(African) politics

In 2011 I gave my inaugural talk as a Professor of Politics. Traditionally, these talks have served as an opportunity to give a ‘big picture’ view of something that matters in politics, drawing on a range of research interests. In a phrase, to ‘profess’. Having been professionally identified as an ‘Africanist’ by my colleagues, PhD applicants, and sometimes journalists, I wanted to say something about an innocent-looking little couplet that has been at the heart of my academic identity: African politics.

So, what is the issue with the term African politics? Surely, it simply means politics in Africa. We happily talk about European politics, American politics, politics in the Balkans etc., so why do we need to pause for thought on something so self-evident? Because the term African politics comes with baggage; baggage which, it turns out, is to a large degree tainted with all kinds of prejudice. Some examples: more than any other world-region, Africa is treated as a single place rather than a continent of over fifty countries that are extremely diverse by any criteria. Even today when speaking with people I have known throughout the fifteen years that I have been researching Africa I will hear them say when I return from Rwanda: ‘so, how was Africa?’.

You can only make this statement on the implicit premise that there is something about Rwanda/Cameroon/Botswana that is distinctly African. What might that distinctiveness be? Having read a tower of social survey materials concerning development and having spoken with many campaign managers for international NGOs, I think I can identify the usually partially-hidden meaning of Africa that pervades public attitudes. Read through the following list and ask: to what degree to these adjectives chime with the kinds of imagery and discourse of African politics that I have been socialised into? If you have spent your formative years in Britain I would anticipate that the chimes would be loud and sonorous.

  • Anarchic
  • Backward
  • Tragic
  • Violent
  • Poor
  • Remote
  • Marginal
  • In need of help

Imagery and discourse that embodies these adjectives emerge in the media, government, mainstream films, and charitable appeals. And, in case this sounds like intellectual snobbery (‘oh how ignorant or racist the proles are!’), it is also the case that academics, politicians, and development workers can rely on these tropes as well (I have anecdotes of conversations with aid workers, journalists and academics…). I am not interested in judging ‘ordinary’ people for supporting these kinds of representations of Africa. What I think needs attention is that, if we accept that these adjectives are the centre of gravity for how we fill the category ‘African’ with meaning, what does this mean for our apparently innocent regionalism ‘African politics’?

In my view, the most prominent thing it generates is a harsh provincialism, by which I mean a sense that African politics is profoundly different to other kinds of politics –our nation’s politics, perhaps European, ‘Western’, ‘developed’, industrialised and so on. Not only is African politics different, but it is worse: it is lacking something, it is dysfunctional, it is unstable.

There are all sorts of pernicious outcomes from this: a narcissism about the nature of ‘our’ politics; a coded racism that comes from phrases that include the plural third person pronoun (‘they are all starving’; ‘they are all killing each other’…) all of which are racial glosses of specifically the most atrocious events that occur in one place and quickly become African symptoms. The adjectives also serve as a shorthand for lazy journalism. Africa’s tragic and charity-appeal currency is evoked by celebrity humanitarians. In the midst of all this hubris of simplification and prejudice is a determined denial of Africa as a place with agency, complexity, or dynamism. A simple diagnostic of this: name one African who has spoken on a prominent African political issue – let alone of any other global political issue (and, one caveat: Nelson Mandela doesn’t count!).

All of what I have argued here is not especially striking and it does not really get us very far to repeat a now rather staid and pessimistic narrative about how Africa is represented. Personally, I have certainly had my fill of listening or reading research papers saying again that the researcher has discovered a bias in the way Africa is represented in the media or by charitable campaigns and so on. Repetition of this can easily become elitist and lead us into a cul de sac in which nothing much has changed since colonialism (a palpably false historical narrative in my view).

I want to argue that African politics is too important to be provincialised. The study of African politics is not the study of a different kind of politics; it is the study of pretty much the same general and foundational questions of politics everywhere. My argument is that there are many ways in which a more thoroughgoing connection between the study of African politics and political issues more generally would benefit the latter. I will be brief.

(a) Academic research has recently become more interested in ‘everyday’ politics and the ways that big political changes affect ‘ordinary’ peoples’ attitudes towards power or their own agency. This has been the premise for a great swathe of research in African countries for decades, producing empirically rich and conceptually interesting material.

