Africa: Politics and Societies South of the Sahara

Of Subjects, Clients and Citizens

Posted in African Politics, Culture, Global Africa, Reviews by ruben eberlein on April 6, 2009

Patrick Chabal‘s new book, Africa – The Politics of Suffering and Smiling, takes the reader on a journey into the deep structures of political and social action at the continent. A review.

patrickchabalIn the course of the two past decades, anthropologists and other social scientists successfully challenged the hegemony of political science in the contemplation about politics and societies in sub-Saharan Africa. The work and writings of Patrick Chabal, who is currently researching and teaching at the King‘s College in London, have a considerable stake in this development. Together with his colleague Jean-Pascal Daloz he vehemently criticised the narrow focus of mainstream political science in African studies, claiming that it only concerns itself with official institutions and formal processes. Their publications, Africa Works (1999) and Culture Troubles (2006), have inspired many academics to striving towards a better understanding of how political and social action in Africa operate.

The latest publication of Chabal, Africa – The Politics of Suffering and Smiling, smoothly builds on these earlier works. The first three chapters (entitled Being, Belonging, Believing) specify those socio-cultural basics of sub-Saharan societies that the author thinks relevant for a rewarding analysis of current political developments at the continent. In rigidly structured and easily accessible texts Chabal writes about the great importance of geographical ancestry and land, of the extended family, the spiritual relationship with the deceased, and much more.

These elements are systematically related to current political aspects such as the conceptualisation of the stranger – a highly relevant point for many countries on the continent. Chabal vividly describes the tensions between locally rooted modes of domination and subordination on one side and the rules of representative democracy on the other side. ‘Therefore’, he summarises the discussion of unequal exchange, morality and rationality, ‘the difficulty lies less in the inherent corruption of political leadership in Africa – however acute that might be – than in the systemic contradictions inherent in the translation of the local ethics of public virtue into a more coherent, national and long-term vision of the public good.’ (83 f.)

This is the ground upon which the remaining four chapters (Partaking, Striving, Surviving, Suffering) are based on. Chabal analyses how people come to terms with societies that are shaped by the dominance of the informal and patrimonial government structures. We are told how Africans happen to be subjects, clients and citizens simultaneously and what strategies they employ – informalisation, networking, migration – in order to cope with permanent economic plight. The whole text is pervaded by a problematisation of the often used dichotomy between modernity and tradition, one of Chabal‘s central themes.

This book is, for the greater part, a well-informed and fascinating contribution which is recommended to anyone who is interested in those societal and political conditions at work under the surface of current interventions like democratisation, the fight against corruption or state building in a refractory, persistent and powerful manner. It often meets its ambition to provide a ground level insight, that is, from the perspective of the majority that has to strive and survive each day in Africa. From the reviewer‘s perspective, however, some aspects of the book are debatable.

First there are those paragraphs that deal with the consequences of open and latent violence not only prevailing in war zones. Some crucial findings of the last years have been missed. It is beyond question that violent conflicts result in a ‘collapse of shared values’ and undermine ‘the norms and beliefs that sustain the place of the individual within a community’ (156). But the violent breakdown of a society at the same time produces novel communities, ideologies and social practices. This point is barely alluded to.

That is all the more astonishing given that some of the publications relevant in this regard are listed in Chabal‘s bibliography. Paul Richard‘s Fighting for the Rain Forest argued, for instance, that the RUF of Sierra Leone indeed had political ideas and organised itself as a community around a certain set of shared values. His book – like those of other authors who engage with rebel movements or militia groups – was suspected by some commentators to justify the actrocities of the Sierra Leonean insurgents. But it‘s not about how eccentric and perverted such ideas and practices seem to the observer. Richards and a number of other researchers simply acknowledged the central role that they play in the daily life of many people.

Moreover, the victims of violence and conflict often prove both the resilience as well as the dynamism of the norms, values and actions of communities in African countries. Life in refugee camps, in the diaspora or on the run continues despite all adversities and adapts to new conditions. The position of women and adolescents in society, for instance, changes profoundly in war and post-war times. Interventions such as the UN missions in the East of the DRC, in Sierra Leone or Liberia effect society and economics considerably. Some words on these facets would have been appropriate.

My second point concerns another void I perceived in the text, notably with regard to the sources of identity and belonging. Chabal notes like other authors the ‘nationalist paradox’: Even in African societies structured by a patrimonial logic there exists a strong feeling of national (and also pan-African) belonging. The nationalist upsurge in the Côte d‘Ivoire or in Zimbabwe, associated in both countries partly by racist or xenophobic ideas, is a vivid example of this fact. Nationalism and pentecostalism are discussed shortly, other possibly relevant ideas are left out.

Take for instance the strong youth culture: In my opinion, its influence on current politics in almost all parts of sub-Saharan Africa cannot be overestimated. A discussion of this phenomenon would have provided Chabal with more evidence for his argumentation against those attempting to draw a straight line between modernity and tradition. Highly politicised rap music and globalised ideas about individual freedom, self-fulfillment or gender relations merge in a certain way with ‘traditional’ norms or beliefs and produce new socio-cultural realities.

In Sierra Leone, for instance, this mixture revolutionised the chieftaincy system in the provinces. Whereas a chief in the 1980s often possessed almost absolute powers, the bitter experience of war and the youth mobilisation that followed it gave birth to an expanded public sphere. I remember two local councillors in the country‘s Kono district some years ago expressing their satisfaction with the UN organisations, international NGOs and others because they brought the ‘new ideas of transparency and accountability’. This cultural capital helped them a lot in their campaign against the abusive chiefdom authorities.

There are other pertinent movements and organisations about which a discussion would have been fit. The strength of trade unions in today‘s Nigeria and Guinea (Conakry) or in Zimbabwe of the 1990s proves that class politics – a category that Chabal completely rebuffs as inadequate – plays a role under specific conditions. The fight of the trade unions in Guinea against the Conté regime in 2007/08 is just one example. Wasn‘t it radically transcending the politics of kin, ethnicity and patrimonial reciprocity? Trade unions and lobby groups for human rights and democracy acted as a voice not only for their members, but for a huge majority excluded materially and politically.

Notwithstanding these critical remarks, Chabal‘s book is an original and highly relevant contribution to a debate about the limits and possiblities of political theory working on Africa. It explicitly seeks to stimulate and invite discussions about how the complexities of societies on the continent can be analysed in an intellectually enriching way. If it succeeds in doing so, it would already constitute a major achievement.

Patrick Chabal: Africa – The Politics of Suffering and Smiling, Zed Books 2009, 212 p. A shorter version of this review has been published in Blätter des Informationszentrums 3. Welt (iz3w), no. 313.

Photo: Kristin Baumert. Patrick Chabal at the Third European Conference on African Studies, Leipzig University, June 2009.


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