“Politics of the Belly” in Africa

The complexities and idiosyncrasies of the socio-political landscape of sub-Saharan, has in turn led many to view the continent as outside the larger international system, for states in Africa often do not follow the prescribed norms and forms of the western Westphalian state system. The historicity of ethnicity, language as well as relations of control and power, have created a unique societal makeup and mentality, which evades most non-Africans. Jean-Francois Bayart, attempts in his work The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly, to offer an explanatory theory, concerning the functioning of African states. Bayart counters previous theories which view Africa through purely racial, ethnic, colonial or evolutionary terms, preferring to introduce a new analytic framework with which to begin to understand Africa. The politics of the belly is a term, which attempts to bring into the focus the various undercurrents which help shape African societies, specifically detailing the role played by history, hegemony, governmentality and extroversion. By synthesizing and critiquing the various, arguably narrowly focused theories concerning Africa, the Politics of the Belly offers a convincing interpretation of the political reality of the continent.

The predominate preconception concerning the historicity of Africa, is expressed by Hegel in which he states that Africa “is not interesting from the point of its own history, but because we see man in a state of barbarism and savagery.” Hegel goes on, claiming that Africa has remained isolated from the rest of the world, thereby not becoming an integral part of the world. Bayart counters Hegel, comparing his views to those the Orientalists – mentioning the works of Edward Said, and the need for such views to be dispelled. Bayart argues that Africa has long played a role in the larger geo-political, social and economic systems of the world, and that the notion of African primitiveness is based upon euro-centrism and the projection of western notions of civilization and society. Africa has long enjoyed a multilateral osmosis of information, goods and ideas with the outside world, be it the arrival of Islam and Christianity or inter-continental trade with Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Instead of perpetuating the notion of the noble savage, and of African innocence (ignorance, childishness etc.), Bayart argues that historically the interactions between Europeans and Africans were dialogical. He proposes that Africans have been active agents rather than passive bystanders in their dealings with European, specifically colonial powers. Bayart mentions the active participation of African leaders in the slave trade, noting that “we must accept that African participation…was voluntary and under the control of African decision makers…Europeans possessed of no means, either economic or military to compel African leaders to sell slaves.” Slavery is not an institution foreign to Africa, and many African tribes, acted as middle men, exploiting the opportunity by offering their services and slave trading expertise to the Europeans. By referencing such interactions, Bayart attempts to show that the current socio-political situation in sub-Saharan Africa is not the result of a regression to inherent passive and naive tendencies, in the absence of colonial power.

While Bayart refutes the Hegelian interpretation of Africa, he does however acknowledge the role played by the colonial experience in shaping the states in sub-Saharan Africa. The notion that Africa lacks any history prior to contact, can be seen as a result that Europeans viewed the continent as uncivilized and therefore bereft of a history, for only civilizations create history. The perception that Africa was somehow outside the flow of history, has been perpetuated by the fact that many Europeans saw, and subsequently wrote about Africa as the “heart of darkness” – a primaeval land. The influences of colonization on the continent are clearly visible in the cartography of Africa, however colonial practices merged with African traditions on a far more local level as well. The hierarchical structure of colonial administrations and of African tribal and clan groups, mirrored each other, and following independence many African governments continued using the same techniques and practices.

The politics of the belly is an attempt on the part of Bayart to name the nameless, to explain the fabric of African political society. Bayart makes use of Foucault’s term, governmentality, or the perceptions and methods of a government concerning how it organizes both itself, society and specifically its dealings in power politics with the latter. Governmentality is employed because “rather than the overly equivocal concepts of culture, ideo-logic, legitimate problematic and hegemony…the concept [governmentality] is more likely to avoid the trap of unwarranted totalisation.”
The power structure in sub-Saharan Africa is according exemplified by the Cameroonian political cartoon of the tethered goat stating ‘I graze therefore I am.’ The focus on the satisfaction of immediate and personal interests and wishes via the apparatus of the state system is a defining feature of power-politics in Africa. This stems in part from the role played by intermediaries and indigenous bureaucrats, who operated within the colonial system, and in return for their service where allowed to gain concessions from their positions and power for their specific regions or ethnic-linguistic group.

The notion of governmentality is linked with that of extroversion, dependence, and subordination. Extraversion entails the gratification from what is outside of the self, specifically the practices and motivation to acquire material resources and power. The impulse to be able to benefit from the current political atmosphere / situation, compels political actors to “mobilize resources derived from their (possibly unequal) relationship with the external environment.” By dependence, Bayart does not mean dependence on foreign or colonial power, but rather the inter-dependence which characterizes how many African states view their relations with society. Bayart states that “the paradigm of the strategy of extraversion, at the heart…is the creation and capture of a rent generated by dependency and which functions as a historical matrix of inequality.” Networks of dependence in sub-Saharan Africa range from the almost parasitic exploitation of the rural population, to mutually dependent relationship which promote the power of specific demographics and patronage. At the heart of these relationships of dependence and subordination is an “increasing polarization within African societies…structured as a dichotomy along the lines of the old theme of ‘us’ and ‘them’…the Ghanaian ‘big man-small boy’ syndrome…is [also] found in most other African societies.” Political society in turn can be viewed as a patch work of overlapping circles of subordination, with powerful individuals at the centers, and their retinue gravitating around them. One can argue that while networking certainly exists in the West, it does not make up the totality of power-politics. Where it would characterized as nepotism, simony and corruption in West, these terms imply deviations from a norm – if these forces are the norm and are legitimized, the perceptions surrounding them change.

The legitimization of the particular methods of control and power-politics is important to understanding the apparent instability of the ‘visible’ facets of societal and political control (governments, leadership positions etc.) Dependence and hegemony are interlinked for the former undermines the latter, as there exists no one force in most if not all sub-Saharan countries which exerts a monopoly on legitimate force. The connection between the prevalence of dependence and the lack of hegemony is witnessed in that -“Africans have been active agents in the mis en dependance of their societies…in such a way that it became an anachronism to reduce home grown-strategies to formulas of nationalism or indeed of collaboration.” The lack of hegemony in African societies severely undermines the notion of ‘state’ as defined by the West. Instead of the politics of the belly being subordinate to the state, the state, lacking the monopoly on legitimate violence, is in turn synchronized and absorbed into the politics of the belly, resulting in turn a socio-political chimera which defies definition by conventional theoretical means.

The politics of the belly attempts to shift the paradigm concerning Africa away from purely considering colonialism and dependency, and in turn offers a new framework via which to conceptualize Africa. The interplay of forces such as hegemony, dependency, extraversion and subordination, all contribute to the define Bayart’s conceptualization of sub-Saharan Africa. Bayart’s work attempts to break with traditionalist thinking, and by merging both the experiences and insights of African polities and the position as an outside observer, tries to shine a spotlight on the heart of darkness.

J.D. Luedi is a listener from Switzerland and contributing writer for Stimulatedboredom.com

As a history, international relations and politics nerd, its great to find an outlet like this to hear the rantings of my ego echoed so eloquently by Dana. I am a Canadian-Swiss citizen, bilingual (English, German) I love reading and sincerly wished more people would pick up a book on a regular basis - especially one other than those allegedly penned by some divinity