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Vernacular Politics in Africa



The State in AfricaThe republication of Jean-François Bayart’s classic book-length essay, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly, is an opportunity to reflect on the hypotheses he raises and their application to Sudan and especially Darfur.  Bayart’s book mentions Sudan only in passing but the scope of his ambition is certainly relevant to Sudan in general and to Darfur in particular.  This is the first part of a five-part review which takes Bayart’s themes and method, applies them to Sudan and Darfur, and provides both critique and elaboration.

Bayart focuses on the persistence of deeply-embedded patterns of African statecraft, and, insofar as he deals with colonialism and the formal institutions of the modern state, it is to the extent to which Africans shaped the outcomes and appropriated modern governmental institutions to pursue long-established strategies.  (In this respect his is the antithesis of Mahmood Mamdani’s argument — and therein lies the major critique of his position.  For example, while noting that colonial occupation represented a “total defeat” for Africa, he expands little on what this might entail.)  Bayart stresses the ordinariness of African societies: “they are ordinary and (particularly) ordinary in their politics” (p. 1).  He sees patterns of normality where others may see crisis and decay: therein lies both the strength and weakness of his book.

Sudanic Africa and northern Sudan, Ethiopia, the Swahili coast, and the kingdoms of the Great Lakes are excluded from Bayart’s account — implicitly because these places contain a “‘great’ historical tradition of power” akin to that found in Asia (p. 35).  This is unfortunate because it is precisely in these countries that the historicity of state politics can best be documented and analysis of history best integrated into political sociology.  I think that this also leads Bayart into some significant errors, insofar as he fails to appreciate the ways in which those centers themselves manifest the “politics of the belly” and also significance of the historic relationship between centers of state power (with “great” traditions) and their vast hinterlands, which include many of his cases.  This contributes to Bayart’s failure to develop an analysis of war that is more than an unsatisfactory footnote to his otherwise rich account.

The State in Africa is a difficult read: Bayart makes no concessions to those who do not share his immersion in an extraordinarily wide range of writings (in French and English, though not Arabic) on African society and politics (though he could make more of his anthropological sources), nor to those who are less than intimately familiar with Gramsci and some of his more obscure formulations such as the “passive revolution.”  Some of his targets are now historical curiosities, for example the debate over whether African countries possessed a “national bourgeoisie.”  (For the student, a useful critical précis of the first edition is Christopher Clapham’s review in African Affairs, vol. 93, 1994, pp. 433-9.)  Rather than updating the original 1989 edition (1993 in English), Bayart has added a new 52-page preface (superbly translated by Mary Harper) in which the author responds to his critics (including Clapham) and examines the question of whether the events of the 1990s and 2000s, especially the spread of electoral democracy, challenge his thesis — he concludes that they confirm and elaborate it.  (For those new to Bayart’s writings, the preface should be read after the main text.)

Bayart’s central hypothesis is the ordinariness of African politics and its persistence.  He opposes what he describes as the dominant paradigm of the “yoke” — the aberrant or exotic nature of African politics, weighed down by remoteness and the distortion of alien colonially-imposed statehood.  Aspects of statehood that are commonly seen as signs of disruption, failure, or decay, Bayart sees rather as consistent patterns of political behavior, reproduced at the level of the village “little man” and the state’s “big man.”  Factionalism is not something that happens only at the periphery, but is a structural condition at the heart of African politics: “the precariousness of national political equilibria is not a manifestation of the organic inadequacy of the State, nor even a supplementary proof of its extraneity.  On the contrary, it reveals its narrow symbiosis with the grassroots that sustain it” (p. 221).  This is a bold assertion, close to implying that disorder in African states is functional (a thesis taken up by Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz in their 1999 book Africa Works).

Among the strongest elements of Bayart’s account is the way in which formal political systems and processes are intermingled with kinship, which he describes as an historic process of the fusion or “reciprocal assimilation” of “traditional” and “modern” elites.  State and lineage are, he writes, compatible forms of organization (p. 262).  The state resembles a “rhizome” with its shoots sprouting up everywhere, connected organically underground, rather than a “tree” with a single trunk from which extend the different branches of government.

This analysis has much to commend it in the case of Sudan.  Politics is ordinary in a striking way: the “big men” in power in Khartoum and the “little men” with only local authority behave in much the same way, following the same logic of securing their positions whether to control a village or a country.  At every level, every institution from the village or lineage to the presidency is factionalized, to the extent that this can be seen as the defining feature of Sudanese politics — elsewhere I have called Sudan the “turbulent state.”  It is hard to separate the “customary” and the “modern,” despite the efforts of a prior generation of Sudanese political scientists and activists: the “native administration” and the “modern administration” are mutually assimilated.  It is common to find that in a single prominent provincial family, one son is the chief of the tribe, and his brothers or first cousins will include an army general, a commissioner, a senior party member, a businessman, and a professor — and also today a senior NGO or UN official.  If the family is placed at a particularly strategic political intersection, brothers may hold high ranks in different competing parties, and perhaps one will also be an influential member of an armed opposition movement.

