Vernacular Politics in Africa (4)
This is the fourth in a five part review of Jean-Franí§ois Bayart’s The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly. In this part, I address the questions of democracy, war and the internationalization of African governance.
In the first (1989) edition, Bayart argued that experiments in breaking free from the grip of African governmentality have “either not lasted a long time or have in their turn been absorbed by its practices.” (p. 268) Two decades on, in the new preface, he argues that his analysis is confirmed, and “the mirages of revolution and democracy have disappeared.” (p. xix) Bayart has little time for the pious hopes that democratic elections heralded a new beginning for Africa. Rather, he prefers to see “democratization” as the resurgence of old forces temporarily suppressed by one party states, and writes, “this venting of popular feeling was rapidly countered by the strategies of power-holders intent on restoring their authoritarian regimes with an artful combination of dexterity and brutality.” (p. xx) Where democracy made progress, he writes, it merely reconfigured the established grammar of politics: “The multi-party system was widely construed in terms of a form of seating around a table. “˜For me, that is democracy. Having a place at the table,’ remarked a Burundian civil servant, in a country where there was talk of the “˜ideology of the belly’ throughout 1989.” (pp. xxi-xxii).
Under this analysis, the internal dynamics of democracy are driven by resource allocation, and, pace Frederic Schaffer, the vernacular definition of democracy is fair shares for all. The question then shifts to how politics is structured so as to define fairness, and who should control the allocation of the shares at different levels. Hence Bayart’s discussions of corruption contain not the slightest moralizing: he simply explains the logic of the ruler, who has come to power denouncing the previous incumbent’s corruption, needing to steal more money than his predecessors and underlings. His description precisely prefigures the Kibaki government in Kenya, but whereas Michela Wrong in It’s Our Turn to Eat recounts how corruption largely destroyed that state from within and caused economic crisis, Bayart prefers to describe this as the order of things. (The imagery of eating and the belly is shared, reaching its zenith in ordinary Kenyans’ celebration of the British High Commissioner’s denunciation of the open corruption: “They may expect we shall not see, or notice, or will forgive them a bit of gluttony, but they can hardly expect us not to care when their gluttony causes them to vomit all over shoes.” (p. 202)) Bayart neither ethnographically nor morally blind: he is also co-author of The Criminalization of the State in Africa (1999) in which he describes (contra Chabal and Daloz) how African governments resourcing strategies have led them into symbiosis with domestic and international networks of crime. (This book warrants an update to take account of the penetration of international drug smuggling networks into West Africa, threatening to turn some of the smaller countries of the subregion into narco-states. Guinea-Bissau may be the leader of this phenomenon.)
Liberal models of democracy work in countries where control of state power is not a necessary condition for accumulating and securing wealth””where policy is more important than patronage. International policies of building developmental states and democratic systems assume that the kinds of governance systems described by Bayart are an aberration, and that these countries will resume a “normal” trajectory towards a Weberian state with a developing economy, given the right push. If Bayart is right and this assumption is wrong, we need to be looking for definitions of democracy that function adequately within African political economies, as they are. The vernacular definition of democracy as more-or-less equal places at the dining table is a good place to start.
We can see an almost exact transplanting of the framework of democracy-as-shares onto Sudan’s recurrent peace talks, in which the allocation of power and resources becomes the dominant theme at every level from the presidency to the locality. In the case of Abdel Wahid al Nur at the Abuja talks, the particular focus was on the compensation fund, which Abdel Wahid envisaged as a store of cash under his personal control to be dispensed to his constituents. His concern was with this fund””and whether it would have the $30 million offered by Khartoum or the $100 million he demanded””and not with the much larger amounts of money promised as transfers to Darfur’s budget for reconstruction and development, money over which he would have less control, or none at all. In the tradition of retail politics, it was the cake that could be eaten today that was the overriding concern. This was buying peace in the manner of Mozambique, where RENAMO’s leaders concluded the deal with the receipt of a cash payment and amnesty. (Such rewards for men who would now be described as perpetrators of crimes against humanity may stick in the throat, but Mozambicans have been able to enjoy peace.)
Bayart is equally unsentimental about what “democracy” means for the extraverted African state. “One might summarize by saying that democracy, or more precisely the discourse of democracy, is no more than yet another source of economic rents, comparable to earlier discourses such as the denunciation of communism or of imperialism in the time of the Cold War, but better adapted to the spirit of the age. It is, as it were, a form of pidgin language that various native princes use in their communication with Western sovereigns and financiers.” (p xxiv). In short, just as colonialism entrenched trickery into the political game, reliance on donor funds encourages a new game of deceit in which the state, Janus like, presents one face to its foreign patrons and another to its domestic clients. We are compelled to ask, is it the same for “peace”? Is a peace agreement similarly a way of obtaining an imprint of legitimacy while continuing to practice politics unchanged, rotating provincial elites in and out of government in merely another manifestation of the state’s ubiquitous factionalism?
Bayart is scornful of international efforts to promote western style institutions and political practices: “By head-hunting many of the brightest African intellectuals with the high salaries awarded to international civil servants, by celebrating the virtues of “˜civil society’ and “˜good governance’ and distributing largesse in the service of this cause, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have in effect co-opted and confined those potential counter-elites within a “˜legitimate’ problematique of development, i.e. the so-called Washington Consensus. In so doing they have done their part to promote a multilateralization of the passive revolution whose principal institutional and political vector is the state.” (p xxiv).
