen). They wait until a rider they know becomes tired and needs to rest. This rider will then allow one of them to ride in his place for a fee (usually five thousand francs for twelve hours, or pro rata), turning over not only his bike but also his helmets, his vest and, since abarobyi are commonly undocumented and unlicensed, his documents and thus his whole legal identity as a motorcyclist. The umurobyi takes this indobanyi (that thing fished up) to work for a little money. In the process, he subverts the system of regulation of ikimotari.
Such relationships of mutual assistance are conditioned by the internal contradictions of ikimotari, especially between the boss system and co-operatives. Socially, as I have shown, a rider’s access to work and the rider’s primary obligations are not connected to the regulations that allow them to ride or to the co-operative they are compelled to belong to. In terms of how riders practically come to have work, these are secondary considerations, and often predatory additions to the basic social framework of the sector. Rather, riders are dependent on their bosses for work, and it is usually this relationship that motorcyclists value most highly. Materially, the boss usually imposes a fixed overhead fee of five thousand francs per working day, which must be paid if the relationship is to continue. Lending a motorcycle as indobanyi therefore represents a valuable degree of security for many riders, since it allows the resting time that all riders need to provide the fee for their bosses. Because insurance, a license and other documents are tied both to the rider and the bike, riders must also lend their identities if they are to lend their machines in this way – the subversion is determined by the pattern of regulation. In the process, the capacity of co-operatives to regulate the sector and of motorcyclists to operate according to the law and regulations are compromised. As Xavier insisted, all motorcyclists have mistakes.
For him, lending me the moto – he’s a nice man. He knows I’m a good driver, even if I don’t have a driving license. He knows that the moto will have no problems. He also gets a benefit from me. He worked during the day, and he has the versement [payment for his boss] already. I will have to give him maybe six thousand, which will leave me with four thousand. I will eat that over four or five days, just a little here and there to eat. It will help me so that I don’t have to beg from others. So, it’s good we are helping each other.
Law and Personhood
Correspondingly, another friend from the moto stand explained how, as a senior member of the co-operative and sometimes a security official, he could directly exploit the mistakes of others. He needed to do this because, at that time, he had no access to a motorbike, either because he suffered from a curse imposed by jealous people or because of his bad behaviour, depending on who told the tale. Speaking to me in hushed tones, he explained:
When they take the moto, it’s a big problem. If they take the moto for thirty days, that’s 150,000 for the boss and 150,000 for the rider which is wasted – 300,000 in all. That’s a lot of money, so if you are caught by the police, you can be willing to give a lot of money to the policeman just to keep the moto on the road. You can give five, ten or even twenty to stop him from taking the moto.
Indeed, people talk about the police searching for mistakes, looking for something to eat. Another motorcyclist, Serge, told me at some length and with great animation how he has difficulties with police officers:
For me, if you ask me the normal day, on the normal day, I’m just a thief. You see, as members of the co-operative, we are also allowed to stop others who are making mistakes. So, I’m just sitting, watching those newcomers. If I see someone making a mistake with a passenger, like riding without a helmet or a gilet, I can just grab him and get him to give me two thousand – I can use that to eat. If he refuses, I can show him this [his membership paper from the co-operative], and they will charge him more than that for those mistakes.
What all these extracts have in common is the sense that another person’s mistake can be profitable and advantageous for the one who can find it – and represents a corresponding risk for the one at fault. This is not simply an observation about law or regulation, however: it reflects Rwandan models of social relations much more generally. Such exploitation of mistakes, failings or difficulties, as I have argued elsewhere (Rollason 2018), is fundamental to much everyday social life in Rwanda.
I got stopped recently by the police, asking for my licence and insurance. Sure, I have them, but the police charged me a fine anyway. The policeman said to me, ‘Your boss sent you out this morning to get money – mine too.’ The police may be sent out to get money from folks like me. You can’t have everything. No one is completely acceptable [without mistakes], so they can always get something out of you.