In Sudan, we also find multiple different institutions sprouting up, including security agencies and paramilitaries, ruling-party task forces, administrative commissions, party- and security-owned corporations and the like, all of them connected in some way to the state.  For those with a conspiratorial bent of mind, this is evidence for an all-powerful plot to control every aspect of society and conceal this sinister hegemonic plan from the outside world.  Some domestic leftist critics have adopted a totalizing fatalism, concluding that any attempt to work with this system as doomed.  For Bayart, the comparative sociologist, the proliferation of security institutions and the party and security inter-penetration of the business sector would be seen more a feature of the permeability of the state and its closeness of fit to the ordinary politics of society — an illustration of how local elites also use the state to their own advantage.  Bayart sees the African state pursuing hegemony but consistently thwarted in its efforts to achieve it.

The reasons why Bayart excludes (northern) Sudan from his account are misplaced.  Certainly there is a tradition of bureaucratic state power in the middle Nile Valley, long preceding colonialism, but in modern times those institutions have been infused with precisely the factionalism and reciprocal elite assimilation that Bayart describes elsewhere.  More significant perhaps is the way in which Sudanese politics oscillates between revolutionary projects and the resurgence of the ordinary.  The political career of Jaafar Nimeiri demonstrates this: he embraced a succession of transformative projects, each of which failed, and his rule ended up with the return to power of precisely the same political forces and habits he had tried to destroy.  The radical Islamism of Hassan al Turabi is comparable.  Moreover, these transformative manifestations are not a modern aberration — as the case of the 19th century Mahdist movement demonstrates, they are also an authentic African governmentality.

Bayart emphasizes that experiments in breaking the grip of customary governmentality have either failed or been absorbed by the old system.  It may be true that the “belly” is the center of gravity for the Sudanese state, where it finds equilibrium.  But the propensity to deviate regularly from that axis is an equally important character of the longue durée of governmentality in the Nile valley.

This can be extended to other parts of the continent, not least the places which Bayart excludes from his account, from northern Nigeria to Ethiopia to Rwanda.  In each of these countries, from at least the Oromo and Fulani jihads to the recent revolutionary militarism of post-colonial liberators, politically idealist projects have recurrently, if briefly, captured social energies.  At the moment, in most parts of Africa, we are clearly in a post-ideological phase in which “ordinary” governance dominates at the expense of the ideological — but in time transformative projects will surely reappear.


Another major element of Bayart’s analysis is “extraversion” of African states, defined as “mobilizing resources derived from their (possibly unequal) relationship with the external environment” (pp. 21-22).  According to this, external orientation, especially in the ruling elites’ access to resources, is merely the contemporary manifestation of a long history of extraversion, which dates to pre-colonial times.  It arises less because of the weakness of African states vis-à-vis the external, and more because of the failure of internal consolidation in the face of factional strife — and in turn means that states do not need to exploit domestic production in order to obtain sufficient resources to rule.  Pre-colonial states managed their unequal relationship with external powers in such a way that they were able to derive sufficient resources to manage their interior populations.  Bayart also observes that extraversion gave particular symbolic political value to imported luxuries.

While few colonial and post-colonial territories map onto their predecessors in a geographical sense, Bayart identifies a lineage of governmentality throughout these periods.  He writes, “The State in Africa rests upon autochthonous foundations and a process of reappropriation of institutions of colonial origin which give it its own historicity; it can no longer be taken as a purely exogenous structure” (p. 260).  The long-honed practice of political extraversion facilitated the domestication of colonial institutions and practices and can similarly enable the appropriation of post-colonial ones.  “Africans have been active agents in the mise en dependence of their societies, sometimes opposing it and at other times joining in it, in such a way that it became an anachronism to reduce home-grown strategies to formulas of ‘nationalism’ or indeed ‘collaboration'” (p. 24).

The notion of extraversion is helpful in analyzing the politics of the Sudan government and its adversaries.  For thirty years, successive governments in Khartoum have played a weak hand vis-à-vis their international donors and patrons with extraordinary skill, turning the country’s indebtedness and dependence to tactical advantage.  As Bayart observes, “occasionally the puppets pull the strings” (p. 26).  The control of sovereign rents has been an essential feature of government.  This is a modern-day version of how the Funj kingdom and Fur sultanate used their control over long-distance trade as a principal means of controlling their respective interiors.  This reached its zenith in the mid-19th century when Sudan was an imperial frontier of Egypt and the Ottoman Empire.  However, Sudanese history has also been punctuated by periods of relative introversion, notably the Mahdiyya and the years of revolutionary Islamism of the early 1990s, when external resource flows were at best minimal, though perhaps the moral claims of rulers, emphasizing theological validation, manifested an extraverted claim to legitimacy.  The extraversion of opposition forces, from the Democratic Unionists to the SPLA to the Darfur armed movements, is even more striking.  Taking the Darfur rebels, rarely in modern history can an insurrection have been so dependent on external resources and external moral validation.  Indeed, the political demands of the SLM are arguably that Darfur has not been colonized enough.  The Government of South Sudan is also a striking example of extraversion.

