Vernacular Politics in Africa (5)
This is the final installment of a five part critical review of Jean-Franí§ois Bayart, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly (2009).
Bayart’s thesis is provocative, deliberately shorn of moralism and disrespectful of any political correctness. He doesn’t allocate blame because he doesn’t diagnose failure. He does not agree that “Africa south of the Sahara is being marginalized economically and … that the subcontinent is therefore subject to a political decay which is undermining the foundations of the state.” (p. xxxviii) To the contrary, what appears to be decay is just how things have always been. Taken together, the elements of the ordinariness of politics, extraversion, the reciprocal assimilation of elites, the rhizome state, political entrepreneurs and the factionalized struggle for patronage, constitute the “politics of the belly.” This phrase would verge on the offensive were it not for the way in which it resonates with the political vernacular. Moreover: “The expression “˜politics of the belly’ must be understood in the totality of its meaning. It refers not just to the “˜belly’ but also to “˜politics.'” (p. 242)
My main quarrel with Bayart is that, in his historicity, he downplays history. As Clapham argued in his review, with reference to Ethiopia, “its historicity is not just a solution, but also a major problem.” (1994: p. 439) The fact that a set of practices is embedded in history does not necessarily validate them as effective. Ethiopia’s long and proud history of statecraft is more a (part) description of that country’s political problems than a successful explaining away of them as an historical inevitability. In Ethiopia as elsewhere, managing succession has been one of the most difficult governance tasks, typically accompanied by bloodletting. Where the state has achieved a closer approximation to hegemony, factional struggles to control it are all the more bitter. In the Nile and Sudanic states, acknowledging the currency (in both senses) of the historic power structures is a requirement for a workable settlement but is not sufficient. Sudanic governance was a cruel and unequal affair. Slavery was one manifestation of this, and the hierarchy in degrees of citizenship that has followed the abolition of slavery constitutes one of the less palatable elements of the historicity of governance.
The historicity of generational change also warrants greater attention. Murray Last has described a cycle of revolutionary renewal in northern Nigeria, following a recurrent pattern of youth rebellion against a gerontocracy. Many political systems in Africa show patterns of long periods of relative stasis punctuated by dramatic change, sometimes in the form of millenarian movements, sometimes externalized into campaigns of military expansion. Because these are commonly brief and relapse into identifiable variants of the status quo ante, it is easy to dismiss them as epiphenomena. But they are sufficiently common to warrant analysis in their own terms with their own logic and lineage. The left-wing revolutionary movements which took power in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda are perhaps a recent manifestation of this, a brief flowering of radical change followed by a reversion to something that has more identifiable continuities with what went before. Nonetheless real changes occur, such as transformations in education and health, or shifts in the status of women, which can have long-term repercussions. Sudan has had both leftist and Islamist revolutions within living memory and despite the current exhaustion of visionary political projects, it may have similar irruptions again.
The logic of Bayart’s argument is deeply pessimistic about the possibilities for change, as he steadfastly refuses to diagnose “crisis” and rather sees continuity and function where others see disorder and decay. This is a salutary corrective to the tendency of many analysts to define African societies by what they are failing to be, rather than what they are. This approach generated stringent criticism of the first edition of The State in Africa, to which Bayart’s new preface is a long “I told you so” riposte.
Bayart concedes in passing that African politics is “capable of change one day. Seen in this light, the long-term prison sentence is more like probation.” (p. 270). He sees urbanization and technological change (especially communications technology) as possible drivers of real change, loosening political controls and increasing the options for ordinary people. But Bayart’s account leaves these ideas as orphans and does not develop them. Moreover, his fear of the ungovernability of African cities, dominated by poorly-socialized youth, seems in retrospect to be more like the intellectually lazy generalities he delights in puncturing, than one of his considered insights. Most African wars are still fought in the countryside. Even when urban, they resemble less the chaos forecast by Robert Kaplan in “The Coming Anarchy” and more a familiar form of La guerre du ventre in post-modern uniform. In Monrovia or Brazzaville, even in Mogadishu, episodes of intense urban warfare have been relatively rare. More often, when war comes to the cities, it is often in the form of raids (N’djamena in 1980, 1983, 1990 and 2008, Omdurman in 1976 and 2008) or brief but vicious purges (Luanda, Abidjan, Kinshasa). Cities like Khartoum are notable for the absence of conflict among factionalized elites whose followers regularly kill one another in the provinces.
In speculating about where change may come from, Bayart is groping in the dark. His thesis frames the constraints on change and leaves out than the opportunities. Given that historical changes have occurred””including important transformations of political life in the pre-colonial era””we might hope for some clues as to the historicity of such change. The urbanization of Africa is an epochal change. And perhaps the grammar of extraversion and the interpenetration of African and global governmentality give an unexpected hint that this change may come in part from outside the continent””perhaps from the diaspora of Africans in the international governance system. That would be an ironic conclusion.
Stimulating in its complete absence of moralising, and its commensurate ability to put aside any normative spectacles and instead interpret African political societies in their own terms, Bayart’s book stands as a classic twenty years on. The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly is incomplete, strays down some erroneous paths, but it is essential reading. More than that: it is a useful book.