Invented Communities in Africa and America

by zunguzungu

In Garry Wills’ Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, the phrase is used in a positive way, just as when Mark Egan Essig used the phrase for his Inventing America: the life of Benjamin Franklin or Jack Rakove’s Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America. When the American state is “invented,” it is a good thing.

 By contrast, when the New York Times offers us the picture on the left and the following text, the unmistakable implication is that political states which do not perfectly align with pre-existing ethnic communities are, if not unnatural, somewhat problematic:

A Continent Carved Up, Ignoring Who Lives Where The map of today’s African nations looks much like the map drawn by Europeans to meet their own interests: diverse groups are scattered across many countries with little concern for ethnic links. The patterns shown here represent only the broadest ethnic and language groupings; within those are further divisions, like tribe and clan, too numerous to show.

In the accompanying article, this point (the “Colonial Curse”) is made explicit:

More than any other continent, Africa is wracked by separatists. There are rebels on the Atlantic and on the Red Sea. There are clearly defined liberation movements and rudderless, murderous groups known principally for their cruelty or greed. But these rebels share at least one thing: they direct their fire against weak states struggling to hold together disparate populations within boundaries drawn by 19th-century white colonialists. That history is a prime reason that Africa remains, to a striking degree, a continent of failed or failing states.

The most obvious point, of course, is that the USA is about as invented a community as it’s possible to imagine; ours is a map drawn by Europeans utterly without reference to ethnic groups, and yet we’ve done all right, haven’t we? And every state, every map, every nation in the world is this as well. So, um, what’s the point again? 

The second thing is that Jeffrey Gettleman’s opening paragraph doesn’t really say anything at all. In that most African states are “weak states struggling to hold together disparate populations within boundaries drawn by 19th-century white colonialists,” then yes, it’s true that African rebels have in common the fact that they’re rebelling against that kind of state. But at least as many rebels are trying to capture the state as seperate from it, and in the most war-torn parts of the continent, they’re just trying to maintain the status quo; war is its own political economy in Eastern Congo, for example, and there are many places where borders are too irrelevent to fight over. Gettleman’s sweeping generalization works, in other words, because it actually says so little, and so tautologically. 

And the third point to make is –um,  how should I put this — what a useless map that is. It purports to demonstrate something like ethnic diversity, but what it really shows is an incredibly impoverished version of linguistic diversity, by which, apparently, everyone between Gabon and Mozambique speaks the same language. In fact, just to hit up the difference between Tanzania and Mozambique which that map doesn’t flag: Portuguese is the closest thing to a national language of Mozambique, but because of the particularities of colonial and postcolonial experience, the country is completely divided by language, while Tanzania is almost completely unified by Kiswahili, thanks to the success in doing so first by the Germans and British and then by Nyerere’s postcolonial government. That map tells you nothing of what is actually important, nothing of the histories by which Tanzania and Mozambique were made into what they are as national communities.

One would never want to ignore the destructive effects the scramble for Africa had on Africans, and the last thing I want to do is downplay the extent to which contemporary African politics are organically related to that historical event. But history didn’t stop after that point, and this capsule account of the “colonial curse” relies on your being completely ignorant about almost all of it. The problem with colonization isn’t that Europeans drew up maps “with little concern for ethnic links,” and it isn’t true anyway. The problem is that Europeans drew up the maps they did with the intention of extracting as much in the way of labor and  resources as they could from Africans, and then did exactly that, often by quite carefully seeking to divide and conquer Africans by ethnicity.

It lets Europe off the hook in a hugely important ways to imagine that Europeans were, in any sense, unaware of ethnicity. Precisely the opposite was the case. In most cases, it was Europeans who taught (and forced) Africans to be “ethnic” in the first place. This is not a small point. When Europeans set about conquering Africa, they discovered quite quickly that it was a lot harder than they expected: it was relatively easy to kill Africans, but simply shooting people didn’t actually give a colonial administrator much to work with in terms of actually controlling them and extracting labor and resources. Africans often didn’t live in anything like the absolutist ethnic states which Europeans wanted them to live in — which would have made it easier to govern them — so Europeans colonial administrators worked very hard to create absolutist  ethnic tribal groups and then force Africans to live in them.

This is not to say that ethnicity didn’t exist before  colonization; that sort of generalization is also hard to sustain, as most continental level generalizations are. But the general rule was that the sort of political state which was suited for organizing and controlling a population’s labor and resources did not exist before colonial rule, and had to be invented, and was, by Europeans. “Gikuyu,” for example, means “farmer,” and it distinguished the people (in what is now Kenya) who lived by farming, and took a pride in it, from the people who lived a more pastoral life in the same area, and spoke a different language. But the groups intermarried, crossed over, and traded with each other when they felt like it, and neither was a single political group anyway; there was no Maasai state or nation, nor was there a Gikuyu nation. That is, until Europeans — with their maps and censuses — decided that there was, and codified it into colonial law.  After that, there were such “ethnic” groups, and you can find a version of this phenomenan across the continent; “We didn’t know we were members of X tribe until Europeans told us we were,” is a common refrain. And after that point, it became true, in the same way that my ancestors became “American” at the moment a census decided they were.  

This is not even a controverisal argument, by the way. Read Terence Ranger’s “The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa,” or Leroy Vail’s The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa, or Mahmood Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, or Crawford Young’s Ethnicity and Politics in Africa, or listen to Bruce Berman on this subject, or read just about anything at all on the subject but the New York Times. What you will get from that experience is a better understanding of the extent to which the MSM’s conception of Africa presumes and propogates an intuitive distinction between Africans and the West based on this difference: while it is normal for Westerners — being nturally secular and creative and self-making — to invent and create our own states and governments (to declare our independence and “constitute” ourselves), the fact that Africans are saddled with artificial states is an inherent problem because Africans are, you know, basically tribal, ethnic, and clannish, basically the same as they always were. Because they’re so naturally insular and tribalist, it’s natural for them to fight against the artificial states they’ve been saddled with by colonialism, even a thing to be celebrated. Except — and here’s the really important point — those colonial maps have long ceased to be foreign to Africa, any more than it continues to be weird for Virginians and Pennsylvanians and Californians to live in the same country. “Nigeria” might have once been a colonial imposition, but as Chinua Achebe put it in The Education of a British-Protected Child:

I lived through a civil war in which probably two million people perished over the question of Nigerian unity. To remind me, therefore, that Nigeria’s foundation was laid only a hundred years ago, at the Berlin conference of European powers and in the total absence of any Africans, is not really useful information to me. It is precisely because the nation is so new and so fragile that we would soak the land in blood to maintain the frontiers mapped out by foreigners.