Bayart’s account of the longue durée also makes passing reference to relations among African states in the context of wider, subregional commercial arenas.  Herein lies the seed of an account of how African states relate to one another on the same basis that they organize their domestic factional power structures: the politics of the ordinary at an inter-state level.  For example, Bayart writes: “[t]he recurrent political crises which have embroiled Chad and the Central African Republic for decades turn on social relations whose form emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century in the broader context of the Nile valley slave-trading economy.  One of the points at issue in the Zairean/Congolese conflict since 1996 is the return of this huge area to the economic orbit of the Indian Ocean, through the predatory activities of the Ugandan and Rwandan armies, a process which has now been called into question [by the 1998+ wars]” (p xxiv).  By not dealing with Sudan and the trans-Saharan states, Bayart misses an opportunity to develop an account of the inter-subregional contest over supra-national commercial theaters: a missing sentence here could be: “one of the points at issue in the Chad/CAR conflict is the extrication of this area from the economic orbit of the Nile Valley economic orbit.”  The series of coup attempts in 2002, which finally installed Pres. Bozizé in power, involved armies from both sides of the DRC war, Uganda, Eritrea, Chad, and Sudan in the “great game” for the control of the central African hinterlands.  The defeat of the MDC-Uganda-SPLM coalition and simultaneous triumph of the Zaghawa ghazwa, still tactically aligned with Khartoum and Kinshasa, served as a critical step in the countdown to the Darfur insurgency.

Equally important, however, is the question of how these regional trading orbits or inter-state patronage systems functioned during the pre-colonial era.  Describing this requires a geographical expansion of Bayart’s account into precisely the areas he refuses to go, namely those historic centers of state power on the desert edge — the Sudanic states from the Nile to the Atlantic — that dominated the vast forest hinterlands.  Among them are the Funj, Dar Fur, Wadai and Kanem-Bornu.

The greater Nile Valley commercial theater was at its zenith in the mid-19th century, when Zubeir Rahma conquered Dar Fur and absorbed the sultanate’s southern slaving hinterlands.  Zubeir’s lieutenant, Rabih Fadlalla, went on to conduct a vast campaign of pillage across what is now CAR, Chad, and Cameroon, before installing himself in Nigeria.  The eastern half of this territory remained commercially dominated by Sudanese (jellaba) capital throughout the later 20th and early 21st centuries.  The current conflict in this huge borderland is in part an attempt by the commercial-military elites of Chad and CAR, with the Zaghawa in the lead, to challenge this Nile-centered riverain commercial hegemony over the subregion.  Their main modi operandi is the raid — ghazwa — a transient coalition of mobile forces under tactical command, fast moving and aiming to seize, destroy, and pillage.  The target could be an army garrison, a commercial convoy, a camel herd, or the coffers of a state.  (See Marielle Debos’s writings on “ex-liberators.”)  In the longue durée, this is no more than a reversion to the mid-1800s status quo ante.  Bayart’s insight is wholly consistent with the implicit thesis that the enduring territorial organization of Africa is a handful of such commercial-patronage orbits, within which rulers negotiate a hierarchy or compete, often fusing their factions across artificial borders.  If this is correct, the conflicts in Darfur, Chad, and CAR will be settled only when a new commercial-security domain is recognized with its own center of state power, commensurate with the significance of this arena, controlled by a state which has established its autonomy from the existing subregional power centers.  If it is to reproduce the historic pattern it would re-open the trans-Saharan route from Wadai to Libya, opened up by the Sanussi sect in the 19th century.

Linked to this is another idea, referenced only in passing by Bayart, which is the conceptualization of borderlands as arenas for political-commercial entrepreneurship, whether slaving and hunting (in the 19th century) or extracting minerals and timber (today), which enables sufficient primitive accumulation for the entrepreneur (or social bandit) to reinsert himself into a state — or indeed create a quasi-autonomous state.  (This idea is given greater shrift in his Criminalization of the State in Africa, in which he identifies economies of extraction and predation, in which leading operators are foreigners and local partners base their careers on violence.)  Thus, “[t]he young diamond diggers of Balundu, on the border between Congo-Kinshasa and Angola, conceive of monetary gain as though it were a hunting expedition, an idea congruent with a ‘dollarization’ of the imagination” (p. xl).  This is an abiding theme in Ethiopian historiography (Emperor Tewodros was the prime example of a successful political entrepreneur-cum-social bandit) and indeed the fall of the Dar Fur sultanate in 1874 was the apogee of the political-commercial ambition of the freebooter Zubeir Rahma.  The Zaghawa-led coup that installed the current government in CAR is a modern version of the same practice, and the study of military entrepreneurs in this region shows how the tradition of raiding as livelihood remains strong.  The frontier is the zone for enrichment which enables the newly-capitalized political climber to make a claim back on the center.  The astonishing economic boom in Nyala is driven in part by such commercial predation on the city’s vast trans-border hinterland.


