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"Tribune libre"

French Anthropologist Jean-Pierre Dozon Pleads in Favour of the State in Africa

"L’Afrique à Dieu et à Diable, états, ethnies et religions", Editions Ellipses, 2008 (Africa between God and the Devil : States, Ethnic groups and Religions)

Translated Thursday 20 November 2008, by Isabelle Métral

Even though they were set up during the colonial era, African States have struck deep roots since and are real structural entities in African societies. The war waged against them in the name of reform by supporters of the pro-market dogma of “governance” has weakened them and consequently fostered the multiplication of claims based on identity while promoting forms of religious escapism.

Such is the thesis developed in his latest book. by Jean-Pierre Dozon, anthropologist and researcher at the EHESS (Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales). He lays the blame on free-market economists and on those who over the last years militated in favour of the dismantling of the State and promoted entities that they judged to be closer to the “ethnic realities”. Yet, as he argues in the first part of the book (devoted to the history of the State on the African continent), the national and local territories created under colonial rule have gained an undeniable symbolical authority by being largely appropriated by the populations.

Proof of the solidity of these boundaries appears in the fact that having shaped “a common historical experience” they have hardly ever been called into question, even when the states were torn by ethnic conflict. Better still, ethnic groups, though often regarded as threatening the logic of the State, have actually “been one of the modalities in the nation-building process”, in so far as their crystallization coincided with the State’s construction and contributed to it too. Like the colonial rulers before them, post-colonial States indeed relied heavily on the so-called traditional structures (inventing them where they did not exist) to impose themselves across their territories.

Nevertheless the effectiveness of the States and of national integration was undermined in the nineties. Even as they exempted African states from consolidating their existence by focusing on development, pro-market policies deprived them of their unifying capacity and “helped strengthening centrifugal forces that have long undermined African societies.”

Parallel to the growing influence of pro-market forces, the religious “supply” itself exploded, as explained in the second part of the book, the multiplicity of which encourages separatist and conflicting tendencies among the entities that make up a country, even as the religious explosion itself contributes to obfuscate the economic inequality and the violence these tendencies generate by the credit religion gives to supernatural agency.

Dozon opposes this destructive logic and pleads in favour of policies that consolidate the States by “wiping off their external debt” and giving them the “means they need to carry out (their) public policies”.

Dozon’s plea is useful and forceful, though one would have liked him to take into account the recent changes in official development theory: in the mid-nineties the State started making a comeback, and the evolution became even more sensible after September 11, 2001. Proof of this will be found in the fact that the once-prevailing notion that peace is to be gained by setting up “ethnically coherent” entities (as in the ex-Yugoslavia, or the Democratic Republic of Congo), is now on the wane, but even more clearly in the increasing share of budgetary subsidies in the total amount of aid distributed.


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