What Mali’s recent past reveals about its present woes, Part 1: The road to nongovernmentality

These days the sovereignty of the Malian state looks more hypothetical than ever. The government’s control over its northern regions ranges from tenuous to nonexistent. Kidal has been firmly under the rule of Tuareg separatists for two years, while only the presence of French and UN troops prevents Gao and Timbuktu from falling back into the hands of the jihadists who occupied them for most of 2012. In Bamako, the treasury is heavily dependent on foreign aid, and public spending is subject to audits by the International Monetary Fund.

To consider how the Malian nation-building project reached this juncture, some Empire to NGOs coverobservers might look back to previous, and ultimately unsuccessful, peace accords signed between the Malian government and northern rebels in 1992 and 2006. Others might look back to the strictures of neoliberalism that cut state budgets and sapped public faith in the Malian state from the 1980s. Historian Gregory Mann, in his new book From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel, looks back even further, to the very origins of the region’s postcolonial states in the early 1960s. Examining the policies pursued by West African founders of independence affiliated with the pan-Africanist Rassemblement Democratique Africaine party (RDA), Mann traces the erosion of state sovereignty in the Sahel through what he calls a “prehistory of neoliberal Africa” focusing on the period from the 1960s and ‘70s before neoliberalism came into vogue.

While the book has an explicitly regional focus, it keeps Mali firmly at its center as it follows the evolution of postcolonial sovereignty in the Sahel through four areas: the emergence of nationalist political elites in the late 1950s; the implementation of state migration policies in the 1960s and ‘70s; the proliferation of nongovernmental humanitarian relief organizations during the droughts of the 1970s; and the success of nongovernmental human rights organizations, particularly Amnesty International, in raising public awareness about the treatment of political prisoners.

The following is excerpted from a recent interview with Professor Mann. The second half of the interview, focusing on persistent issues of conflict from the 1960s to the present, will be posted next week.

BfB: Your book’s subtitle is “The road to nongovernmentality.” How would you define nongovernmentality?

GM: It’s a phenomenon of governmental rationality in which the functions of government around the preservation of life increasingly get taken over by nongovernmental organizations and fall outside the realm of the state’s activities. So the idea of nongovernmentality does not necessarily take as its corollary that NGOs are hyper-powerful, or all-powerful. It simply observes that many functions of government, in the Foucauldian sense of husbanding and controlling the conditions of life, slip away from the state, are eschewed by it, or are pushed onto NGOs. And it’s important not to fall into a common logical fallacy that I myself was working under for a long time, that the rise of NGO power is at the cost of state power. In many ways the one can enable the other.

BfB:  Early in the book you state that one of your aims is “to move away from a zero-sum analysis in which NGO strength is a function of state weakness.” What made you drop the zero-sum view?

GM: I think it came partly from recognizing, even early in the game—as early as 1974—[Nigerien President] Hamani Diori was reaching out to American NGOs to try to expand his sphere of influence, the number and ilk of his allies.

BfB: You write that an American NGO, Africare, was operating out of Niger’s embassy in Washington for a time. [See a short summary of this history on Africare’s website.]

JCKennedy Niger

Africare co-founder Dr. Joseph C. Kennedy in Niger in the 1970s

GM: Which is astounding, and there are fascinating links between the African-American diaspora in the US and these African governments that appear in the 1970s. They’re counter-intuitive in two ways. The first is that the governments in question are francophone and quite far from the most familiar corners of the continent for the African diaspora—we’re not talking Ghana! The second is that these are actually highly technical problems [that the NGOs are being mobilized to address] that are distant from the everyday concerns of the African diaspora in the US. Concerns around famine, pastoralism—how do people in Harlem see that in their daily lives? They see poverty in a very different way. And I think that’s why that moment fades out and is kind of forgotten, because by the mid- to late-1970s, it’s Angola, it’s Mozambique, it’s Rhodesia, there’s a much more visible narrative of white power and minority domination on the continent.

In some ways, by passing off some of its responsibilities to outside actors like NGOs, an African state can liberate itself to focus on other things. (Security of the regime, for example, might rank high.) It can focus on other kinds of politics and a narrower view of what the function of the state really is.

BfB: How do you explain the emergence of nongovernmentality?