This provocative passage hides two interesting potential elaborations. One is the way that within a national territory, the international aid sector (foreign NGOs, UN agencies etc.) can become a kind of internal refuge for dissenters, who are thereby able to maintain their livelihoods and their (modernist) principles, but are also politically demobilized. In Sudan, large numbers of secular professionals, most of them unsympathetic to the government, find employment and protection within the aid sector. The government is antipathetic to the sector as a whole and does not like the profile and capability given to its critics, including their ability to pass on information and share analysis. But it prefers to have them contained within this sector, which can be monitored and if necessary dismantled at short order, than have them engaged in clandestine political activities. The government feels threatened by the activism of Sudan’s Anglophone counter-elite in western human rights and advocacy organizations.
Another elaboration is to observe that the national elites are themselves co-opting the international organizations, whether they be the NGOs operating in Sudan or multilateral agencies such as the World Bank. It is not only the counter-elites who seek employment in these agencies. Indeed Bayart’s analysis of elites questions whether there is any clear distinction between elite categories: all are subject to assimilation and factionalism. Some states (Senegal is a fine example) have proactively placed members of their educated elites within international organizations and have gained significant if intangible benefits as a result. Even when this strategy is not pursued consciously, the outcome of the penetration of multilateral agencies by African elites is that African governance and multilateral governance have come to overlap, if not fuse. The revolving door between the Bretton Woods institutions and senior governmental posts””including head of state””in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cí´te d’Ivoire provides a rich set of cases. Sudan has lagged in this exercise, suffering from its self-imposed isolation during the period of Islamist militancy in the early 1990s and from sanctions since then, and facing the educational legacy of a generation of university students taught in Arabic rather than English.
As Bayart notes, African states were multilateral enterprises from the Conference of Berlin onwards. The assimilation of African and international governance is not new, and we should not be surprised to find that African politicians, professionals and businessmen are any less proficient in this department than their erstwhile colonial administrators and metropolitan bankers. The constant cycle of cosmetic reform, co-opted to sustain a status quo, is as much functional for the multilateral donors as it is for the African states which are supposedly the recipients of foreign diktat.
War is almost wholly absent from the original edition of Bayart’s book, and makes only a passing appearance in the new preface. He correctly notes that wars are sustained through practices of extraversion””acquiring resources from a range of external sources””and that there are symbolic extraversionary practices too, for example Liberian fighters drawing upon American video heroes as role models. He also observes that war is an opportunity for states to carve out a protected space for sovereign action, away from the intrusions of international sponsors. (It is also an opportunity for counter-elites to do the reverse.) In The Criminalization of the State Bayart takes a slightly different tack, absorbing “war” within other forms of disorder and criminality: “Dissidence, war and banditry, the last a transnational activity par excellence, do not necessarily threaten the formation or existence of a state. They can, on the contrary, aid its centralization.” (p 115). He notes that the same elites that benefited from colonialism, independence, nationalization and privatization can also benefit from war and criminalization, and goes on to quote Olivier Roy: “the smuggler has need of frontiers.” But the short shrift given to war is an unfortunate oversight. African war has its historicity comparable to the historicity of the state, and one might construct a persuasive case that wars in Africa are the conduct of the politics of the belly, through other means.
Some of the “great tradition of power” states””Ethiopia and Rwanda for example””have been capable of conducting wars by deploying highly disciplined and institutionalized armies. These are the exception. War as practiced in most parts of Africa””Sudan and Chad are prime examples””manifests exactly the same characteristics as the politics that Bayart describes. The organization of war is riven by factionalism at every level (the Darfur armed movements are just one example; FROLINAT or the Somali militias provide other case studies). The typical mode of command and control depends upon extraversion: the commander of each faction secures resources and legitimacy from outside in order to be able to rent the loyalty of his subordinates, disciplining them solely through patronage and ad hoc reward on the basis of raiding, rather than through building a military institution based on loyalty to a cause. Traditional and modern elites fuse in the organization of war, manifest in the way that ethnically-based militia-cum-raiding parties adopt Anglo- or Francophone labels to identify themselves to the rest of the world”””Revolutionary United Front”, “Forces Armées du Tchad”, “Sudan Liberation Army-United.” The initials painted on battle vehicles are invariably in the Roman alphabet and refer to English or French acronyms, in places where few people read these scripts or understand the languages.
In many of these conflicts, peace is no more than another means for conducting the “war of the belly.” A peace agreement is typically an inter-factional deal, bargained in a political marketplace and dignified with a signed and witnessed addendum that contains solemn references to human rights, power-sharing, ceasefires and the like. Insofar as it fails to transcend factionalism, such an agreement is in fact a reconfiguration of factional alignments, necessarily excluding others, and thus simply displaces the violent conflict elsewhere. The process of negotiating a peace agreement can become a mechanism for extraversion, whereby the parties to the talks earn a rental income from the international mediators, both in the form of funds (per diems for delegates or a simple show-up fee) and an extension of recognition. It is a version of sovereign rent which we might call “negotiation rent.” When the putative sovereign rent from actually signing an agreement exceeds the day-to-day negotiation rent, a bargain may be struck and the parties may initial the document in front of them. (On the principle of a bird in the hand, the incentives for signing have to be significantly more than the rewards of the status quo.)
Bayart references humanitarian rent as another manifestation of extraversion. Again, his framework leaves open an opportunity for elaboration, knitting together various loose threads. One of these threads is his stimulating if brief discussion of homo fugens: the option of social defection by actors, placing themselves outside the state’s political obligations (p. 270). This is picked up in the new preface, where Bayart notes that flight is not disappearance but rather a mode of re-insertion, through connecting with the external world (p. lxiii). Link this up to the way in which humanitarian agencies target the displaced, and we see how even victimhood can be interpreted as a strategy for extraversion by the political entrepreneurs who control the displaced populations.