As well as the acquisition of resources, Bayart also applies the concept of extraversion to the “moral economy,” through the institutions which formed the ethical foundations of colonial society, namely the school, hospital, trading post, public administration, and mission.  These institutions created the salaried class that came to control the state, setting in motion their primitive accumulation through the formal and informal powers associated with office and salary.  But colonization was simultaneously a “total defeat,” which on the one hand inspired widespread practices of deception and on the other prompted efforts to recapture indigenous ethics of “dignity.”  The parallel success of these two projects — each of them a component of the “grammar of extraversion” — led to the ambiguities of flag independence.  We see the same drama being played out in current-day abrogations of sovereignty, as manifest by policy conditionalities for loans and grants, peacekeeping missions, humanitarian operations, and the ICC.  African political elites draw upon external moralities for both international and domestic legitimation, while also subject to the grammar of locally-rooted socio-political ethics.

In the northern Sudanese case, the mission and trading post were absent, and the administration was a mix of civil institutions (dominated by the riverain subalterns) and tribal authority.  The central issue for contestation was the courts, a secondary one was education.  The various post-colonial projects of political Islam were precisely efforts to (re)create a system of indigenous political ethics that could assert the dignity — the word is important — of the nation.  It is a theme that dominates vernacular political philosophies.  For example, the tensions between colonial and indigenous concepts of dignity, as played out in the divided judiciary, are the central theme of Abdullahi Ibrahim’s Manichaean Delirium.   A comparable story could be told for the colonial era schools.

An untold dimension to the “dignity” of the late pre-colonial states was slavery.  The Fur and Funj states were founded on slavery and the Egyptian conquest consisted in significant part of expanding the slaving frontier.  The legitimacy enjoyed by these exercises in governmentality was tied in precisely to the legalized inequality among human beings it entailed, defined less as the selective extension of rights as opposed to commoditization of persons, and more as inclusion or exclusion in lineages and a Muslim community.  Recourse to these histories as the basis for validating a contemporary restoration of sovereignty is at best a divisive exercise, symbolized by the failure of Sudanese to rally around national dates (such as national independence) or figures (such as Ismail al Azhari or Omar al Bashir), all of which have ambiguous resonance among citizens.  Efforts to abolish slave ownership, entailing the criminalization of the subaltern trading-military class, helped ignite the Mahdist revolt, celebrated by a powerful section of Sudanese society as the nation’s “first independence.”  A trajectory in which European condemnations of criminality rebound on the originators has this precedent in Sudan, reminding us that one person’s terrorist or war criminal is another’s liberation hero.

Those sections of the peoples who have suffered under such government by discrimination have thought differently.  In post-colonial Sudan, the more the northern elites have sought legitimacy in the symbols of Islam and their common (northern) cultural identity, the louder has been the southern call for separation.  Sudan still seeks common legitimizing national narrative and unifying national symbols.

Darfur shares with a handful of African polities the fact that it possesses a deeper historical hold over the people who live there than the modern state which encompasses it.  Anyone who has lived in Darfur can attest to the fact that there is a strong sense of Darfurian identity that is as strong as or stronger than ethnic allegiance or national Sudanese citizenship.  We should not be surprised: for at least three of the last four centuries, and possibly twice as long, the region’s politics have been primarily “Darfurian.”  But Darfur’s “total defeats” of 1874 and 1916 have not subsequently been overcome by a restoration of a specifically Darfurian dignity.  This was not achieved in Sudanese national independence in 1956 (with its ambiguous orientation towards Egypt and “Arab” identity), nor in the Islamist revolution of 1989 (with its betrayed promise of emancipation through common faith), nor in the SLA-JEM insurrection of 2003-04 (with its spectacular leadership failures).

The Darfurian sense of collective self has yet to recover from the decapitation of the Fur political class in 1916 — a double defeat in that British imperial occupation also left Darfur orphaned in a domestic political hierarchy controlled by the subaltern class drawn from the Nile Valley.  The resonance of the term ibada, commonly translated as “genocide” but carrying equal implication of “uprooting” or “clearing,” among the Fur reflects the Fur elite’s fear that the devastation of 2003-04 spells the terminal rupture of this historic positioning.  The subsequent failure of the Fur political leaders to seize the opportunities presented by international solidarity to make a positive political claim on the Sudanese state indicates a political dead end.  The Fur are in danger of writing themselves out of the Sudanese political process, defining themselves principally as victims of human rights abuses, rather than as political agents.