People typically get along with each other based on an appearance of amity, undergirded by an acute sensibility to the risks of being cheated and the advantages to be gained by dissimulating their inevitable failings (cf. Maquet 1961). Popular wisdom has it that everyone profits not just from finding others’ mistakes and using them to extract material benefits but by maintaining knowledge of them as a stake or security in an ongoing relationship. An often-cited proverb holds that ‘the mound of earth makes the sweet potatoes grow’. The proverb means that by tolerating or not openly acknowledging problems or conflicts with others – the ‘mistakes’ that they have made towards you – relations can be created and maintained for mutual benefit. As one man observed to me, speaking of how he refused to act on conflicts with friends, ‘You never know – blessings can come from that way too.’ In this respect, it is notable that neither Serge nor the co-op security officer turned ‘thief’ describe formal mechanisms for enforcing rules, but instead discuss the extraction of money from other people rather than resorting to formal or public processes. Extracting a bribe or other corrupt payment in lieu of a fine can be understood as a way of ‘covering over’ a mistake – not only to have something to eat today but also as the foundation of a relationship that can endure as long as the mistake that causes it.
Xavier, however was keen to make me understand that he was not suggesting that Rwanda was a corrupt country, but in the process, he underlined the generality of this kind of relationship: ‘Of course, it’s important that there isn’t a lot of corruption in high office, and it’s true what they say that the country isn’t too corrupt. But corruption is there. But then this isn’t really corruption – it’s part of life, it’s just the way things are.’ The phrase Xavier used to describe the ‘something’ a rider might give to the police was inzoga y’abagabo. This is the slogan of Turbo King, the brand of beer that Xavier drinks, meaning ‘beer for men’. However, abagabo can also mean witnesses – for example, to a sale or in a court case. People are generally expected to give those who work as witnesses for them something for what they do. Local leaders are like wise expected to take this ‘beer’. In the most general sense, though, witnesses (or men) are people who see and know. Their awareness of what you have done binds you to them and renders you potentially useful in their eyes.14 Xavier thus meant to say that while this is ‘corruption’ in a sense, it’s also just part of life and the way things work in Rwanda.
You have to be cool with the police. Some of them you can joke with and form a relationship so that you can co-operate. Some of them you can’t. The ones that are cool, if you are cool with them, you can joke and form a relationship – maybe they can accept something. Others not. You have to try to form a relationship so that he can trust you and you can trust him – because he could go to prison for accepting something from you.
Life at a Tangent to Law
Here, the control of a mistake ‘legally defined’ enables André to make money by concealing it and eliciting pity. It also creates or reinforces social relations. This is evident inasmuch as he made use of my complicity in his mistake to mark my status as someone who might help him, his ‘friend’ (inshuti). From this perspective, it is impossible to see laws and regulations, or the state power that stands behind them, as an imposition on André and his social life – there is no ‘dignity’ or subjectivity here prior to rules. It is rather through the mediation of law as an integral component that life and André’s subjectivity and ‘dignity’ take shape (cf. Doughty 2016). Thus, the heavy regulation of ikimotari notwithstanding, motorcyclists’ subversion of rules cannot be understood as ‘resistance’ in Thomson’s sense. Such a reading introduces the notion of a confrontation between ‘everyday life’ and laws and regulations, proposing the independence of ordinary Rwandans as persons from the mechanisms by which they are ruled.
Those people we work with – they don’t know that I don’t have a driving license. They have seen me many years driving moto. They see me sitting there and they don’t know the secret – that the reason for having no moto is not having a license because of not being able to read or write. Only someone like you – my friend – can know this. So, they [the others] can have pity on me and they can really want to help.
Since André’s life takes shape in terms not of compliance with law but of a failure to comply, law shapes his life not directly – in terms of ‘what the law says’ or even by means of the processes of legality (as in Doughty 2016) – but indirectly or tangentially according to the relationships and connections his ‘mistakes’ with respect to law enable. Law, then, as in Bayart’s or Mbembe’s interpretations, regulates life not by encoding its rules but by allowing certain kinds of relationships to form. Law is thus domesticated in the fabric of social life insofar as people live or ‘cohabit’ with the state and its rules rather than have their activities determined by legality.
To return to the account of André’s crash, it should now be evident that reading it in terms of resistance is a mistake: law is not an outside imposition to be resisted but instead an integral component of everyday life. What is at stake in this story is neither compliance with nor resistance to law, but rather the control of the relationships that being an illegal motorcyclist can generate. Those relationships are conditioned by legality, but the law does not determine them directly. Rather, it defines a series of mistakes based on which relationships can be made in relation to the law. Thus, rather than seeing the Rwandan state in confrontation with its citizens, a confrontation made evident in legal and regulatory ‘impositions’ on them, it might be more productive to envision legality as a source of mistakes, productive of social life operating at a tangent to law
The research on which this article is based was partly funded by Brunel University London’s BRIEF scheme. I am grateful to Nicolas Argenti for his insights on an earlier version of this article.
