Vernacular Politics in Africa (2)
This is part two of a five part critical review of Jean-Franí§ois Bayart, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly (2009), analyzing and applying the concept of “extraversion” and examining the historicism of regional political-economic orbits.
Another major element of Bayart’s analysis is “extraversion” of African states, defined as “mobilizing resources derived from their (possibly unequal) relationship with the external environment.” (pp. 21-22). According to this, external orientation, especially in the ruling elites’ access to resources, is merely the contemporary manifestation of a long history of extraversion, which dates to pre-colonial times. It arises less because of the weakness of African states vis-í -vis the external, and more because of the failure of internal consolidation in the face of factional strife””and in turn means that states do not need to exploit domestic production in order to obtain sufficient resources to rule. Pre-colonial states managed their unequal relationship with external powers in such a way that they were able to derive sufficient resources to manage their interior populations. Bayart also observes that extraversion gave particular symbolic political value to imported luxuries.
While few colonial and post-colonial territories map onto their predecessors in a geographical sense, Bayart identifies a lineage of governmentality throughout these periods. He writes, “The State in Africa rests upon autochthonous foundations and a process of reappropriation of institutions of colonial origin which give it its own historicity; it can no longer be taken as a purely exogenous structure.” (p. 260). The long-honed practice of political extraversion facilitated the domestication of colonial institutions and practices and can similarly enable the appropriation of post-colonial ones. “Africans have been active agents in the mise en dependence of their societies, sometimes opposing it and at other times joining in it, in such a way that it became an anachronism to reduce home-grown strategies to formulas of “˜nationalism’ or indeed “˜collaboration’.” (p. 24).
The notion of extraversion is helpful in analyzing the politics of the Sudan government and its adversaries. For thirty years, successive governments in Khartoum have played a weak hand vis-í -vis their international donors and patrons with extraordinary skill, turning the country’s indebtedness and dependence to tactical advantage. As Bayart observes, “occasionally the puppets pull the strings” (p. 26). The control of sovereign rents has been an essential feature of government. This is a modern-day version of how the Funj kingdom and Fur sultanate used their control over long-distance trade as a principal means of controlling their respective interiors. This reached its zenith in the mid-19th century when Sudan was an imperial frontier of Egypt and the Ottoman Empire. However, Sudanese history has also been punctuated by periods of relative introversion, notably the Mahdiyya and the years of revolutionary Islamism of the early 1990s, when external resource flows were at best minimal, though perhaps the moral claims of rulers, emphasizing theological validation, manifested an extraverted claim to legitimacy. The extraversion of opposition forces, from the Democratic Unionists to the SPLA to the Darfur armed movements, is even more striking. Taking the Darfur rebels, rarely in modern history can an insurrection have been so dependent on external resources and external moral validation. Indeed, the political demands of the SLM are arguably that Darfur has not been colonized enough. The Government of South Sudan is also a striking example of extraversion.
Bayart’s account of the longue durée also makes passing reference to relations among African states in the context of wider, subregional commercial arenas. Herein lies the seed of an account of how African states relate to one another on the same basis that they organize their domestic factional power structures: the politics of the ordinary at an inter-state level. For example, Bayart writes: “[t]he recurrent political crises which have embroiled Chad and the Central African Republic for decades turn on social relations whose form emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century in the broader context of the Nile valley slave-trading economy. One of the points at issue in the Zairean/Congolese conflict since 1996 is the return of this huge area to the economic orbit of the Indian Ocean, through the predatory activities of the Ugandan and Rwandan armies, a process which has now been called into question [by the 1998+ wars]” (p xxiv). By not dealing with Sudan and the trans-Saharan states, Bayart misses an opportunity to develop an account of the inter-sub-regional contest over supra-national commercial theaters: a missing sentence here could be: “one of the points at issue in the Chad/CAR conflict is the extrication of this area from the economic orbit of the Nile Valley economic orbit.” The series of coup attempts in 2002, which finally installed Pres. Bozizé in power, involved armies from both sides of the DRC war, Uganda, Eritrea, Chad and Sudan in the “great game” for the control of the central African hinterlands. The defeat of the MDC-Uganda-SPLM coalition and simultaneous triumph of the Zaghawa ghazwa, still tactically aligned with Khartoum and Kinshasa, served as a critical step in the countdown to the Darfur insurgency.