As currently framed, any resolution of the Darfur crisis demands recognition of the irreducible demand for Darfurian dignity.  In turn this demands a symbolic victory for the people who see themselves as the deprived center of the region, namely the Fur.  However, the dimensions of this dignity are not agreed: there are both tactical and substantive political disputes.  For many among the Fur elites, a restored single region headed by a Fur is a sine qua non, and the allocation of a vice presidential post for Darfur is a close second.  For others, dignity is to be achieved when their recent suffering is validated through the arrest of President Bashir and the successful completion of international agendas for humanitarianism and human rights.

Compared to the agenda of prosecuting the president or sustaining a Kosovo-style intervention force, the domestic power-sharing demands are both easier to meet and more likely to result in durable political settlement.  For some Darfurians, the international moral grammar is merely a tactical asset to be utilized in support of domestic political reconfiguration.  For others it is more substantive, holding out the promise of an alternative channel and route for external legitimation and support for a state or quasi-state in Darfur.

Either approach will reproduce many of the existing characteristics of governance.  In Darfur as much as in the case of Khartoum and the variants of political Islam that have dominated nationalist claims, lineage is not legitimacy: the historicity of Darfurian governance is neither unproblematic nor uncontested.  For example, central to the Fur claim for a just peace is the restoration of the hakura land tenure system, re-interpreted in a historically erroneous way as “tribal land ownership.”  The establishment of any such system of ethnically-homogenous cantons (historically unprecedented) might settle a central political demand of the Fur leadership, but would generate other political problems perhaps no less severe, notably opposition from Darfur’s Arabs.  It might also jeopardize the status of Darfurians as residents of central Sudan, should the principle of ethnically-defined residence rights spread throughout the country.

Meanwhile, the ethical foundations of global governance — the human rights conditions on aid, the demand for an end to impunity for crimes under international law, humanitarian principles for international agencies operations in crisis — similarly ignite tension over indigenous values of dignity.  The moral claims made against international agencies — the Sophie’s Ark scandal in Chad being one example — reveal much about the unease with which African countries extend hospitality to western charities.  The resources are welcome, the moral advertisements less so.  Sudanese vernacular discourse around the promised/threatened international protection force for Darfur, and the ICC indictment of the President, centers on the offense against the dignity of the nation or the claim that any such dignity has been forfeited anyway.  Personalizing the issue around the individual of the current president of Sudan and his alleged intentions and character leads to an exaggerated version of Sudan’s existing patrimonial political logic, and emphasizing the necessity of external political agency similarly exaggerates the tendency to extraversion.  Sudanese have a long history of simultaneously accommodating and resisting such external intrusions along with their associated moral claims, and the responses to the ICC and other western pressures are best interpreted in this light, as a new chapter in a familiar story of extraversion and co-option.


In the first (1989) edition, Bayart argued that experiments in breaking free from the grip of African governmentality have “either not lasted a long time or have in their turn been absorbed by its practices” (p. 268).  Two decades on, in the new preface, he argues that his analysis is confirmed, and “the mirages of revolution and democracy have disappeared” (p. xix).  Bayart has little time for the pious hopes that democratic elections heralded a new beginning for Africa.  Rather, he prefers to see “democratization” as the resurgence of old forces temporarily suppressed by one party states and writes: “this venting of popular feeling was rapidly countered by the strategies of power-holders intent on restoring their authoritarian regimes with an artful combination of dexterity and brutality” (p. xx).  Where democracy made progress, he writes, it merely reconfigured the established grammar of politics: “The multi-party system was widely construed in terms of a form of seating around a table.  ‘For me, that is democracy. Having a place at the table,’ remarked a Burundian civil servant, in a country where there was talk of the ‘ideology of the belly’ throughout 1989” (pp. xxi-xxii).

Under this analysis, the internal dynamics of democracy are driven by resource allocation, and, pace Frederic Schaffer, the vernacular definition of democracy is fair shares for all.  The question then shifts to how politics is structured so as to define fairness and who should control the allocation of the shares at different levels.  Hence Bayart’s discussions of corruption contain not the slightest moralizing: he simply explains the logic of the ruler, who has come to power denouncing the previous incumbent’s corruption, needing to steal more money than his predecessors and underlings.  His description precisely prefigures the Kibaki government in Kenya, but whereas Michela Wrong in It’s Our Turn to Eat recounts how corruption largely destroyed that state from within and caused economic crisis, Bayart prefers to describe this as the order of things.  (The imagery of eating and the belly is shared, reaching its zenith in ordinary Kenyans’ celebration of the British High Commissioner’s denunciation of the open corruption: “They may expect we shall not see, or notice, or will forgive them a bit of gluttony, but they can hardly expect us not to care when their gluttony causes them to vomit all over shoes” [p. 202].)  Bayart is neither ethnographically nor morally blind: he is also co-author of The Criminalization of the State in Africa (1999) in which he describes (contra Chabal and Daloz) how African governments resourcing strategies have led them into symbiosis with domestic and international networks of crime.  (This book warrants an update to take account of the penetration of international drug smuggling networks into West Africa, threatening to turn some of the smaller countries of the subregion into narco-states.  Guinea-Bissau may be the leader of this phenomenon.)

