The politics of being
In this chapter I want to try to capture both the nature of the ‘individual’ and the politics of ‘existence’. Although it may appear that such an approach is abstract, or vague, what I would like to do is very concrete. The aim here is to think about basic concepts, which we usually take for granted. We live in a world where, for instance, we do not often ponder the definition of the individual or spiritual foundations of existence. We study politics as though we could take for granted what it is about and how it works. This may well be convenient in the day-to-day business of explaining what our politicians are doing in our own countries, but it is limiting when we try to understand what is happening in settings very different from our own. It is indeed this very unreflective attitude that has led us to explain politics in Africa in terms that are all too often simplistic. If we are to think afresh, we must start at the beginning – that is, with what I call the politics of being.
It is customary in political science to construct analysis on the assumption that society is made of discrete units: individuals who have organised themselves to distribute and regulate power. This is a reasonable assumption but, on reflection, a very crude one. What in practice ‘individual’ and ‘society’ are, is not straightforward, and this is for two reasons. The first is that the actual definition of each depends on the relationship between the two: individuals are members of a particular society; societies are composed of particular individuals. The second is that, other than in strictly biological terms, the very notion of individual is problematic: human beings are contextually constructed. Nevertheless, even the best Africanist political science leaves untouched the question of how the tangible elements of people’s ‘existence’ matter for the reality of what it means to be an ‘individual’.
Right from the start, then, any approach to politics in Africa must tackle the question of what I call being – by which I mean the place and role of individuals within the environment in which they are born and live. The notion of being is not one that is designed to imply that this existential dimension is either unique to, or more significant in, Africa. It applies everywhere. Indeed, it would be useful, and I suspect enlightening, to take such an approach when discussing politics in the West as well. However, it is clear that it applies differently in different types of society and the key is to try to tease out the political implications of distinct ways of being. The intention here is to highlight areas that are common to all African societies, even if it is evident that there are vast, and vastly relevant, distinctions to be made between individuals within each society and between different communities.
I try to engage this issue by looking at three particular aspects of the question: origin, identity and locality. Although it may appear that these are self-evident ‘givens’, the founding blocks of any individual, this is not straightforwardly the case. Not only do these three concepts mean different things in separate settings but they are invested with different political meanings. Moreover, existing political theories approach them distinctly. And it is the political in which I am primarily interested. The point of looking at these three dimensions of the individual is not so much to provide a single definition of what they might mean in Africa – assuredly a fruitless quest – but to discuss the relevance they have both to the understanding and to the workings of politics at the local, regional and national levels. For this reason, I pay particular attention to the discourses attached to these terms and the political uses to which they have been put in post-colonial Africa.
One final caveat: the first two chapters are very closely connected. In some sense they cover the same ground but in complementary ways. They are here separated purely for analytical reasons. They address similar questions but come at them from different angles. The first tries to look at the identity of the person; the second at the nature of that person’s place in society. However, there is little doubt in my mind that ‘being’ and ‘belonging’ are two sides of the same coin, as it were, and that it would be pointless to try to discuss one without the other. Indeed, what ‘being’ is perceived to be cannot be dissociated from what ‘belonging’ in practice is. Similarly, as should be obvious, the three categories below are also interlinked and overlapping.
The literature on African politics pays very little attention to this question other than in terms of ethnicity. It is in this way directly continuous with the colonial vision of Africans, which built on the assumption that the continent’s inhabitants were primarily ‘tribal’ and that origin mattered first and foremost because it helped identify the nature of such ‘tribal’ identity. I return below to the question of identity but I want here to show how that vision of Africans has not only privileged an approach in terms of ethnicity but has also led to the neglect of crucial issues, which matter greatly for politics. The importance of distinguishing between identity and origin lies in the ability it gives us to deploy a thicker analysis of issues that are central to human beings – in Africa as elsewhere. The first step, therefore, is to clarify what origin means.
I mean here to touch on two separate issues: one has to do with the question of location – the place of birth or, if birth occurred elsewhere, the location of the family origin; the second is concerned with the importance of the link to the actual geographical site. Let me explain. We are all born somewhere but the symbolic and practical relevance of that location varies greatly. As a general rule, a place of birth matters if it is connected to other factors which are relevant to identity. The strongest such factors are family (in its broadest sense), history or community relations. Indeed, unless the birthplace is in such way identified, it tends to be neglected. That much is common to us all. To take non-African examples, and in so far as one can generalise: the French have historically been especially concerned to have been born ‘somewhere’; the Americans do not much care, even if they remember. The former value a sense of origin; the latter place more emphasis on who they are. The import of birth thus differs in these two Western societies.
