Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Chabal and de Waal...and me(?)

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.

In summary, pre-colonial chiefly administration in the Sudanic states was more instrumental in support of a power hierarchy than the world of reciprocal obligation described by Chabal for elsewhere in Africa.”

However, this is where I – who has yet to be able to access Chabal's book and so am relying on the reviews I've found to form my analysis – would tweak both Chabal's and de Waal's points. The world of reciprocal obligation “perverted” (yes, Chabal uses this word) by colonial command-and-control may once have existed, but in many places it had already been profoundly re-shaped by the kinds of raiding and integration that de Waal describes by the time the Europeans set up a physical presence on the continent. Across Africa in the late 19th century, raiders transformed the political, economic and social landscape. From Tippu Tip, who traded and raided from his base on Zanzibar far into Central Africa to Senoussi, sultan of Dar-al-Kuti (where I'm doing my research, in the north of modern-day CAR) to the Chamba expansion in Nigeria, these transformations, which in some instances represented a form of colonialism and in others terror, have, in my opinion, been neglected in the midst of the contemporary emphasis on the lasting effects of European colonialism. I'm curious to see the ways in which this raiding colonialism, which in CAR coexisted with French colonialism for a couple of decades, has affected the political repertoire of current leaders and the expectations of the governed. CAR is an ideal place to carry out this project because the colonial administration was so half-hearted, victim of continual budget cuts, and the French even ruled through the raiding sultans for several decades.

As a part-time historian at best, I find it challenging to delineate precisely how the political life of a century ago has influenced the reality today. One could argue, for instance, that the CAR state fits the model of three circles rule: the elite form the first circle; urban residents – because of their potential for disorder – the second; and the hinterlands, whose residents are generally ignored except when they are attacked, the third. But that seems possibly too facile. On top of that, educated people tend to be sufficiently familiar with the anodyne “good governance” platitudes hammered home by UN and other aid programming that they stick to that script instead of delving into the actual workings of the political system here.

In any event, if anyone has any tips or reading suggestions, I'm all ears.


  1. Herbst's States and Power in Africa covers some of these questions, of course, albeit in a less constructivist manner than Chabal (and with a controversial conclusion). Have you read any of Christopher Clapham's work on African states and sovereignty?

  2. Thanks for the tips! I am familiar with those you mentioned, but not as closely as I should be...looking forward to being within hundreds (or even thousands) of miles of a library again!