Liberal models of democracy work in countries where control of state power is not a necessary condition for accumulating and securing wealth — where policy is more important than patronage.  International policies of building developmental states and democratic systems assume that the kinds of governance systems described by Bayart are an aberration and that these countries will resume a “normal” trajectory towards a Weberian state with a developing economy, given the right push.  If Bayart is right and this assumption is wrong, we need to be looking for definitions of democracy that function adequately within African political economies, as they are.  The vernacular definition of democracy as more-or-less equal places at the dining table is a good place to start.

We can see an almost exact transplanting of the framework of democracy-as-shares onto Sudan’s recurrent peace talks, in which the allocation of power and resources becomes the dominant theme at every level from the presidency to the locality.  In the case of Abdel Wahid al Nur at the Abuja talks, the particular focus was on the compensation fund, which Abdel Wahid envisaged as a store of cash under his personal control to be dispensed to his constituents.  His concern was with this fund — and whether it would have the $30 million offered by Khartoum or the $100 million he demanded — and not with the much larger amounts of money promised as transfers to Darfur’s budget for reconstruction and development, money over which he would have less control, or none at all.  In the tradition of retail politics, it was the cake that could be eaten today that was the overriding concern.  This was buying peace in the manner of Mozambique, where RENAMO’s leaders concluded the deal with the receipt of a cash payment and amnesty.  (Such rewards for men who would now be described as perpetrators of crimes against humanity may stick in the throat, but Mozambicans have been able to enjoy peace.)

Bayart is equally unsentimental about what “democracy” means for the extraverted African state.  “One might summarize by saying that democracy, or more precisely the discourse of democracy, is no more than yet another source of economic rents, comparable to earlier discourses such as the denunciation of communism or of imperialism in the time of the Cold War, but better adapted to the spirit of the age.  It is, as it were, a form of pidgin language that various native princes use in their communication with Western sovereigns and financiers” (p xxiv).  In short, just as colonialism entrenched trickery into the political game, reliance on donor funds encourages a new game of deceit in which the state, Janus-like, presents one face to its foreign patrons and another to its domestic clients.  We are compelled to ask, is it the same for “peace”?  Is a peace agreement similarly a way of obtaining an imprint of legitimacy while continuing to practice politics unchanged, rotating provincial elites in and out of government in merely another manifestation of the state’s ubiquitous factionalism?

Bayart is scornful of international efforts to promote western-style institutions and political practices: “By head-hunting many of the brightest African intellectuals with the high salaries awarded to international civil servants, by celebrating the virtues of ‘civil society’ and ‘good governance’ and distributing largesse in the service of this cause, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have in effect co-opted and confined those potential counter-elites within a ‘legitimate’ problematique of development, i.e. the so-called Washington Consensus.  In so doing they have done their part to promote a multilateralization of the passive revolution whose principal institutional and political vector is the state” (p xxiv).

This provocative passage hides two interesting potential elaborations.  One is the way that, within a national territory, the international aid sector (foreign NGOs, UN agencies etc.) can become a kind of internal refuge for dissenters, who are thereby able to maintain their livelihoods and their (modernist) principles, but are also politically demobilized.  In Sudan, large numbers of secular professionals, most of them unsympathetic to the government, find employment and protection within the aid sector.  The government is antipathetic to the sector as a whole and does not like the profile and capability given to its critics, including their ability to pass on information and share analysis.  But it prefers to have them contained within this sector, which can be monitored and if necessary dismantled at short order, rather than have them engaged in clandestine political activities.  The government feels threatened by the activism of Sudan’s Anglophone counter-elite in western human rights and advocacy organizations.

Another elaboration is to observe that the national elites are themselves co-opting the international organizations, whether they be the NGOs operating in Sudan or multilateral agencies such as the World Bank.  It is not only the counter-elites who seek employment in these agencies.  Indeed Bayart’s analysis of elites questions whether there is any clear distinction between elite categories: all are subject to assimilation and factionalism.  Some states (Senegal is a fine example) have proactively placed members of their educated elites within international organizations and have gained significant if intangible benefits as a result.  Even when this strategy is not pursued consciously, the outcome of the penetration of multilateral agencies by African elites is that African governance and multilateral governance have come to overlap, if not fuse.  The revolving door between the Bretton Woods institutions and senior governmental posts — including head of state — in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Côte d’Ivoire provides a rich set of cases.  Sudan has lagged in this exercise, suffering from its self-imposed isolation during the period of Islamist militancy in the early 1990s and from sanctions since then, and facing the educational legacy of a generation of university students taught in Arabic rather than English.

