No “Acts of God” in Central African Republic

In English and American law, “force majeure” clauses are standard in most contracts.  These clauses simply recognize that the world can be a chaotic place and that when a contracting party cannot perform due to such chaos, the lack of performance will not constitute a breach of contract.  Such clauses typically include a standard list of things that, strangely enough, are considered “acts of [an angry] God”:

The parties hereto shall not be responsible for failure to perform hereunder due to force majeure, which shall include, but not be limited to, fires, floods, pestilence, earthquakes, riots, strikes, labor disputes, freight embargoes, or transportation delays, shortage of labor, inability to secure fuel, materials, supplies, equipment, or power on account of shortages thereof, or any other cause, all of which shall be beyond the reasonable control of such part.

As Graeme Wood reports for the Atlantic, this concept is completely foreign to many Africans, where nothing happens by chance or act of God:

The classic study of witchcraft in Africa occurred among the Azande, who inhabit the eastern edge of the Central African Republic. The anthropologist Edward E. Evans-Pritchard found that the Azande attributed a staggering range of misfortunes—infected toes, collapsed granary roofs, even bad weather—to meddling by witches.

Nothing happened by chance, only as an effect of spell-casting by a wicked interloper. That sentiment remains widespread among Central Africans, who demand that the law reflect the influence of witchcraft as they understand it.

Although Wood’s piece on the law of witchcraft in the Central African Republic is short, it is packed full of observations simply begging for further investigation.  There is so much going on beneath the surface that it is difficult to know where to begin.

Why is there such enormous pressure to confess in witchcraft cases?  Why are there so many cases to begin with?  Why are most defendants from the lower classes?  How does the law of witchcraft ease social tensions?

These questions aside, there is the vexing matter of proof:

“The problem is that in a witchcraft case, there is usually no evidence,” said Bartolomé Goroth, a lawyer in Bangui, who recently defended (unsuccessfully) a coven of Pygmies who had been accused of murder-by-witchcraft in Mbaiki. Goroth said the trials generally ended with an admission of guilt by an accused witch in exchange for a modest sentence.

I asked how one determined guilt in cases where the alleged witches denied the charges. “The judge will look at them and see if they act like witches,” Goroth said, specifying that “acting like a witch” entailed behaving “strangely” or “nervously” in court. His principal advice to clients, he said, was to act normally and refrain from casting any spells in the courtroom.

This procedure has its own strange parallels in American law, and attorneys provide similar kinds of assistance, though it is usually couched in different terms.  More on that some other day.

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