The Rwandan franc, RWF, was worth around £0.10 at the time of my research. In a pinch, one can live in Kigali on less than one thousand francs a day.
Ordinary Kigalois normally express large amounts of money in whole numbers of thousands, so fifty thousand becomes ‘fifty’ in speech.
This is not a criticism of Doughty’s (2016) work. Many of the cases she studied related to genocide in 1994 and could not practically have been studied as such.
This is almost certainly an underestimate. Around one-third of the riders who regularly used the stand where I did most of my fieldwork did not appear in these records.
In 2012, some riders were purchasing their bikes from bosses by instalments, usually also five thousand francs per day. This practice (gupatana) had increased markedly by 2015, leading to a rise in the number of owner-operators. However, the short lifespan of motorcycles used as taxis meant that the practical difference between gupatana and kuveresa was limited, as by the time a rider came to own their bike, it was usually clapped out anyway.
It might be tempting to theorise the boss system in light of historical forms of clientship prevalent in Rwanda, notably the ubuhake system of cattle clientship (C. Newbury 1988; Maquet 1961). This would, however, be misguided and needlessly superficial. Most importantly, it lacks most of the crucial dimensions of ubuhake, especially its intergenerational character and its dependence on cattle, which, as Pierre Gravel (1968) demonstrates, were a highly significant medium of social memory in the precolonial and colonial periods. This is not to say that clientship in general terms is not very widespread in Rwanda (Eramian 2018); it is, and the boss system is clearly part of this wider pattern. However, while it is necessary to recognise that the relationship between motorcyclist and boss is not an isolated social form, it is certainly a mistake therefore to presume that it must be a transformation of some ‘ur-form’ of clientship in the shape of ubuhake, whose extent and significance in colonial and precolonial Rwanda is in any case unclear (C. Newbury 1988; D. Newbury 2001; Vansina 2004).
A competing form of organisation, based on trade union legislation, also operates and is the basis of FERWACOTAMO’s rival SYTRAMORWA (Syndicate of Taxi-Motos of Rwanda). The overall pattern and effect of these two forms of organisation are largely equivalent, however, and for the sake of clarity I focus on the co-operatives that claim the vast bulk of motorcyclists as their members.
The terminology of genocide is problematic in Rwandan studies. The Genocide against the Tutsi is the government’s official designation for the genocide of 1994, one that is also accepted by the UN. Critical scholars generally refer to ‘the Rwandan genocide’ to de-emphasise the overtly political claim that only Tutsis were victims of genocide or are properly considered ‘genocide survivors’. Since no part of the argument of this article depends on my taking a stance either side of this debate, I acknowledge the official designation of the genocide of 1994 but, for readability, hereafter refer simply to ‘the genocide’.
Using an older orthography, Taylor renders this word imaana, marking the long initial vowel in spoken Kinyarwanda. I use the contemporary spelling, which does not mark long vowels.
The RPF, currently led by President Paul Kagame, is the political party whose armed wing was victorious in the 1990–1994 Rwandan Civil War that culminated in the genocide.
The names of motorcyclists’ co-operatives are in some cases acronyms. COTRATAMONYA, for example, is the ‘Cooperative des Transporteurs Taxi-Moto de Nyakabanda’. KORANEZA is not an acronym, however. The name is rather formed from two Kinyarwanda words ‘kora neza’, meaning ‘work well’. Other similar names include KORANDEBE (‘work and I’ll see’) and INYENYERI (‘star’). Regardless of whether they are in fact acronyms, when the names are written, they are typically rendered in upper case as though they were. I follow that usage here.
Such efforts are evident in many aspects of life, but perhaps most prevalent in the institution of imihigo ‘performance contracts’ in local and national government (Ansoms 2009; Ingelaere 2011). These are probably most significant at the powerful district level of local government, where district executives enter into an agreement directly with the president of the Republic of Rwanda. Failure can have severe consequences for officials, who are correspondingly zealous in their pursuit of their targets.
Beer and other alcoholic beverages were, and to an extent still are, the prime medium of such relations in Rwanda (Taylor 1992). Today, money is more likely to cement relations of trust, but bottled beer bought in bars is still significant as a gift.
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