In Africa, the places of birth and burial (the two being linked) matter greatly, fundamentally even, for a number of important religious, cultural and sociological reasons. Contrary to what is commonly believed, the place of origin is less a marker of ethnic identity than it is a marker of community (the two are not synonymous, as I will discuss later). Among the many important dimensions of origin, I want to highlight three in particular: land, ancestors and belief system. They form the core of what I would call the constraints of origin – although they are not normally perceived as such: they are so central to the sense of identity as to be taken entirely for granted. They are also obviously intertwined, and to such an extent that it becomes difficult to talk of one without discussing the other. For the sake of exposition, I take them in turn.
Land is the physical site that marks origin. It is fundamental, and prior, in every sense since it delimits the actual physical boundaries of the location whence people come and it identifies the features that identify this world: mountains, rivers, forests, lakes, savannah, sea, desert, and so on. Often there is a direct connection between a people’s myth of origin and the physical landmarks of the land they now inhabit. Oral histories explain in some detail why it is that the group is, or has come to be, in the actual physical location it now occupies. The story as it is told usually provides an explanation of why there is an intimate, not to say symbiotic, relation between what the group is and the site that defines its geographical identity. Life began when the gods touched the top of the mountain or poured the water that made the river.
But land is more. It is the environment within which a people have learnt how to live and work. ‘Traditional’ occupations – grazing, fishing, cultivating, and so forth – are set within the context of the site. A group’s various identities are derived from the relation it has had with the location and, even when they move, the members of that group continue to identify themselves as people of an area that is linked with particular occupations. This in itself may not matter greatly but it has a bearing on other aspects of identity and belonging. In Africa, occupation is frequently more important than ethnicity, as is obvious in the case of pastoralists. But it also matters in countries like Rwanda and Burundi where identity is derived as much from sociological as from ethnic factors – or rather, where the two cannot be dissociated. Elsewhere, there are profound and lasting issues having to do with the role of, for example, forests or sea, which continue to have an impact on how people see themselves and how they view their neighbours. Land, in short, is not just a physical attribute but is constitutive of what ‘being’ means – in the sense that it provides the context within which people define and organise themselves in socio-political terms. It also conditions the local political economy.
However, by far the most significant aspect of origin is the relation between the living and the dead – or the link to the ancestors. Of course, ancestors and land are intimately connected in the very real sense that the ancestors inhabit a concrete world that is identifiable within the geographical location from which the individual-within-the-group hails. Which is to say that the two cannot be dissociated artificially – for example, by offering an exchange of land or by relocating a particular group to another area, however economically attractive this may otherwise appear to be. The bond between land and ancestors is a given and may not be altered. It is the elemental reference point for the group, from which derive both belief and identity. To call it a reference point, however, is not to make it a causal determinant. People do not necessarily behave politically according to land and ancestors. It is the framework within which they identify themselves and it may, or may not, have political consequences, as we shall see.
The question of the ancestors, about which there is a large body of (mostly anthropological) work, is often misunderstood. The issue is not so much whether Africans ‘believe’ in the cult of the ancestors, as though this marked out their religion as somehow being more primitive. It is rather that the relation of group to land and the sense of origin are both rooted in the location where the ancestors are buried and propitiated. Nor is it a question of disputing the geographical position of such location – arguing for instance that more distant ancestors cannot possibly have been buried in this particular place. Rather it is that the link to the ancestors, wherever they are buried, is an integral part of the meaning of origin, and of the texture of identity, which cannot be disregarded. Therefore, there can be no complete sense of being that is not embodied in a physical place, which marks the link between the world of the living and the dead. Life itself is defined by that long chain. Today that chain may often be broken, in that individuals (youth, for instance) are now detached from their place of origin. This is not trivial, for them or for others; it has an impact on their sense of identity and on their own conception of their place in the world.
