Ethics and Power in Africa

This is the first in a two-part review of Patrick Chabal’s book, Africa: The Politics of Suffering and Smiling . Part one is a general review, part two applies the account to a part of the continent that the author neglects, namely Ethiopia and the Sahelian-Sudanic states, including Sudan itself.
Chabal’s book is an essay more than a monograph, its aim is insight rather than theoretical argument or empirical demonstration. In this is succeeds superbly. The essay is a provocation and a perspective, the kind of book that only a scholar with a career’s experience can write. It is replete with straw men and gross generalizations, and Africanist political science is repeatedly caricatured. The book’s title is also somewhat misleading as there is not much about smiling, nor indeed suffering. It is more about what it means to be an ethical ruler in Africa, drawing upon the moral archive of pre-colonial socio-political systems. Central to this approach, more common among Francophone political scientists, emphasizes what Africa is rather than how it falls short of what it “˜ought’ to be according to an external normative matrix. On issues such as corruption, rent, and democracy, Chabal excoriates the political science approach (implicitly, the American tradition) that begins with the normative and lets all analysis follow from that. One suspects that Chabal would have little time for the UN Economic Commission for Africa’s Africa Governance Report or the Mo Ibrahim Foundation governance rankings.

This review will focus on one of Chabal’s themes, which is the nature of political representation and how this was transformed by the colonial interlude, creating structures for political authority that in superficial ways resemble both traditional chiefly power and also institutional government, but which in reality possess a distinct pattern. His key theme is how the nature of reciprocity has changed. Kinship translates into structures of obligation and reciprocity. This is neither traditional nor antiquated, nor a drag on the organization of political life: it provides the very foundation of a functioning social order and indeed define the nature of political power.

Chabal notes two aspects of exchange: tangible and symbolic.

“It is not just a question of leaders acting as Big Men – that is, redistributing to their clients what they acquire by dint of their holding office or exercising power – although that is clearly at the heart of the material embodiment of exchange. It is also a matter of combining the material and symbolic in ways that satisfy the expectations of reciprocity held by both sides.

“Such relations of exchange are unequal, based as they are on a clear reality of power: rulers expect to rule. Nevertheless, perhaps the most common blind spot among Africanist political scientists is the assumption that African leaders are merely corrupt dictators because they are not elected, or not elected properly, and because they ostensibly abuse their office. It is not so simple. What matters for members of the networks is less how politicians come to hold office and with what probity they occupy it than how they discharge their obligations under existing systems of reciprocity.” (pp. 51-2).

Chabal argues that in pre-colonial African societies, chiefs and followers had patron-client relations structured by mutual obligation, and that the legitimacy of clientelism as the basis of a political compact remains the bedrock of the common good. In conventional western political science, clientelism is seen as a purely private process, intrinsically antithetical to the generation of public goods including public institutions. It is grouped with larceny under the umbrella term “corruption” with all the latter’s normative force. Chabal disagrees: he writes not only of obligations but a world of obligation.

Colonial conquest introduced the idea and practice of subjugation without reciprocal ties. For ordinary Africans colonial rule was a double subjection, because Africans became subjects of the colonial power, while chiefs became the intermediaries of colonial power, sundering their formerly reciprocal relations with their followers. The link between temporal and sacred authority, was severed, and with it the relationship of accountability.

“Since chiefs had access to [colonial state] resources, they continued to command clients. Therefore, on the surface, clientelism remained as it ever was in pre-colonial times. In fact, it had mutated drastically. The patrimonial quality of chieftancy no longer rested on the legitimacy conferred upon it by the ties of reciprocity that bound leaders and followers. It came increasingly to depend on the chiefs’ capacity to distribute resources to clients. This change in the nature of patrimonialism, this move towards starker forms of patronage, had a decisive impact on the texture of accountability. Chiefs, who were now primarily accountable to the colonial state, lost their authority. They were merely disbursers of clientelistic favours, no longer the keepers of the socio-political order. The result was a thinning of the patrimonial relation and the gradual emergence of a non-accountable form of clientelism – that is, a clientelism narrowed to the strictly instrumental, increasingly divorced from the moral and ethical dimensions of pre-colonial rulership.” (p. 95)

This analysis can also shed light on the role of Christian authorities in legitimizing European imperial rule. Arguably, colonial conquest did not so much sunder the general association between temporal and sacred, as reconfigure it””the moral crisis of defeat creating a situation in which new gods were needed, in addition to but also more powerful than, the old ones.