Equally important, however, is the question of how these regional trading orbits or inter-state patronage systems functioned during the pre-colonial era. Describing this requires a geographical expansion of Bayart’s account into precisely the areas he refuses to go, namely those historic centers of state power on the desert edge””the Sudanic states from the Nile to the Atlantic””that dominated the vast forest hinterlands. Among them are the Funj, Dar Fur, Wadai and Kanem-Bornu.
The greater Nile Valley commercial theater was at its zenith in the mid-19th century, when Zubeir Rahma conquered Dar Fur and absorbed the sultanate’s southern slaving hinterlands. Zubeir’s lieutenant, Rabih Fadlalla, went on to conduct a vast campaign of pillage across what is now CAR, Chad and Cameroon, before installing himself in Nigeria. The eastern half of this territory remained commercially dominated by Sudanese (jellaba) capital throughout the later 20th and early 21st centuries. The current conflict in this huge borderland is in part an attempt by the commercial-military elites of Chad and CAR, with the Zaghawa in the lead, to challenge this Nile-centered riverain commercial hegemony over the subregion. Their main modi operandi is the raid””ghazwa“”a transient coalition of mobile forces under tactical command, fast moving and aiming to seize, destroy and pillage. The target could be an army garrison, a commercial convoy, a camel herd or the coffers of a state. (See Marielle Debos’s writings on “ex-liberators.”) In the longue durée, this is no more than a reversion to the mid-1800s status quo ante. Bayart’s insight is wholly consistent with the implicit thesis that the enduring territorial organization of Africa is a handful of such commercial-patronage orbits, within which rulers negotiate a hierarchy or compete, often fusing their factions across artificial borders. If this is correct, the conflicts in Darfur, Chad and CAR will be settled only when a new commercial-security domain is recognized with its own center of state power, commensurate with the significance of this arena, controlled by a state which has established its autonomy from the existing subregional power centers. If it is to reproduce the historic pattern it would re-open the trans-Saharan route from Wadai to Libya, opened up by the Sanussi sect in the 19th century.
Linked to this is another idea, referenced only in passing by Bayart, which is the conceptualization of borderlands as arenas for political-commercial entrepreneurship, whether slaving and hunting (in the 19th century) or extracting minerals and timber (today), which enable sufficient primitive accumulation for the entrepreneur (or social bandit) to reinsert himself into a state””or indeed create a quasi-autonomous state. (This idea is given greater shrift in his Criminalization of the State in Africa, in which he identifies economies of extraction and predation, in which leading operators are foreigners and local partners base their careers on violence.) Thus, “[t]he young diamond diggers of Balundu, on the border between Congo-Kinshasa and Angola, conceive of monetary gain as though it were a hunting expedition, an idea congruent with a “˜dollarization’ of the imagination.” (p. xl) This is an abiding theme in Ethiopian historiography (Emperor Teodros was the prime example of a successful political entrepreneur-cum-social bandit) and indeed the fall of the Dar Fur sultanate in 1874 was the apogee of the political-commercial ambition of the freebooter Zubeir Rahma. The Zaghawa-led coup that installed the current government in CAR is a modern version of the same practice, and the study of military entrepreneurs in this region shows how the tradition of raiding as livelihood remains strong. The frontier is the zone for enrichment which enables the newly-capitalized political climber to make a claim back on the center. The astonishing economic boom in Nyala is driven in part by such commercial predation on the city’s vast trans-border hinterland.