The relation between land and ancestors is, therefore, the very foundation of the belief system, or religion. Again, this is an element of African social life that has often been caricatured, not least by contemporary social scientists who have considered it a relic of outdated traditions. The key point here is not so much that African beliefs are rooted in the cult of ancestors, which is not an adequate way of translating what this means in practice. It is to try to explain how the belief system upon which ethical and socio-political values are erected draws intimately from the actual place of origin, the location and the roots of the self-acknowledged individual-within-the-community. This matters greatly for politics, in at least two important ways. One is that politics and politicians cannot be dissociated from their link to a concrete physical location, a place of origin to which they belong. The other is that the local remains central to the identity and action of all political actors, even if they operate primarily at the national level.
A great deal of what is seen merely as the parochialism of politics in Africa – including what seems to be an excessive partiality on the part of national politicians towards their home ‘area’ – cannot be adequately understood without reference to the meaning of origin. Of course, this is not to say that there is no corruption or that politicians do not abuse this aspect of the belief system, which they share with their constituents. It is to point out that any assessment of such abuse can only be made once it is understood what origin means. This varies according to groups and locations, and the actual details of the belief system are critical to a realistic understanding of these factors. What is not in question, however, is the relevance of such a dimension to political analysis. Here, as in many other areas, political scientists have comforted themselves in the idea that these questions were best left to anthropologists. They now need to realise that unless they address them squarely, they will be left without the means of determining the key reciprocal influences between the local and the national, which impinge on every aspect of political life in every African country.
Of all the issues connected with the study of African societies, none has been more problematic than that of identity. It is in a very real sense the most basic question confronting the social scientist who tries to conceptualise which local factors matter for social and political behaviour. Accordingly, there is no shortage of work on this question, which I cannot summarise here. Instead, I want to suggest that this is very much an area in which the questions asked actually do determine the answers. Historically, the colonial mindset subsumed virtually all issues of identity under the vague rubric of tribalism. This did not just influence how colonial governments behaved, it also had a profound impact on the ways in which Africans instrumentalised their identity in the colonial and post-colonial context. Anthropologists, though they were often seen to comfort the colonial officials’ equation of identity to tribe, were still likely to give a more refined account of how people viewed themselves. They were also more likely than officials to show that identity was contextual and adaptable. Nevertheless, they too frequently limited the range of possible interpretation.
I have shown elsewhere how the idea of a single concept of identity is misleading and why it is more useful to conceive of that notion in terms of overlapping circles of identity. This means that in each instance we must try to analyse the historical and local context within which to identify those markers of distinctiveness that are more salient. Unfortunately, much Africanist political analysis continues to limit research to a small number of broad ‘sociological’ factors – such as ethnicity, religion and occupation – which are both too general and too limiting. Too general in that they may or may not be salient. Too limiting in that they presume that such are always the key markers of identity, when that may well not be the case. Research into identity ought to be guided more firmly by local knowledge resulting from the observation of what matters politically in the particular setting – bearing in mind that this will clearly change over time.
Questions of identity are directly linked to those of belonging, discussed below. Here I want to follow the gist of the previous section and suggest that the most useful way of approaching this issue is to try to ascertain, in each given setting, what is and what is not negotiable. Let me hasten to add a key caveat: what is or is not negotiable is not immutable; it too changes over time, so that what we are doing here is to speak of the contemporary. As I explained above, matters of origin are not negotiable but, contrary to received wisdom on identity, most other markers are negotiable. And it is here that context-specific knowledge is required. For reasons having to do with their ubiquity in the literature, let me illustrate in more detail two broad areas of identity that are relevant to this discussion: ethnicity and religion – both of which are habitually taken to be non-negotiable when this is in fact not the case.
Although there is today a welcome renewal of interest in the question of ethnicity, which follows a long period when it was deemed to have been constructed, or even invented, by colonial rule, there is as yet insufficient attention paid to the fluidity of the concept. It is still used all too blithely as though its mere mention could ever be a sufficient explanation of political action. The distinction Lonsdale makes between ethnic morality and political tribalism has been helpful especially in the context of the author’s detailed discussion of Kikuyu moral economy. So is Hydén’s remark that ethnicity is more social than cultural. However, these are rare refinements of what remains a very crude and essentialising approach to the study of African identity. Moreover, the situation has been made worse by the huge, and ever growing, literature on conflict, which has often merely presumed that ethnicity was the key cause of violence.