As Bayart notes, African states were multilateral enterprises from the Conference of Berlin onwards.  The assimilation of African and international governance is not new, and we should not be surprised to find that African politicians, professionals, and businessmen are any less proficient in this department than their erstwhile colonial administrators and metropolitan bankers.  The constant cycle of cosmetic reform, co-opted to sustain a status quo, is as much functional for the multilateral donors as it is for the African states which are supposedly the recipients of foreign diktat.

War is almost wholly absent from the original edition of Bayart’s book and makes only a passing appearance in the new preface.  He correctly notes that wars are sustained through practices of extraversion — acquiring resources from a range of external sources — and that there are symbolic extraversionary practices too, for example Liberian fighters drawing upon American video heroes as role models.  He also observes that war is an opportunity for states to carve out a protected space for sovereign action, away from the intrusions of international sponsors.  (It is also an opportunity for counter-elites to do the reverse.)  In The Criminalization of the State Bayart takes a slightly different tack, absorbing “war” within other forms of disorder and criminality: “Dissidence, war and banditry, the last a transnational activity par excellence, do not necessarily threaten the formation or existence of a state.  They can, on the contrary, aid its centralization” (p 115).  He notes that the same elites that benefited from colonialism, independence, nationalization, and privatization can also benefit from war and criminalization and goes on to quote Olivier Roy: “the smuggler has need of frontiers.”  But the short shrift given to war is an unfortunate oversight.  African war has its historicity comparable to the historicity of the state, and one might construct a persuasive case that wars in Africa are the conduct of the politics of the belly, through other means.

Some of the “great tradition of power” states — Ethiopia and Rwanda for example — have been capable of conducting wars by deploying highly disciplined and institutionalized armies.  These are the exception.  War as practiced in most parts of Africa — Sudan and Chad are prime examples — manifests exactly the same characteristics as the politics that Bayart describes.  The organization of war is riven by factionalism at every level (the Darfur armed movements are just one example; FROLINAT or the Somali militias provide other case studies).  The typical mode of command and control depends upon extraversion: the commander of each faction secures resources and legitimacy from outside in order to be able to rent the loyalty of his subordinates, disciplining them solely through patronage and ad hoc reward on the basis of raiding, rather than through building a military institution based on loyalty to a cause.  Traditional and modern elites fuse in the organization of war, manifest in the way that ethnically-based militia-cum-raiding parties adopt Anglo- or Francophone labels to identify themselves to the rest of the world — “Revolutionary United Front,” “Forces Armées du Tchad,” “Sudan Liberation Army-United.”  The initials painted on battle vehicles are invariably in the Roman alphabet and refer to English or French acronyms, in places where few people read these scripts or understand the languages.

In many of these conflicts, peace is no more than another means for conducting the “war of the belly.”  A peace agreement is typically an inter-factional deal, bargained in a political marketplace and dignified with a signed and witnessed addendum that contains solemn references to human rights, power-sharing, ceasefires, and the like.  Insofar as it fails to transcend factionalism, such an agreement is in fact a reconfiguration of factional alignments, necessarily excluding others, and thus simply displaces the violent conflict elsewhere.  The process of negotiating a peace agreement can become a mechanism for extraversion, whereby the parties to the talks earn a rental income from the international mediators, both in the form of funds (per diems for delegates or a simple show-up fee) and an extension of recognition.  It is a version of sovereign rent which we might call “negotiation rent.”  When the putative sovereign rent from actually signing an agreement exceeds the day-to-day negotiation rent, a bargain may be struck and the parties may initial the document in front of them.  (On the principle of a bird in the hand, the incentives for signing have to be significantly more than the rewards of the status quo.)

Bayart references humanitarian rent as another manifestation of extraversion.  Again, his framework leaves open an opportunity for elaboration, knitting together various loose threads.  One of these threads is his stimulating if brief discussion of homo fugens: the option of social defection by actors, placing themselves outside the state’s political obligations (p. 270).  This is picked up in the new preface, where Bayart notes that flight is not disappearance but rather a mode of re-insertion, through connecting with the external world (p. lxiii).  Link this up to the way in which humanitarian agencies target the displaced, and we see how even victimhood can be interpreted as a strategy for extraversion by the political entrepreneurs who control the displaced populations.


Bayart’s thesis is provocative, deliberately shorn of moralism and disrespectful of any political correctness.  He doesn’t allocate blame because he doesn’t diagnose failure.  He does not agree that “Africa south of the Sahara is being marginalized economically and . . . that the subcontinent is therefore subject to a political decay which is undermining the foundations of the state” (p. xxxviii).  To the contrary, what appears to be decay is just how things have always been.  Taken together, the elements of the ordinariness of politics, extraversion, the reciprocal assimilation of elites, the rhizome state, political entrepreneurs, and the factionalized struggle for patronage constitute the “politics of the belly.”  This phrase would verge on the offensive were it not for the way in which it resonates with the political vernacular.  Moreover: “The expression ‘politics of the belly’ must be understood in the totality of its meaning.  It refers not just to the ‘belly’ but also to ‘politics'” (p. 242).

