Historians and anthropologists studying sub-Saharan Africa are especially sensitive, for good reason, about linking current events on the continent to deep or precolonial histories. We’re all too intensely aware of the deep, sustained way that European colonialism represented African societies as afflicted by history, an unchanging and static backwardness that could be described as a series of discrete ‘traditions’.
One good example of this reluctance can be seen in the way that scholars have approached the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Debate has centered largely on whether the cause of the genocide is most strongly vested in the design of postcolonial African states, on 20th Century nationalism as a whole, on the influence of development institutions or the geopolitical rivalries of the Cold War, on the competitive interrelationships of postcolonial states in East and Central Africa, on postcolonial competition for regional resources, or on the colonial policies and attitudes of Belgium and France. (Or some combination thereof.) Precolonial political formations and cultural practices are always reviewed in scholarly writing as a necessary part of the background, but most scholarship rejects or at least de-emphasizes the importance of precolonial experience for explaining the genocide. In very large measure, this rejection is specifically aimed at representations in U.S. and European mass media that explained the genocide as the expression of primordial, ahistorical hatred, as a Hobbsean nightmare erupting out of a primitive or backward culture.
I think that’s completely the right way for the scholarship to go. But it does mean that it is more difficult to talk about the specific precolonial histories that most scholars would acknowledge have some importance. Not primordial hatreds or static tribalism, but the very specific history of state-building and social organization in the area in the 18th and 19th Century. That history presents all sorts of complexities in the language of universalizing social science (were Tutsi-speakers a caste? a social class? economic specialists who emphasized pastoralism? or are “Tutsi” and “Hutu” an anachronistic imposition on subtle languages of difference that weren’t a big deal until Europeans made them a big deal?) But as a history, it’s not irrelevant to the recent past or the present, both as a history that is represented within recent conflicts and as something “real” in the historical memories and social structures of present-day societies.
Whenever we try to talk about that relevance we end up having to put so many caveats and snares in everything we say in order to avoid giving comfort to flatly wrong characterizations that it sometimes seems easier to just stick with colonial and postcolonial histories instead. A great example of how complex and neologistic this kind of historical account almost has to be is Paul Landau’s recent work Popular Politics in the History of South Africa, which dramatically rethinks ethnicity and state formation in southern Africa and very much argues for the reduced influence of colonial categories and institutions in modern outcomes. Landau has to be complicated because it’s a complicated history in simple empirical terms. But also to thoroughly sabotage any reader who might say, “Oh, I see, male violence is an ancient problem here” or “ah, I see, so colonialism didn’t invent tribalism after all, that’s just the way Africans are”.
Our collective avoidance is a problem both because it’s our job to talk about all of that history in some fashion and because it does cut some explanatory information out of the loop of present-day discussions.
Two of-the-moment examples. Journalists and diplomats speaking about eastern Congo are a broken record of frustration with the seemingly interminable recurrence of violent conflict in the region, most of it involving small groups of armed men who have various degrees of formal association with state-controlled militaries and administrations in the region. The reportage often involves trying to sift through the rumors and signs to find the “real” reason for conflict: is it a Rwandan or Ugandan bid for security through destablizing of Congo? Corrupt Ugandan, Rwandan, Angolan or Congolese military leaders protecting their illicit profits from resource extraction? Covert meddling by major geopolitical powers or institutions? The inevitable backwash of Cold War flows of weaponry into local hands?
All of that matters. But I also think there’s some reason to think that there is recurrent structure of political authority in the region that goes back to at least the mid-19th Century that local actors are drawing upon to organize their current activities, that assembles armed young men in highly mobile, fluid groups that support and sustain their political authority and sociocultural coherence through banditry. The most famous example of such a group in eastern Congo would be Hamad al-Murghabi’s (aka Tippu Tip) tributary empire, and further south the activities of Yao chiefdoms in the same period (19th Century) would be another example. But I think there were smaller local examples, and I suspect that some of these social groups remained significantly intact in some respect even during the colonial era. There were “insurgencies” in eastern Congo almost immediately right after independence in 1960 that strongly resemble the groups that are often seen as being created by the fall of Mobutu. So there’s some kind of repertoire of sociopolitical practices that has recurrent force in this area, that has a local coherence and intelligibility to it. That repertoire expresses very differently depending on all sorts of circumstances, and it has a complex relationship to many other sociopolitical and cultural histories in the same region.
Another example: Mali. I would never for a moment want to fall back on a pure restatement of ibn Khaldun’s famous interpretation of the history of northern Africa (and the world) and say, “See, this is just pastoralist nomads versus settled agriculturalists and city-dwellers”. But there is a much more specific history that has considerable depth and antiquity to it that involves relationships between Berber-speaking Tuareg pastoralists, Fulani pastoralists, and the settled agricultural societies of the Niger River; between North African states and Sahelian states; between cities and their rural hinterlands; between Islamic cultures and non-Islamic ones. That all matters not just as contemporary sociology but as deep and structurally recurrent history, as a series of patterns and concepts that can be consciously recited by contemporary combatants but that also can be the structural priors of how they mobilize for and imagine conflicts.
To talk about deeper histories is not to explain current conflicts as destiny, or to put aside a whole host of material, economic, geopolitical and cultural issues with much more immediate explanatory weight. But somehow I feel as if we have to give people struggling to understand what’s happening (and what to do about it) the permission to consider all of the history, as well as the guidance to help them to weigh its importance in context.