Historically, ethnicity was a hybrid category, encompassing a range of social, cultural and economic markers. These were aggregated in different ways at different times. Not only was the notion of what it meant to belong to a particular ethnic group fluid but the criteria of appurtenance themselves could shift and evolve. Ethnicity was negotiable in many important ways: the genealogy of the group was broad and encompassing, expanding and contracting as necessary; people could move in and out of ethnic groups; the geographical boundaries of the grouping were vague, with a roughly agreed core and many fraying edges; both the ‘ideology’ and the ‘religion’ of the group were susceptible to change, either because of external events or simply because of migration, disease, and so on. Finally, individual and kinship groups could change their ethnic identity in many different ways, since language in itself was not a restrictively defining standard of belonging.
Although colonial rule formalised and ossified what had hitherto been flexible congeries of fluid group affiliations, it did not obliterate pre-colonial processes of identification. If ethnic groups became (fairly) rigidly defined and classified, individuals continued to move across boundaries. What changed decisively, however, was the instrumentalisation of ethnicity as the chief characteristic of social identity. As the colonial order was organised along ethnic lines, political action followed suit. Ethnicity became the language by which colonial masters and subjects set down the political agenda and organised representation. Even where, as in the French colonies, colonial governments favoured politics on a regional or territorial basis, and combated mobilisation on strictly ethnic lines, the introduction of elections based on universal suffrage stimulated the political deployment of ethnic considerations.
The politicisation of ethnicity, or the universal development of political tribalism, was greatly exacerbated after independence. Many African politicians realised that electoral competition would further intensify ethnic rivalry, tension and violence but found it expedient to continue to use this form of mobilisation. At the same time, the massive expansion of a modern form of patrimonialism along these newly congealed ethnic lines led to a system in which both political and economic factors favoured the ever greater ‘ethnicisation’ of African life. The fact that it began to loom larger in post-colonial politics should not be taken as evidence that ethnicity had necessarily become more central to the identity of most people on the continent. Ethnicity became the ubiquitous political language but ordinary men and women continued to see themselves, and consider others, as complex and multilayered individuals, with whom they interacted on a large number of registers. If ethnicity has become the weapon of choice, both for politics and violence, it has almost never acquired the ‘essentialised’ significance that outsiders have tended to attribute.
The same goes for religion, at least for ‘established’ religion – by which I mean Christianity and Islam. Africa has long been seen, at least by Europeans and Arabs, as a terrain of choice, where indigenous beliefs would not resist the sweep of monotheistic religion – even if there is strong evidence that outside religious influence has not always been as strong as is commonly believed. The most thoroughly converted areas – the region bordering the Muslim north and east, as well as the eastern and southern settler colonies where Africans were most brutally deracinated – give the lie to the bulk of the continent, where conversion was both languid and functional. As many missionaries discovered in the nineteenth century, Africans converted out of convenience or interest – rarely out of conviction. Nor, much to the chagrin of the missionaries, did conversion imply the abandonment of Africans’ own ‘native’ beliefs. African religions have always been highly adaptable and did not find it difficult to accommodate the strange dogma and rituals of the foreigners’ creeds.
What is most remarkable about (established) religion, then, is that it was an intermittent and additional register of identity that neither displaced nor undermined those that harked back to the pre-colonial period. For most of the colonial period, the political relevance of religious divisions was vastly exaggerated. Even in northern Nigeria, today the scene of what seems to be bitter and violent confrontation, Christians and Muslims had been living and working side by side for generations. The clashes came later, after independence, when competition for resources within an increasingly frantic neo-patrimonial system encouraged rivalry and resentment, for which religion became a convenient vehicle. To some, it may today seem hard to fathom that Islam is anything other than fundamentalist but at least in Africa it has historically been highly syncretic. African Muslims have long practised a form of Islam that accommodates local religious beliefs and makes space for socio-cultural practices that are nowadays frowned upon. So it has been with Christians, even in circumstances where the European missionaries threatened fire and brimstone. And, where necessary, African prophets have set up their own Christian churches, adapting foreign religion to local beliefs.
