Mwangi wa Gĩthĩnji


Africa in the Longue Durée: Rethinking categories of Economy and Identity

The hegemonic understanding of Africa begins with the extensive contacts between Europe and Africa in the 15th. Century and after.   These were not the first contacts between Europeans and Africa as Europeans had settled in much of coastal North Africa going back to the early Common Era, and Africans had been travelers to Europe since that time as part of Roman armies, administrators and religious leaders, and through the period of Islamic conquest of significant portions of Southern Europe.   However the contacts were the first between a newly ascendant Europe (centered in Western Europe) and the continent.  Initially these contacts are part of the process of searching for a sea route to India, and are limited to the coast of Africa.  With the expansion of colonization in the Americas and the need for labour these contacts expand on the back of the Atlantic Slave Trade.  Alongside this expansion in the trade of African bodies, contacts and knowledge expand via the journeys of “discovery” undertaken by European “explorers” and the spread of European Christian missionaries.

The most common trope in this understanding of Africa or African polities more correctly, is one which implies a stagnant “pre-contact” Africa (dark Africa) brought into the light by its contact with the west.  Since African societies in this rendering were outside history, categories constructed based on the history of western Europe do not often fit the African context.  The response is then to treat African societies as pre-historic.  The impact of this treatment is not simply in the examination of history but also more importantly impacts todays social scientists and public policy practitioners who imagine development/transition, as the movement from the traditional African society (that which is pre-historic) to a “modern”[1] one (Mudimbe).

I am interested in examining two particular categories and their relationship to one another and the economy more generally.  The first is the Mode of Production as a category that describes economic production within a society.  In its traditional usage the Mode of production as a concept assumes a political unity between the base and the superstructure.  That is, the rules for production and distribution of the surplus value from production are determined within the same social formation within which production takes place.  This fits well with the traditional conception of western states.  An examination of African states in the longue duree however challenges the idea of political unity between the base and superstructure in a mode of production.  An examination of the trading empires of west Africa that arise circa the 9th century and  finally disappear in the 19th century point to a system in many cases where the production takes place beyond the boundaries of the political unit.  For example the earliest Kingdom of the West African empires Ghana was dependent on gold produced by the Walatta who lived beyond the borders of Ghana.  Yet Ghana and the successive kingdoms of Mali and Songhay depended on and indeed built their wealth on the trade of this gold and salt from the north which was also mined beyond their borders.  The same can be said of the East African Swahili city states that depended on the production of goods in the interior which were then traded through their habours for goods from the broader Islamic and Asian world.  In both cases the political sovereign did not reign over production only trade.  What then is the mode of production of this particular arrangement?[2]  Is the concept itself useful for understanding the history of these societies and the subsequent history of successor polities?  How do we understand change in these socities where the struggle over surplus takes place across polities primarily rather than within[3].

The second category I am interested in examining is the idea of identity in African nations and particularly ethnic identity.  Mamdani, I think correctly points us to the creation of modern African ethnic identities in the colonizing process and the legal classification of natives.  Natives are not citizens of the colonial state, but rather are considered as members of their specific ethnic community (known as a “tribe”) and therefore are subject to customary laws particularly around family and inheritance[4] that are specific to the ethnic communities which they purportedly come from.  Membership of the ethnic community is fixed, not fluid and is dependent on descent most often defined as patrilineal.  This dependence suggests biology as being the basis of ethnic identity rather than shared languages and practices.

Prior to the modern incarnation of the “tribe”, one might argue that the group identity was based on shared languages and practice as well as form of economic production.  That is prior to colonialism and the expansion of capitalism, communities constructed their livelihoods around access to land, and ethnic communities not only shared a language and culture but importantly also a primary form of production.  We can refer to this primary form of production as a mode of subsistence.  In many ways then ethnic groups were essential different modes of subsistence (Marx 1993).  Citizenship within an ethnic group gave one rights to the complementary capital to labour needed for survival, in this case land.  This access was mediated by the local ethnic elites.  In African countries as colonialism and alongside it capitalism intruded land become more scarce, as one can imagine this had contradictory effects.  On one hand the scarcity initially gave the elites more power as land became more valuable.  In the longer term however if individuals were forced to find opportunities in the capitalist sector unmediated by the elites, this would decrease elite power.  This power of the elites would be further weakened if the individuals were able to reproduce themselves wholly in the capitalist sector.