(b) Especially since the end of the Cold War, researchers have become increasingly seized of the ways in which the old-fashioned notion that we all naturally live in stable nation-states can be undermined by secession, rebellion, and failures by government effectively to manage social and cultural difference. The kinds of tensions generated by these processes were constitutive of Africa’s post-colonial politics. As such they have generated a large amount of work on the varied and creative – and sometimes unpleasant – ways in which states have tried to ensure the persistence of their national projects.

(c) A major theme in political studies since the 2008 global recession is the politics of crisis management. At different times and in various ways, African states have endured economic crises on a regular and extreme basis so that the political economy of statehood and indeed people’s political identities have been profoundly infused with political projects to endure hardship, cope with uncertainty, and forge crisis response strategies.

(d) Another increasingly prominent theme in British politics is scandal and corruption. There is a sense that people’s political engagement with parliamentary and party politics have declined precisely because of increasing levels of corruption and sleaze. For decades,many African governments have reproduced their power in adverse circumstances by forging powerful unities between political and economic power. One of the most widespread and enduring political metaphors used by African students, journalists and others to encapsulate this is: a goat eats where it is tethered. The meaning behind this is that your political position defines your opportunities to generate resources for yourself beyond your salary. Sound familiar?

Identity politics, the ‘war on terror’, political Islam, environmental politics… name your political hot topic and the answer is the same: long-standing empirically rich and conceptually interesting research for decades on African instances of these. The provincialism of ‘African politics’ is not only a concern for Africa’s representation; it leads to a depletion in the quality of our understanding of practically all major global political issues.

And, I think I can push the argument a little further. Deprovincialising African politics would disenchant understandings of politics more generally. It would challenge the assumption that formally democratic government is by definition legitimate government, that growth automatically generates expanded social well-being, that nation-states are natural and timeless phenomena, that political identities are somehow naturally encapsulated by the term ‘citizen’, that government represents the national citizenry, that the business of government is about ensuring people’s rights and balancing the pluralities of citizen demands. All of these assumptions underpin academic and popular understandings of liberal democratic politics, even though there is a slew of evidence to suggest that these assumptions produce at most a ‘working fiction’ or ‘social fact’ which attains its power through the fact that it is believed rather than having strong evidential grounding. My understanding of African publics and their attitudes towards power is that people are sophisticated in managing both a certain kind of aspiration that government make their lives better or at least more stable whilst also maintaining a cynicism towards government and innovating myriad activities to avoid or undermine political authority as and when necessary. People’s political agency is not exhausted by citizen actions like voting and signing online petitions; it also involves semi-covert alliance-building, appeals to the powerful, ‘street level’ story telling rich in political tropes and a not insignificant vibrant and popular satirisation of power. It also involves protest, new forms of political organisation, and global advocacy.

In a nutshell, the best research on Africa offers images of politics as struggle; complex relations between states and peoples; an awareness that politics is both the distribution of benefits and suffering; a necessarily hybrid, vibrant, and dynamic exercise of political agency. It is a politics of coping, contesting, and enrichment. In the history of Western political economy, it is increasingly the perception that the ‘golden years’ of the mid 1950s to the mid 1970s were a historical exception to the ‘business as usual’ of global capitalism which is crisis-prone, unequal, and politically only as democratic as it is forced to be. The sense that the end of the Cold War would usher in a period of peaceable liberal democracy throughout then world was, in retrospect, a very brief and idealistic aspiration. Mainstream political analysis seems constantly to be seeking ways to escape history and the agonisms or real political practices, only to be at some point embarrassed into a revision of views. African politics teaches us that there is no timeless and natural political state, that any benefits of good governance and growth are not evidence that we have ‘solved’ political issues of legitimacy, equity, or well-being but rather that they are moments, outcomes of possibly hard-won change. Politics is about coping with hardship and instability, not only propounding plans for ‘brighter futures’.

In 2008 I presented a paper on ‘Africa and the global economic crisis’ where I argued that all of the excitement in Western academic circles about an end to growth, new forms of poverty, legitimacy crisis and so on would be tiredly familiar to any African social scientist who has likely spent her entire career in this kind of political context. In my inaugural, I used Morpheus’ dour pronouncement in The Matrix to sum up how that African social scientist might wryly address the Western political economist’s new interest in crisis politics: welcome to the desert of the real.

African politics offers a huge resource to look realistically at our politics – its dysfunctions, struggles, pain, failures, innovations, hybridisations, and empowerments – in order to develop ways to avoid veering between panic that everything is falling apart and ideological hymn-singing that good governance will ‘get us through this’ and towards even better times. And, if we take a more realistic look at our own troubled politics, we might start to see African politics in a different light.

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