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Systems of Governance

Fifty Years Of African Decolonisation

by Achille Mbembe (translated by Karen Press)

Here we are in 2010, fifty years after decolonisation. Is there anything at all to commemorate, or should one on the contrary start all over again?

Here restoration of authoritarian rule, there administrative multi-partyism, elsewhere minimal, easily reversible advances, and just about everywhere, extremely elevated levels of social violence – cyst-like situations, larval conflicts or open warfare – based on an extraction economy that, following the logic of colonial mercantilism, continues to favour predation – this, with scant exceptions, is the overall landscape.

In the majority of cases, Africans are not in a position to choose freely who will lead them. Too many countries are still at the mercy of despots whose sole aim is to stay in power for life. Most elections are rigged. The most superficial aspects of a competitive process are permitted, but the main levers of bureaucratic, economic and above all military and police power are fiercely guarded. For all practical purposes governments cannot be overthrown by means of popular vote; only assassination, rebellion or military coup can contradict the principle of indefinite rule by one leader. These blockages are in place everywhere, but especially in francophone Africa where electoral manipulation and father-son succession means that people live, de facto, under disguised chiefdoms.

Where are we going?
Five other trends strike me. The first is the absence of a concept of democracy that would constitute a real alternative to the predatory model that thrives almost everywhere now.

The second is the reversal/withdrawal of any radical vision of social revolution on the continent.

The third is the growing senility of the ‘black’ powers – a phenomenon that recalls similar processes in the course of the 19th century when many kingdoms, unable to negotiate to their advantage with internal and external pressures and the stowage to a destructive capitalism, lost their sovereignty and ended in disorder and fratricidal wars.

The fourth is the cystification of entire pockets of society and the irrepressible desire, among hundreds of millions, to live anywhere except at home – the general desire to defect and desert.

To these structural dynamics another is added – the emergence of a culture of racketeering, of bloody turmoil with no thought of the day after/consequences and which on occasion turns easily into a war of pillage. This kind of lumpen-radicalism, in effect a form of violence unattached to an alternative political project, is not only brought about by the ‘social juniors’ of whom the ‘child-soldier’ and the ‘unemployed’ of the squatter settlements are the tragic symbols. This type of bloody populism is also mobilised, when necessary, by those social forces which, having colonised the apparatus of the state, have made it into an instrument of their own personal enrichment, or simply a private resource or a source of monopolies of all categories of goods, in the context of the daily struggle either for accumulation or for basic survival. Having destroyed the state, the economy and the institutions, this class is ready to do anything to preserve its power, and politics in its view is nothing more than a way to wage civil war or ethnic conflict by other means.

These harsh observations, however, do not mean that there is no healthy aspiration towards liberty and well-being in Africa. But this desire struggles to find a language, effective practices and above all a way of translating itself into new institutional forms and a new political culture in which the political struggle is not a zero-sum game.

The violence of the ones with no stake (les sans-parts)
For democracy to root itself in Africa, it needs to be transmitted by organised social and cultural forces: institutions and networks emerging directly from the genius, the cultural memory, the creativity of the struggles of the people themselves and their own traditions of solidarity.

But that is not enough.

There also needs to be an Idea for which it is the living metaphor. Thus, for example, by re-articulating politics and power in terms of the imperative to nourish the ‘reservoir of life’, one could open up a route to a new conceptualisation of democracy on a continent where the power to kill is more or less unlimited, and where poverty and sickness make life so uncertain and precarious.

Fundamentally, to be radical, such a concept would need to be simultaneously utopian and pragmatic. It would of necessity, needs to be a concept of the limits of the political and of the politics of limits. At the same time out must be a concept-of-what-will-come, of emergence and uprising. But this uprising would need to go much further than the heritage of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism whose limits, in the context of globalisation and taking into account what has happened since independence, are now obvious.

In the interim, two decisive factors are placing a brake on the democratisation of the continent. First, a particular political economy. Second, a particular way of imagining power, culture and life.

