In Alex de Waal's recent two-part review of Patrick Chabal's “Africa: The Politics of Smiling and Suffering,” he argues that the north of Equatorial Africa belt that Chabal excludes from his analysis in fact offers rich insights to corroborate and expand his argument. Rather than delving into the particularities of Chabal's points, which seem heartfelt and frustrated enough to make good fodder for an African Studies class, though perhaps at the risk of encouraging a bit of hubris on the part of students (he might inspire them to do things differently, and better, without realizing that his critiques sometimes verge on caricature), I'd like to discuss some of the material de Waal presents, because in a way it describes what I am hoping to do with my own research. His writing was thus both an inspiration and a reminder to get down to work – I have much to go before I pretend to comprehend these kinds of processes and mentalities.
De Waal draws attention to the ways that the areas north of Equatorial Africa were drawn into the world economy through integration into largely Muslim raiding empires. He writes:
“The characteristic form of successful Sudanic states was an assimilatory empire, managed through clientelism and organized violence. The trans-Saharan links enabled the states in the Sudanic belt to adopt organizational technologies that could allow clientilistic political models to function on a far larger scale. Paramount among these was Islam...At their zenith, the Sudanic and Ethiopian empires ruled their domains as three concentric circles. The inner circle was the fully administered territory, where a centralized patrimony controlled political life. In the second circle loyalty was bargained, with local chiefs enjoying a degree of autonomy, and negotiating their obligations to the centre. The outer circle was a zone of influence, where power was exercised by the intermittent use of force. The nature of patron-client relations varied according to the circle.”
In the outer circle, where force was used, the raiding party ruled. However, even in these outer regions the raiders would establish zariba – outposts for trading and pilgrimage pit-stops.