Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rebels, Revolutionaries, Rappers

“Grinning, the rapper lays it down in a local Ugandan language: ‘I was given a knife/ I gave it to the people who harvested millet and they gave me the millet. I gave the millet to the cattle keepers, who in exchange gave me a cow.’ … To reach the farmer-youth vote bloc of this east African nation, Mr. Museveni, 65 years old, has channeled his inner MC: He has crafted his own brand of agri-rap to show he’s hip to young people’s concerns.”

So explain Sarah Childress and Nicholas Bariyo in their WSJ article about the Ugandan presidential campaign.

Hearing of Museveni’s musical strategy reminded me of a provocation launched by Jean-François Bayart that I always found searing. He argues that in Africa

“...democracy has shown its limits. It is, indeed, unable to incorporate either economically or institutionally, in terms of either education or ideology, the groups we have just mentioned, namely young people and rural communities, in spite of the fact that these two excluded categories actually compose the majority of the population. Too often it is war which has instead become the vector of their mobilization.”*

By rapping about cows and millet, has Museveni found a non-war solution to the problem of integrating youth and country folk into the Ugandan polity? The article suggests that Museveni’s raps are wildly popular, so the answer might well be yes. If so, the Ugandan case still does not disprove Bayart’s argument, for, Friday’s “elections” notwithstanding, it is certainly not democracy that has drawn in the dispossessed.

In the run-up to the Ugandan presidential elections, I read several accounts exploring the idea that Uganda might be the next to erupt in democratic protests -- 2011 could be the year of freedom in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya... and Uganda! I read those musings weighed down by a large dose of skepticism. “I doubt it,” I thought, and then immediately wondered why I lack faith in African capacity for peaceful revolution. After all, as recently as a month ago Egypt was notorious for its torpor, a characterization that today seems unfair at best -- perhaps even ludicrous.

Am I just another shill for the old Gluckmanian idea that “Africans are rebels, never revolutionaries”? That is, the idea that social structures in Africa are inherently unstable, but that that very instability and conflict is a functional means of re-establishing the system. Truly revolutionary change never occurs. (Bayart for one criticizes Gluckman for his “vulgar” emphasis on function -- efforts to prove the functionality of social practices often quickly become circular, and hence analytically shallow. But Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, avant garde post-structuralists though they might have styled themselves, had no apparent problem with it.) I hope not, but the idea remains lamentably seductive.

As I write, rumors place Gaddafi in Venezuela. The limits of his efforts to portray himself as an “African” leader have become exposed. Even his scores of African mercenaries (grisly footage here -- not for the faint hearted) seem not to have saved him. He is falling with the Arabs, while Museveni will rule on.

* Jean-François Bayart, “Africa in the World: A History of Extraversion,” African Affairs 99 (2000): 217-267; 227.

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