The Things That Hold

I spend a lot of time in my classes and my scholarly writing trying to explore the legacy of European colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade in Africa. I think these are wide-open questions. Depending on my mood, I can argue that the ongoing influence of that history is relatively minimal or that it is omnipresent and overwhelming.

When I have to commit to an argument, I tend to settle on a handful of practices and institutions that I think represent the most powerful and self-sustaining transformative effects of colonial government. Most of these I associate with the concept of “indirect rule”. In my view, some of the lasting impact has been lasting because of a fusion between local or indigenous practice and the colonial state. So, for example, the colonial state significantly transformed the political and institutional meaning of ethnic identity, but the substance of ethnic consciousness in many parts of the continent also drew significantly on precolonial political history in the 18th and 19th Centuries, on established languages and cultural repertoires, and so on. In contrast, the sillier or more delusional initiatives of colonial states faded quickly, or were wholly ignored from the outset by both imperial officers and local subjects.

I think we’re beginning to see the broad outlines of the longer-term impact of the U.S. presence in Iraq, whether the draw-down of U.S. forces starting in 2009 is relatively rapid or extremely prolonged. Some of the absurdities of the occupation before the surge will always be a good exhibit of folly and hubris for historians to investigate, but many of them have already proven ephemeral. On the other hand, the political accomodations that underlie the U.S. presence are, in my view, very much like the improvisational compacts and understandings between rural African elites and colonial bureaucrats that I believe formed the basis of British and French indirect rule in the early 20th Century in Africa. Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish identity has been given new political meaning and new forms of expression within local, regional and national governance, and whatever happens next, I believe some of that change will have a lasting structural legacy. Partly as a consequence, interstate relations in the region are now fundamentally different, in ways which are arguably far more disadvantageous to U.S. interests than they were in 2001.

Another thing to consider is the physical landscape. Many African cities today are still profoundly structured and crippled by the common approach of European colonial rulers to urban development: reserve the central core of the city for administration and business, put a light manufacturing district near to the core, create a white or elite residential district not too far from the core, and put townships for African residence very far away from the core, separated from each other by large areas of vacant space and with little or no permanent infrastructure in order to discourage urbanization. Late in the colonial area, governments began to reverse these policies during the economic boom and rapid urbanization of the 1950s, but the physical layout was already set. The legacy of this approach to urbanization is serious: providing infrastructure, including transport, in many African cities combines the worst challenges of high-density urban development and suburban development in many other parts of the world.

In Iraq, perhaps the most lasting legacy of the surge may turn out to be the comprehensive reconstruction of the residential landscape of the major cities. It isn’t just that neighborhoods are now segregated by religious and ethnic identity, but that this segregation has been strongly reinforced by massive blast walls that allow military authorities to control and survey movement in and out of residential neighborhoods. This is going to be the idiom of urban life in Baghdad for decades to come, in all likelihood. Not one Berlin Wall, but many. It is hard to foresee the Iraqi state to come which will remove these walls, because they both express the new political reality of identity and because they are an available technology of control. In fact, should the Iraqi state become stronger rather than weaker in the future, it will probably see the walls as a more and more attractive method for maintaining its control, much as the isolation of many low-income, high-density neighborhoods from one another in much of urban Africa makes it easier for autocratic regimes to contain urban unrest, often a serious potential threat to the regime’s survival.

The United States bought itself and its client regime some political breathing space by control over violence during the surge, but the troop numbers on the ground only have been a small part of what has changed. The cost to Iraqis of that change is difficult to estimate because it involves changes whose full impact will likely not be clear for a long time to come. Much of the U.S. occupation may turn out to be ephemeral in many respects, remembered most potently by those who lost lives, health and sanity in its crucible. I think it’s important now to look past the surface incidents of violence and the debates about troop withdrawals to ask what kinds of structural transformations are taking hold, and whether any of them are still potentially malleable for good or ill.

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3 Responses to The Things That Hold

  1. back40 says:

    As I understand it Iraq has long been organized and influenced by various European states. It has been broken for a long time. I think this needs to be considered.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh, I agree. But I’m thinking about what new kinds of social transformation the American occupation has added to the mix. The organization of urban space strikes me as something novel.

  3. AndrewSshi says:

    Discussing Iraq in relation to Africa has gotten me to thinking–I would really, really like to see a book (of the sort that the Thomas Friendmans and Fareed Zakaria’s of the world write) entitled _Ancient Hatreds Aren’t_. There is a maddening MSM tendency to talk about any ethnic conflict in terms of “intractable ancient hatreds,” which in turn causes people who should know better to shrug and say, “Well, they’ve always been killing each other. It’s a damn shame, but what can we do about it?”

    Someone really needs to explain that most of these “irreconcilable ancient hatreds” are of fairly recent vintage. But then I guess the whole “ancient hatreds” nonsense also fits in with the generally held idea that people outside of Northwestern Europe don’t undergo historical change and development, but instead exist in some timeless version of the European past.

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