There is today an unmistakable hardening of religious belief in Africa on both sides of the great divide. Some Muslims, particularly in West Africa, are pushing a highly partisan reformist agenda and have links with fundamentalists elsewhere. Conversely, the great Pentecostal wave is sweeping across the continent, as it is in Latin America, resulting in massive conversions to a narrow form of Christianity, which rejects local beliefs and provides a strong sense of identity for those who feel they have been cast aside. These are significant developments with clear political implications but they are neither as new nor as radical as they appear. First, there have been waves of Islamic reform in the past, which have had strong political impact (among others the nineteenth-century jihad movements). Similarly, the Zionist and Kimbanguist movements, among others, had considerable influence in some areas of colonial Africa for long periods, even if they are now much diminished. On the whole these various spiritual ‘revolutions’ did not result in new forms of identity within which religion had suddenly become non-negotiable. Much as might have been expected, religious zeal had to compromise with myriad other factors that make up what I call the ‘politics of being’.
Here, I want to bring together the strands from the previous two sections to show that questions of origin and identity come together in the notion of community, or locality. On the face of it, this is a fuzzy, catch-all, category, which covers a very large number of possible forms of grouping. I will explore in the next chapter the concrete manifestations of community life. I would like at this stage to delve into the question of how people identify themselves and live together in society, how they evolve within the group of people into which they are born and which stands at the centre of their social life. This is important in itself if we are to understand the nature of the relationship between individual and society, and thereby the political context within which people live. But it is also important because it needs to serve as a warning against the simplifications of Western political theories that are based on the primacy of the a-contextualised individual, with no regard to how the very concept of individual is problematic and simply cannot be taken for granted.
It has often been remarked that in Africa the communal and local dimensions prevail over that of the individual. However, that observation is rarely developed conceptually or analytically. If it is discussed at all, it is either relegated to the question of ethnicity – that is, the influence of what is assumed to be the key marker of individual identity – or it is seen as a leftover from traditions that are fast (even if, in fact, not so fast) disappearing. In both instances, the presumption is that such communal aspects are but staging posts in a universal process of human development that results in converging forms of individualisation. Such considerations as may be made about this communitarian aspect do not prevent standard political theory from operating on the premise that individuals are the building blocks of politics, in Africa as elsewhere. As a result, analysis is concerned primarily to identify the causes of individual action, which, it is imagined, can be ascertained by means of questionnaires or surveys canvassing individual opinions. The problem is not so much that such opinions are not valid but simply that they can only be interpreted usefully when they are set within a broader socio-cultural framework.
Although colonial anthropology gave a picture of Africa as being essentially communal in nature, its conception of what that meant was limited. First, it operated on the assumption that the tribal unit was crucial. Second, it fitted discussions of kinship, a mainstay of classical anthropology, into that ethnic mould. Third, it gave very little attention to the dynamics of this supposedly tribal existence, and in particular to the ways in which traditions might have been modified by colonial rule or by other outside influences. Anthropologists, it seemed, had nothing to teach those political scientists who came in the 1960s to study the politics of modernisation in the newly independent African countries. Recent anthropological work, however, has been much more enlightening and I want to revisit the question of the relevance of locality to politics by focusing attention on those aspects of the relationship between ‘community’ and ‘individual’ I see as most relevant: gender, age and authority.
In contemporary Africa, gender issues are complex and many of those who discuss them have their own agenda. For instance, much has been made of the fact that in some countries the proportion of women MPs has grown considerably or that there are today many prominent women politicians. This is true as far as it goes but how deeply it affects actual politics on the ground is debatable – and certainly needs further research. The use of gender quotas may not be very effective at changing the nature of political participation. On the other side, numerous NGOs have pointed to the precarious conditions endured by women who are subjected to the pressures, constraints and even violence of ‘tradition’. Many deplore the lack of opportunity and education for women and all condemn female genital mutilation. There is plenty of evidence to sustain these campaigns. However, I am more concerned here to touch on the place of women as individuals-within-the-community and to try to assess the extent to which the current condition of women is (merely) a reflection of patriarchy or whether it arises out of a complex combination of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ factors. How does the division between men and women affect politics?
If, as I have argued, questions of origin and identity are crucial, then it is clear that gender cannot be dissociated from the socio cultural considerations that link these two factors. Women are not just ‘females’; they come from particular places and they share most circles of identity with males from their community of origin. This means, among other factors, that their female identity is partly determined by the ‘traditions’ of that community, regardless of whether they live in their place of origin, partly by the effects of that community’s moral and ethical standards and partly by their place in the local political economy. It is difficult, therefore, to generalise about women in Africa since many of these factors are contextually distinct. However, what is clear is that, in most societies, women inhabit a clearly delineated space with its own rules regarding social, economic and political activities. If women often are successful economic actors, they rarely engage directly in open politics and even more rarely stand for elected local office. Even where quotas are introduced, women are still subject to community constraints and, for example, rarely enter politics against the wishes of the significant male kin members.
