Vernacular Politics in Africa (1)
The republication of Jean-Franí§ois Bayart’s classic book-length essay, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly, is an opportunity to reflect on the hypotheses he raises and their application to Sudan and especially Darfur. Bayart’s book mentions Sudan only in passing but the scope of his ambition is certainly relevant to Sudan in general and to Darfur in particular. This is the first part of a five part review which takes Bayart’s themes and method, applies them to Sudan and Darfur, and provides both critique and elaboration.
Bayart focuses on the persistence of deeply-embedded patterns of African statecraft and insofar as he deals with colonialism and the formal institutions of the modern state, it is to the extent to which Africans shaped the outcomes and appropriated modern governmental institutions to pursue long-established strategies. (In this respect his is the antithesis of Mahmood Mamdani’s argument””and therein lies the major critique of his position. For example, while noting that colonial occupation represented a “total defeat” for Africa, he expands little on what this might entail.) Bayart stresses the ordinariness of African societies: “they are ordinary and (particularly) ordinary in their politics.” (p. 1). He sees patterns of normality where others may see crisis and decay: therein lies both the strength and weakness of his book.
Sudanic Africa and northern Sudan, Ethiopia, the Swahili coast and the kingdoms of the Great Lakes are excluded from Bayart’s account””implicitly because these places contain a “”˜great’ historical tradition of power” akin to that found in Asia (p. 35). This is unfortunate because it is precisely in these countries that the historicity of state politics can best be documented, and analysis of history best integrated into political sociology. I think that this is also leads Bayart into some significant errors, insofar as he fails to appreciate the ways in which those centers themselves manifest the “politics of the belly,” and also significance of the historic relationship between centers of state power (with “great” traditions) and their vast hinterlands, which include many of his cases. This contributes to Bayart’s failure to develop an analysis of war that is more than an unsatisfactory footnote to his otherwise rich account.
The State in Africa is a difficult read: Bayart makes no concessions to those who do not share his immersion in an extraordinarily wide range of writings (in French and English, though not Arabic) on African society and politics (though he could make more of his anthropological sources), nor to those who are less than intimately familiar with Gramsci and some of his more obscure formulations such as the “passive revolution”. Some of his targets are now historical curiosities, for example the debate over whether African countries possessed a “national bourgoiesie”. (For the student, a useful critical précis of the first edition is Christopher Clapham’s review in African Affairs, vol. 93, 1994, pp. 433-9.) Rather than updating the original 1989 edition (1993 in English), Bayart has added a new 52-page preface (superbly translated by Mary Harper) in which the author responds to his critics (including Clapham) and examines the question of whether the events of the 1990s and 2000s, especially the spread of electoral democracy, challenge his thesis””he concludes that they confirm and elaborate it. (For those new to Bayart’s writings, the preface should be read after the main text.)
Bayart’s central hypothesis is the ordinariness of African politics and its persistence. He opposes what he describes as the dominant paradigm of the “yoke”””the aberrant or exotic nature of African politics, weighed down by remoteness and the distortion of alien colonially-imposed statehood. Aspects of statehood that are commonly seen as signs of disruption, failure, or decay, Bayart sees rather as consistent patterns of political behavior, reproduced at the level of the village “little man” and the state’s “big man.” Factionalism is not something that happens only at the periphery, but is a structural condition at the heart of African politics: “the precariousness of national political equilibria is not a manifestation of the organic inadequacy of the State, nor even a supplementary proof of its extraneity. On the contrary, it reveals its narrow symbiosis with the grassroots that sustain it.” (p. 221). This is a bold assertion, close to implying that disorder in African states is functional (a thesis taken up by Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz in their 1999 book Africa Works).
Among the strongest elements of Bayart’s account is the way in which formal political systems and processes are intermingled with kinship, which he describes as an historic process of the fusion or “reciprocal assimilation” of “traditional” and “modern” elites. State and lineage are, he writes, compatible forms of organization (p. 262). The state resembles a “rhizome” with its shoots sprouting up everywhere, connected organically underground, rather than a “tree” with a single trunk from which extend the different branches of government.
This analysis has much to commend it in the case of Sudan. Politics is ordinary in a striking way: the “big men” in power in Khartoum and the “little men” with only local authority behave in much the same way, following the same logic of securing their positions whether to control a village or a country. At every level, every institution from the village or lineage to the presidency is factionalized, to the extent that this can be seen as the defining feature of Sudanese politics””elsewhere I have called Sudan the “turbulent state.” It is hard to separate the “customary” and the “modern”, despite the efforts of a prior generation of Sudanese political scientists and activists: the “native administration” and the “modern administration” are mutually assimilated. It is common to find that in a single prominent provincial family, one son is the chief of the tribe, and his brothers or first cousins will include an army general, a commissioner, a senior party member, a businessman and a professor””and also today a senior NGO or UN official. If the family is placed at a particularly strategic political intersection, brothers may hold high ranks in different competing parties, and perhaps one will also be an influential member of an armed opposition movement.
In Sudan, we also find multiple different institutions sprouting up, including security agencies and paramilitaries, ruling party task forces, administrative commissions, party- and security-owned corporations and the like, all of them connected in some way to the state. For those with a conspiratorial bent of mind, this is evidence for an all-powerful plot to control every aspect of society and conceal this sinister hegemonic plan from the outside world. Some domestic leftist critics have adopted a totalizing fatalism, concluding that any attempt to work with this system as doomed. For Bayart, the comparative sociologist, the proliferation of security institutions and the party and security inter-penetration of the business sector would be seen more a feature of the permeability of the state and its closeness of fit to the ordinary politics of society””an illustration of how local elites also use the state to their own advantage. Bayart sees the African state pursuing hegemony but consistently thwarted in its efforts to achieve it.
The reasons why Bayart excludes (northern) Sudan from his account are misplaced. Certainly there is a tradition of bureaucratic state power in the middle Nile Valley, long preceding colonialism, but in modern times those institutions have been infused with precisely the factionalism and reciprocal elite assimilation that Bayart describes elsewhere. More significant perhaps is the way in which Sudanese politics oscillates between revolutionary projects and the resurgence of the ordinary. The political career of Jaafar Nimeiri demonstrates this: he embraced a succession of transformative projects, each of which failed, and his rule ended up with the return to power of precisely the same political forces and habits he had tried to destroy. The radical Islamism of Hassan al Turabi is comparable. Moreover, these transformative manifestations are not a modern aberration””as the case of the 19th century Mahdist movement demonstrates, they are also an authentic African governmentality.
Bayart emphasizes that experiments in breaking the grip of customary governmentality have either failed or been absorbed by the old system. It may be true that the “belly” is the center of gravity for the Sudanese state, where it finds equilibrium. But the propensity to deviate regularly from that axis is an equally important character of the longue durée of governmentality in the Nile valley.
This can be extended to other parts of the continent, not least the places which Bayart excludes from his account, from northern Nigeria to Ethiopia to Rwanda. In each of these countries, from at least the Oromo and Fulani jihads to the recent revolutionary militarism of post-colonial liberators, politically idealist projects have recurrently, if briefly, captured social energies. At the moment, in most parts of Africa, we are clearly in a post-ideological phase in which “ordinary” governance dominates at the expense of the ideological””but in time transformative projects will surely reappear.
Jean-Franí§ois Bayart, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly, Second Edition, London, Polity Press, 2009.