In Chabal’s account, nationalist revolution further dissociated instrumental and moral. It put in place an order with no room for chiefly authority, forced even greater chiefly allegiance to the state, and commuted the clientelistic relation from the traditional to the modern sector, making the state itself the commander of clientelistic resources. Under colonial rule, material clientelism was confined to the intermediate and lower levels of political power, but in the independent era they reached to the summit of power, while remaining divorced from moral attributes and focused solely on the need for politicians to placate as large a clientele as they could muster. Chabal writes:

“The fact that this form of instrumental patrimonialism could be justified on the grounds of the letter of the “˜traditional’ morality of reciprocity did not obscure the fact that the spirit of such morality had been left behind or simply perverted.” (p. 96)

The word “perverted” is uncharacteristically pejorative: Chabal would have been better to have written “changed”. Traditional morality was of course never fixed, and was forced repeatedly to adjust to the consequences of events such as wars, epidemics, migrations, and famines. For many societies, mythologies of foundational catastrophe were based on real historical experience of slave raids, forced displacement, and collective survival against the odds (see for example Wendy James, War and Survival in Sudan’s Borderlands.)

Independent states have yet to resolve the challenge of legitimacy. National citizenship commands popular assent but remains an aspiration without practical benefit. On the other hand, clientelism continues to provide the basics of citizenship: belonging and protection””it “works.”

Chabal notes that if a fully-functioning liberal democratic order were imported, fully formed, into Africa, it is likely that Africans would be better off. But this has clearly failed to happen, and the challenge for scholars of Africa is “to understand how Africans make do in less than agreeable conditions.” He notes, “what makes the “˜modern’ liberal-democratic dispensation desirable is less its morality than its management efficiency in the running of institutionalized organizations based on bureaucratic rather than personal logic.” (p. 71)

Chabal’s discussion of rent and rent-seeking is refreshingly frank. “On this issue, again, political science is singularly devoid of any critical angle other than the normative. It considers this state of affairs as pathological and posits from the outset that it is incompatible with development. Furthermore, it assumes that rent-seeking is the mark of “˜traditional’ societies and that it disappears as polities become more institutionalized and democratic.” (p. 120). He notes that rent-seeking has become more, rather than less, pronounced in Africa over the years, and seeks an explanation for this. It lies in the fact that accumulation of non-productive wealth conveys status, and allowed the chief to fulfill his duty to exhibit generosity, as socially required, through festivals, shrines, burials, and above all redistribution for economic and political reasons.

Again, the colonial conquest changed the nature of rent. The non-material and reciprocal aspects of status became irrelevant, now that chiefs worked for the colonial authorities. Chiefly position became an opportunity for accumulating material resources only. Chiefs were bought off by the imperial rulers, given license to become rich without responsibility other than demonstrating the required loyalty to the occupier.

“In retrospect, the consequence of colonial rule was the notion that power conferred possibilities of rent-making that were not sanctioned by collective responsibility and legal accountability. More generally, it induced a mentality whereby all those who exercised some degree of power (e.g. interpreters) within the colonial administration felt entitled to negotiate it for personal benefit. This is, incidentally, one of the reasons why work in the colonial administration became so popular as a means of social and economic advancement.” (p. 124)

In short, the experience of colonial occupation introduced power and wealth with minimal social responsibility, and successor independent states maintained clientelism as an almost exclusively material relationship. Chabal writes, “The outcome was a form of modern patrimonialism, often dubbed neo-patrimonialism, in which the equation between power and rent was not questioned so long as politicians agreed to redistribute some of their wealth to their clients.” (p. 126)

I think Chabal’s conclusion here is incomplete. Surely, chiefly power was always exercised to personal benefit. What colonialism and the various post-colonialisms, have done is to reconfigure that benefit in more narrowly material terms, while the more recent phenomenon of globalization has made those benefits portable. In pre-colonial societies, exile was punishment that spelled the end of political aspiration and social standing, not least because social status and wealth didn’t travel except with a heavy discount. Today, wealth can be spirited away to foreign bank accounts, status markers are globally marketable, and much African political life is conducted among diasporas and in foreign capitals.

Chabal has much more to say, about the informal networks that channel power and the way in which modern communication technologies have strengthened these networks, about the human consequences of violence including the degradation of the human body, collapse of shared values and the breakdown of the social order, and way in which the de-institutionalization of politics that contributes to conflict, not as an occasional calamity but rather as an endemic condition. A wide-ranging discussion of Chabal’s book was convened by Critical African Studies. Also see my review of Jean-Franí§ois Bayart, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly at Making Sense of Darfur.

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3 thoughts on “Ethics and Power in Africa

  1. Your book needs to be herd across the world. I have done research on Africa with in this past week, and the same issues your book is discussing were some of the issue I learned. When a country is in havoc, the government always plays a roll in it. That’s what I believe, with such a government that is in disarray  people are fearing for there live, scared to use the restroom or they’ll get rapes. Africa need to crack down on there government, and this book needs to be read by the people of Africa.

  2. I enjoyed the review of Patrick Chabal’s book.  It is always so interestng to see political systems throughout the world and to analyze the way that they work or even how they may fail to sustain the people.
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  3. Political systems can be so confusing sometimes, very clear review of Patrick Chabal’s book, thanks for it.

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