On the one hand, the brutal economic constraints that African countries have experienced during the last quarter of the twentieth century – and which perpetuate themselves under the iron rod of neo-liberalism – have contributed to the creation of a multitude of ‘people with no stake’ whose presence in the public domain expresses itself more and more in the form of murderous episodes of xenophobia or ethnic conflict, especially in the aftermath of stolen elections, in  the context of protests against the cost of living, or as part of battles to access basic resources.

These are the people who have in effect nothing to lose, who have been abandoned as surplus to society – a condition from which they can often escape only by migration, criminality and all kinds of illegal practices. They are a class of ‘superfluous beings’ that the state (where it exists), and the market itself, don’t know what to do with. They are people who can neither be sold into slavery as in the early days of modern capitalism, nor reduced to forced labour as in the era of colonialism and under apartheid. From the point of view of capitalism, as it functions in these regions of the world, they are completely useless – a mass of human meat delivered up to violence, illness, North American evangelism, Islamic crusades and all kinds of phenomena involving witchcraft and visions.

On the other hand, the brutality of economic constraints has also emptied the democratic project of all content by reducing it to a mere formality – a ritual without content or symbolism, and even more serious, without real consequences for the daily lives of ordinary people. Hence, as suggested above, the inability to escape the cycle of extraction and predation whose history, by the way, predates colonisation. These factors, taken together, exert an enormous influence on the forms that social struggle takes in Africa.

To these fundamental realities must be added the large-scale social disintegration that began in the 1980s. This disintegration of society has led almost everywhere to an informalisation of social and economic relations, an unprecedented fragmentation of norms and rules, and a process of de-institutionalisation which has spared not even the state itself.

This disintegration has equally provoked a large-scale defection of numerous social actors, opening up space for new forms of social struggle – a pitiless struggle for survival focused on access to resources. Today, the squatter settlement has become the nerve centre of these new forms of struggle, which take the form of inter-molecular and inter-cellular clashes that combine elements of class struggle, racial and ethnic conflict, religious millenarianism and witchcraft.

For the rest, the weakness of opposition forces is well known. Power and opposition operation in terms of a short-term framework characterised by improvisation, spontaneous and informal arrangements, diverse compromises and concessions, imperatives to conquer power immediately or hold onto it at any price. Alliances form and dissolve constantly. But above all, the vision of power has hardly changed. The vision shaping politics in Africa is still that of permanent civil war. And for as long as politics and war remain linked, the potential for negative violence remains enormous.

Decolonisation and internationalisation
This half-century of decolonisation is not only an African affair. France, which gives the impression of paying only lip service to the democratisation of the continent, wants to make 2010 the ‘Year of Africa’. It has ferociously opposed African democratisation since 1960, freely resorting to assassination, corruption and force in the process.

Today France is still renowned, rightly or wrongly, for its tenacious and loyal support of the most corrupt satraps on the continent, and of regimes that have turned their backs on the African cause.

There is a simple reason for all this – the historical conditions in which decolonisation occurred, and the tax framework that governed the terms of those unequal accords of ‘cooperation and defence’ signed in the 1960s. It has perhaps not yet become public knowledge that the aim of these secret accords was not to eliminate the colonial relationship but to commercialise and sub-contract it, and in this way to enable France to continue to exercise an often negative influence on African affairs.

The USA does not actively oppose the democratisation of Africa. Cynicism and hypocrisy are sufficient to further its own interests there – as well as the numerous private sector American institutions involved in influencing the emergence and consolidation of civil society in African countries. The many foundations engaged in African projects are an example of this process at work. The moralising and evangelical nature of their interventions leaves a lot to be desired.