My main quarrel with Bayart is that, in his historicity, he downplays history.  As Clapham argued in his review, with reference to Ethiopia, “its historicity is not just a solution, but also a major problem” (1994: p. 439).  The fact that a set of practices is embedded in history does not necessarily validate them as effective.  Ethiopia’s long and proud history of statecraft is more a (part) description of that country’s political problems than a successful explaining away of them as an historical inevitability.  In Ethiopia as elsewhere, managing succession has been one of the most difficult governance tasks, typically accompanied by bloodletting.  Where the state has achieved a closer approximation to hegemony, factional struggles to control it are all the more bitter.  In the Nile and Sudanic states, acknowledging the currency (in both senses) of the historic power structures is a requirement for a workable settlement but is not sufficient.  Sudanic governance was a cruel and unequal affair. Slavery was one manifestation of this, and the hierarchy in degrees of citizenship that has followed the abolition of slavery constitutes one of the less palatable elements of the historicity of governance.

The historicity of generational change also warrants greater attention.  Murray Last has described a cycle of revolutionary renewal in northern Nigeria, following a recurrent pattern of youth rebellion against a gerontocracy.  Many political systems in Africa show patterns of long periods of relative stasis punctuated by dramatic change, sometimes in the form of millenarian movements, sometimes externalized into campaigns of military expansion.  Because these are commonly brief and relapse into identifiable variants of the status quo ante, it is easy to dismiss them as epiphenomena.  But they are sufficiently common to warrant analysis in their own terms with their own logic and lineage.  The left-wing revolutionary movements which took power in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Rwanda are perhaps a recent manifestation of this, a brief flowering of radical change followed by a reversion to something that has more identifiable continuities with what went before.  Nonetheless real changes occur, such as transformations in education and health, or shifts in the status of women, which can have long-term repercussions.  Sudan has had both leftist and Islamist revolutions within living memory and, despite the current exhaustion of visionary political projects, it may have similar irruptions again.

The logic of Bayart’s argument is deeply pessimistic about the possibilities for change, as he steadfastly refuses to diagnose “crisis” and rather sees continuity and function where others see disorder and decay.  This is a salutary corrective to the tendency of many analysts to define African societies by what they are failing to be, rather than what they are.  This approach generated stringent criticism of the first edition of The State in Africa, to which Bayart’s new preface is a long “I told you so” riposte.

Bayart concedes in passing that African politics is “capable of change one day.  Seen in this light, the long-term prison sentence is more like probation” (p. 270).  He sees urbanization and technological change (especially communications technology) as possible drivers of real change, loosening political controls and increasing the options for ordinary people.  But Bayart’s account leaves these ideas as orphans and does not develop them.  Moreover, his fear of the ungovernability of African cities, dominated by poorly-socialized youth, seems in retrospect to be more like the intellectually lazy generalities he delights in puncturing than one of his considered insights.  Most African wars are still fought in the countryside.  Even when urban, they resemble less the chaos forecast by Robert Kaplan in “The Coming Anarchy” and more a familiar form of La guerre du ventre in post-modern uniform.  In Monrovia or Brazzaville, even in Mogadishu, episodes of intense urban warfare have been relatively rare.  More often, when war comes to the cities, it is often in the form of raids (N’djamena in 1980, 1983, 1990, and 2008, Omdurman in 1976 and 2008) or brief but vicious purges (Luanda, Abidjan, Kinshasa).  Cities like Khartoum are notable for the absence of conflict among factionalized elites whose followers regularly kill one another in the provinces.

In speculating about where change may come from, Bayart is groping in the dark.  His thesis frames the constraints on change and leaves out than the opportunities.  Given that historical changes have occurred — including important transformations of political life in the pre-colonial era — we might hope for some clues as to the historicity of such change.  The urbanization of Africa is an epochal change.  And perhaps the grammar of extraversion and the interpenetration of African and global governmentality give an unexpected hint that this change may come in part from outside the continent — perhaps from the diaspora of Africans in the international governance system.  That would be an ironic conclusion.

Stimulating in its complete absence of moralising, and its commensurate ability to put aside any normative spectacles and instead interpret African political societies in their own terms, Bayart’s book stands as a classic twenty years on.  The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly is incomplete, strays down some erroneous paths, but it is essential reading.  More than that: it is a useful book.

Alex de Waal is the director of Justice Africa.  This review was first published in Making Sense of Darfur in five parts (28 September 2009, 29 September 2009, 3 October 2009, 6 October 2009, 7 October 2009); it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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