The ties between individuals from a specific community survived this transition for a number of reasons.  The first is networking.  That is the provision of information and assistance on opportunities in the capitalist sector as well as safety nets. It is well documented that early migrants to colonial centres created social clubs and networks based on place of origin.  These were used to assist individuals seek employment, provide a safety net for crisis periods and most importantly to ensure that bodies were repatriated to home regions so that individuals could be laid to rest among their ancestors (Afigbo 1985). Over time as individuals and households depended more on the capitalist economy, one would expect that their network for survival would become broader drawing both on ethnicity and new networks based on production.  The use of ethnicity here was for inclusion into the capitalist sector.  Of course every act of inclusion is simultaneously an act of exclusion.  However in this form, we would argue that the active part of the dialectic was the inclusions; the exclusion being passive.  That is to say that there is there is a difference between providing information to one’s fellow villagers on the availability of employment in the capitalist sector, and actively blocking other groups’ access to the same jobs. The pace of change in the form of networks of course also depended on the extent to which there was a reservoir of ethnic labour that needed to be integrated into the capitalist economy. As long as this existed one should not expect the use of ethnicity as networking to disappear.

As we noted above the elite within specific ethnic communities faced two contradictory effects from the expansion of capitalism, the first was a strengthening from the increased scarcity of land, the second was the loss of control that came with members of their community leaving for the capitalist sector in order to be able to produce and reproduce themselves.  As long as entry into the capitalist sector was unmediated by the ethnic elite this group lost some power and legitimacy.

Two feature of capitalist expansion particularly in most of post-colonial Africa allowed for the recreation of ethnicity within a different mode of production.  The first was the creation of the territorial state that covered multiple ethnicities within it, and with it the creation of a territory wide economy administered by the colonial authority that was separate from the local economies.  This statewide authority that later was the post-colonial government became the main arbiter of resources in these new economies.  Access to these resources required inclusion within this new authority.  The second was that inclusion into this authority depended on claims of representing a distinct population.  The number of individuals you represented thus became the currency for local elite inclusion into the national elite.  Under these circumstances the saliency of ethnicity for the elite becomes clear even where the use of ethnicity may mean that many local elites may never control the national elite, this systems allowed for their inclusion, thus they became arbiters of access to resources at the national level for their ethnicity – essentially entry into the capitalist economy.  This mitigates the loss of power that would have occurred if individuals entered the capitalist economy as individuals.  In short these arrangements allow for the survival of an ethnic elite even as the ethnic mode of subsistence – from which they traditionally derived authority- becomes less important.  This mode of division of opportunities with the capitalist economy is not one of networking for inclusion as individuals may do to get access to new opportunities, but rather one of the active exclusion of others from national resources as control of specific resources give ethnic elites new currency and relevance within their own ethnic community.  The inclusion of ethnic elites as elite in the national capitalist economy and administration requires the active exclusion of the multitudes of others.

I am interested in both more rigorously theorizing this process and examining to what extent this process empirically holds across African nations?[5]  Is it dependent on the nature of colonialism?  Are their countries that have managed to overcome this inheritance and what processes have they used to achieve this?

My hope in undertaking the examination of these concepts is that it can help us better understand African polities and their present shortcomings.  I also hope that in examining these concepts in longue durée we might be liberated from an oppressive view of African history and that liberation will allow us to imagine different futures for African polities.

[1] “Modern” and “western” are often conflated.

[2] In earlier debates Catherine Vidrovitch suggests that there exists an African Mode of Production somewhat akin to the Asian Mode of Production but based on trade.

[3] In saying this I do not want to suggest that African societies were classless societies as was often suggested by early African nationalist in their attempt to draw inspiration and blue prints for the future from the past.

[4] Although the laws that were different tended to focus on family law, they were often used to induce participation in the European colonial economy.  For example the British attempted to define lobola (bride wealth) amongst the Zulu and have it dominated in colonial currency, rather than cattle and labour service to the bride’s family, to induce the provision of labour by young Zulus for the colony of Natal

[5] I do not assume that ethnicity plays the same role across African polities.  It is clear there are countries where it does not fit into our common assumptions about its role in politics and the economy.