GM: I think of nongovernmentality as a phenomenon or an effect, not as something that is intended or planned or designed. It is something that emerges over time as the functions of government, in the broadest sense, begin to escape from the state, which is no longer sovereign in many ways. In the Amnesty cases, in the most literal ways, the state is no longer sovereign over life and death of its own citizens—which Agamben, for instance, would have you think is absolutely central to the very idea of what sovereignty is. So when I began work on this I was thinking more about Agamben’s ideas of sovereignty and that actually fell out; I don’t think he’s even in the bibliography. I was originally thinking through those ideas in terms of the human rights cases. So what I mean by nongovernmentality is more a phenomenon that emerges over time that is not planned or controlled by any particular set of actors, but more the governmental rationality that characterizes modern statecraft, and the work of government more broadly slips into this sphere of what we would later call “civil society” of the non-governmental organization. And in that sense it’s removed from any kind of direct politics, which is the great complaint of many African political activists—key questions are being posed and answers being proposed outside their spheres of engagement, and that’s fundamentally anti-democratic.

BfB: Your book highlights a paradox concerning the timing of the advent of nongovernmentality and the erosion of state sovereignty in the Sahel.

GM: The argument I was trying to make is that the 1960s and ‘70s was the period when state sovereignty was valued the most highly and had the greatest weight politically. It was at that point that you see the beginning of this sort of NGO power. And usually we think of the neoliberal period in Africa as being post-Cold War, late 1980s and 1990s. But the rise of NGO power is actually in the ‘60s and ‘70s: it takes off when state sovereignty is so cherished and political leaders [in the Sahel] are so concerned about neocolonialism and anticolonialism. And they think of their sovereignty as very contingent, [not] as fixed or stable at all—as we now, even in the most dire circumstances, more or less assume that it is. (Either now you argue that all sovereignty is a charade, or you recognize that even in a situation as dire as January 2013, Malian sovereignty is still at least recognized and preserved in a formal and legal sense.)

So the people most interested in creating and forwarding Mali’s anticolonial political tradition were themselves deeply tapped into Third Worldist or Communist networks; in some senses it was those networks, especially trade union networks in the 1940s and 50s, overlapping as they did with the Communist Party and with the RDA, that opened the gate to much of the human rights politics, a completely different form of politics. That liberal human rights politics of Amnesty International in the late 1970s couldn’t be further away from RDA, trade union or French Communist Party politics of the ‘50s and ‘60s, let alone in the ‘40s which is when those guys cut their teeth.

BW: But by the 1970s, “those guys” were among the intended beneficiaries of Amnesty’s campaigns.

Ibrahima Ly

Ibrahima Ly

GM: It was the whole category of people who had been held as prisoners since the fall of the RDA regime. Some people were classic “prisoners of conscience” types, like Ibrahima Ly [author of a 1974 antigovernment tract entitled “La Farce Electorale,” imprisoned from 1974 to 1978], or Victor Sy… intellectuals who because of their speech are deemed dangerous and thrown into prison. The case of the RDA politicians is a little greyer. But Amnesty adopted all of them as cases collectively, insofar as their conditions of detention were deemed to be so inhumane. So it was a big spectrum of people who fell into that rubric.

BfB: You write that human rights campaigns had “viral effects.” What do you mean by that?

GM: This metaphor is meant to capture the idea that human rights NGOs acted in literally a viral fashion, attaching themselves to existing political networks (e.g. trade unions) in the interest of benefiting vulnerable prisoners, but in doing so they reprogrammed the cells of the hosts for their own purposes, for their own reproduction. I mean this as a very objective metaphor; it is not meant to say that human rights groups are a disease afflicting Sahelian states.

But the particular kind of activism that Amnesty represented actually vitiated other organizations, which had a particular political position, of their original objects. The issue became how the prisoners were treated, not how the society was governed or why it was that people had gone to prison in the first place. Amnesty’s activism attached itself to an existing network of activists and effectively changed its orientation, and then Amnesty exploded as an NGO from 1977 to 1978, won the Nobel peace prize, became a significant player in world politics, [and] the number of its chapters and members exploded in Europe and the US. At that moment, the kind of internationalist socialist vision that the US-RDA espoused was beginning to look outdated; it was no longer about inequality or control over the means of production, all those Marxist terms went away and in Amnesty’s vision everything became a matter of freedom of speech, freedom of dissent. Which is odd because it makes it appear that the political prisoners had been dissenting for the sake of dissent, but that wasn’t the case. “La Farce Electorale” is not Pussy Riot in a Moscow church.

The second part of this interview, appearing on March 25, will examine some of the ways discourses about Mali’s present-day instability resonate with the country’s early independence period.

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2 Responses to What Mali’s recent past reveals about its present woes, Part 1: The road to nongovernmentality

  1. Pingback: What Mali’s recent past reveals about its present woes, Part 2: Of chiefs, slaves, and “paranoid nationalism” | Bridges from Bamako

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