"Any way the wind blows" - Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody
Suffering and Smiling - Being
One of the joys of being back in Africa is the stimulation to read and re-read some good books on the politics of the continent. Where the latter is concerned, I’m currently re-reading Patrick Chabal’s, “The Politics of Suffering and Smiling”. The book, named after a famous Fela Kuti song, was published in 2009 by Zed Books in a series that aims to, “change the way we think about non-Western political ideas”. The author, Patrick Chabal, died in 2014 and was a leading specialist on Africa in the mold of Basil Davidson and Stephen Ellis. Another book of Chabal’s, “Africa Works”, which he wrote with Jean-Pascal Daloz, made a huge impression on me when I first read it. The way it approached African societies and politics was a revelation to me and triggered a lot of thoughts and reflection in me.
In, “The Politics”, Chabal aims, “… not to construct a political theory of Africa but only to try to theorise politics in Africa – that is to engage in the theoretical discussions that can provide added value to our understanding of how power is exercised on the continent.” (p.2). The “demarche” used (more on that later) is very interesting as discussions and analysis of politics in Africa often seems to be a case of applying frameworks and theories developed elsewhere on Africa. Yet at the same time, you cannot help but feel that this may not be the full story. Without ‘exoticizing’ Africa too much, it’s clear some local adaptation is needed. (Whether it is best to do this at the continental level, Sub-Saharan Africa level, or somewhere else, can be debated and probably depends on what exactly is being discussed.) The books is structure around seven core chapters covering a range of topics important to politics in the context of Africa (Being, Belonging, Believing, Partaking, Striving, Surviving, and Suffering.). “In their own way, they [the chapters], mirror the cycle of life as it is presently experienced in Africa. They also chart the incremental complexity of lives as they are lived, from the consolidation of social identity to the search for resources and status…” (p. 23).
Looking at the first of these chapters, “Being”, the goal of Chabal is to look at how individuals fit in their environment by looking at origin, identity and locality. My goal here (and other chapters I’ll look at) is not to review the chapters as such but rather offer some personal reflections on some elements brought forward by Chabal. And in development cooperation, the assumptions and simplifications regarding ‘being’ are massive. Essentially, the assumption is the model of a Western state, with individual citizens and consumers. Hence, policies made by the government are those of the country and thus of the people. This, while it is clear that even high-level strategies, such as the Sustainable Development Goals or the country’s Poverty Reduction Strategy are hardly known or discussed. So where does this leave ‘ownership’? Currently the 2018 state budget in Niger has led to numerous demonstrations. Foreign donors support the government strongly, in particular in the current migration context where Niger has an important role, and the budget is submitted to a range of international frameworks (IMF, WAEMU). Do – can – African elites maintain the balance?
Another very interesting point raised in this chapter is the distinction between power and authority in the African context. “… in long-established and institutionalized political systems power and authority very largely overlap, though they are never equivalent. In African countries, on the other hand, the two are quite clearly separate… Not only must authority and power be conceptualized separately, they must also be placed in their appropriate context.” (p.41). This is of course critical, also in the earlier mentioned position of elites between donors and the local population. From this perspective, the current wave of Islamization (or rather, the rise of a version of Islam more rooted in Arabian Islam) is interesting. On one hand, it is possible that this is the result of the increased outreach by Arab countries through missionary work and through trade and development cooperation. The parallels with the earlier 19th century West African jihads is also interesting as they were a form of resistance to the colonial powers.
Niamey, Niger, 18.04.2018
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Online encampment of A. S. Barry. Disparate and not-so-disparate thoughts on international relations, development, writing, and life.