A major factor in the next fifty years of African development will be the presence of China on the continent. The Chinese presence is, if not a counterweight, at least a limiting force on the unequal exchange so characteristic of Africa’s relations with the Western powers and the international financial institutions. Granted, at present the relationship with China is hardly different from that of the model of economic extraction – a model which, combined with the predation also present, constitutes the material base of African tyrannies. It is unrealistic to expect that China will be a source of significant support in future struggles for democracy.

The influence of that other rising power, India, is for the moment negligible.

As for South Africa, it cannot on its own promote the spread of democracy throughout Africa. It has neither the means, nor the will, nor the intellectual resources, far less the imagination, to play this role. And it first needs to deepen the practice of democracy at home, before taking on the role of its promoter eslewhere.

The democratisation of Africa is first and foremost an African question, undoubtedly. But it also has wider international dimensions.

The route to radical transformation via social revolution is blocked, at least for the moment. It is necessary to arrive a at a type of continent-wide ‘New Deal’, collectively negotiated by the various African states and the international powers – a ‘New Deal’ that favours democracy and economic progress, and that can complete and close once and for all the chapter of decolonisation.

Coming more than a century after the famous Conference of Berlin that inaugurated the partition of Africa, this ‘New Deal’ would be linked to an economic drive to reconstruct the continent. But it would also have a juridical and penal dimension, mechanisms to sanction and impose bans, whose imposition would of necessity involve multilateral action, and whose inspiration could come from the recent changes that have taken place in international law.

This would imply that when necessary, regimes guilty of crimes against their people could be legitimately deposed by force, and the perpetrators of these crimes pursued before international criminal courts. The concept of ‘crimes against humanity’ should be given an expanded interpretation that includes not only massacres and aggravated violations of human rights, but also serious instances of corruption and pillage of the natural resources of a country. It goes without saying that private individuals and international agents could equally be called to account by such judicial mechanisms.

It is at this historical and strategic depth that it is necessary, henceforth, to envision the question of democratisation and economic progress in Africa.

Opening up the future once more
In the half-century to come, one aspect of the role of intellectuals, cultural practitioners and African civil society will be to help in articulating a concept of democracy that takes the current struggles as a point of departure, and in addition to ‘internationalise’ the question of African democratisation, in the spirit of the efforts that have begun in recent years to expand the role of international law in influencing national governments’ conduct, and that have led to the appearance of certain ‘super-national’ juridical institutions.

It is, furthermore, necessary to go beyond the traditional conception of civil society that has been narrowly derived from the history of capitalist democracies. One the one hand, the objective reality of social multiplicity must be acknowledged – multiplicity of identities, of allegiances, of authorities and norms – and, on this basis, new forms of mobilisation and leadership must be imagined.

On the other hand, the need to create an intellectual plus-value has never been more urgent – one which must be reinvested in a project of radical transformation of the continent. The creation of this plus-value will not be solely the responsibility of the state; it is, in my view, the new task of African civil societies. To achieve this, it will be above all necessary to move beyond the logic of emergencies (humanitarian interventions) and immediate needs that has until now colonised the debate about the future of Africa.

For as long as the logic of extraction and predation that characterises the political economy of primary goods in Africa is not disrupted, and with it the existing modes of exploitation of the continent’s natural resources, the opportunities to create an alternative future will be reduced. The type of capitalism that favours this logic forges a strong link between mercantilism, political chaos and militarisation of society. This form of capitalism was already evident in the colonial era, with the regime of concessionary societies. All it needs to function are fortified enclaves, an often criminal complicity lodged at the core of the local society, the weakest possible state and international indifference.

If Africans want democracy, they must be willing to pay the price. No one will pay it for them. Nor will they obtain it on credit. But they will have to rely on new networks of international solidarity, a grand moral coalition operating outside the state – the coalition of all those who believe that without its African component, not only will the safety of our world not be guaranteed, but our world itself will be impoverished in spirit and in humanity.

Achille Mbembe is Professor of History and Political Science at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. His latest book, Critique de la raison nègre [Critique of Black Reason], will be published in Paris in 2010.

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