The key point here is that in this respect, as in many others, it is important to stress the local aspects of female identity. Women and men are not autonomous sexualised individuals but female and male members of specific groupings, the ethos and values of which impinge strongly on their identity. Within such a context, the ways in which one behaves and belongs as a woman is inscribed in a long history. Changes both in the definition of female/male identity and in the ways ‘traditions’ affect political behaviour are slow and incremental. For this reason, it is necessary to pay particular attention to what are sometimes called the informal aspects of political roles and political action. Even the most ostensibly ‘modern’ politicians, including women, are in effect bound by ethical codes that are only fully intelligible if interpreted against the norms and values of particular localities. Much of what passes for corrupt or partisan action may also need to be explained in communal terms. Of course, this does not mean that such norms and codes are to be condoned; simply that they need to be understood in their local context.
Similarly, age plays an important role in one’s social position within a community. It is significant not just in terms of social hierarchy and political prominence – both of which are undeniably crucial – but also in terms of one’s own identity. However irrelevant it may seem in the era of fast modernity and sweeping globalisation, the notion of age group continues to have strong resonance in everyday life. Age is not merely a numerical marker in a continuous chronological series. Human beings are defined in part by their age and their position within the relevant age grouping. Even where rites of initiation no longer take place or carry much less conviction, the notion that male and female members of a community belong to a particular age group is of significance. Individuals are not only the sons and daughters of particular parents – and here, too, the term ‘parent’ can cover a variety of familial members – they are also the products of a particular groups as defined by the norms of age aggregation that are current in that particular locality. To say this is not to imply that age is determinant. It is not. But it may become salient, or politically relevant, in certain circumstances.
For instance, we know that in the Liberian conflict the violence was often organised and carried out according to ‘rules’ that derived from age-group politics.6 Both the ‘ideology’ and ‘practice’ of the violence could be related to, though obviously not ‘explained’ by, the disciplining and marshalling of brutality along such ‘traditional’ lines. Similarly, many of the violent groupings that used child soldiers to carry out atrocities during civil conflicts in Africa imposed their will by forcing young people to break the ‘taboos’ associated with age in their own community. By compelling these children to degrade, humiliate, mutilate and kill elders or parents, the warmongers cast them out of their community, to which they could never return – at least not without undergoing ceremonies of reintegration. This is not an irrelevant factor in the understanding of the genealogy and pathology of conflicts that have afflicted vast swathes of the continent and devastated generations of Africans.
In another register, it is essential to acknowledge the role of age in relations between politicians both within individual countries and across borders. It is widely acknowledged by Africanists that references to senior statesmen in terms that denote the experience, wisdom and equanimity associated with age are ubiquitous. Yet too little attention is paid by political scientists to the implications of such discourse for actual political action. Two examples will illustrate this point. Military takeovers by younger officers or even politicians often require the symbolic, sometimes physical, elimination of their elder politicians – as though they cannot aspire to legitimacy so long as their seniors are still active, or alive. And indeed, more often than not, a key reason why legitimacy is denied has to do with this aggression against age. Finally, it has been argued by some that one of the reasons Thabo Mbeki has never applied real pressure on Robert Mugabe was because he could not bring himself to exercise the leverage his country’s stature would command upon someone who was a nationalist father figure, or elder. Whether true or not, the fact that this is mentioned speaks to the relevance of the attributes of age.
The issue of age is intimately connected with that of authority, which is the last aspect of locality I want to stress in this chapter. Political science is concerned with the exercise of power, which all too often is unthinkingly assimilated to authority. However, the two are different in ways that matter. Power can be approached from a variety of different angles but it essentially entails the ability to force others to comply; by coercion if necessary. Authority implies a position of trust, competence and wisdom that confers upon those who are endowed with it the force of persuasion, rather than coercion. One can exercise power without authority but one cannot have authority without being acknowledged by others to be worthy of it.
Of course, in long-established and institutionalised political systems power and authority very largely overlap, though they are never equivalent. In African countries, on the other hand, the two are quite clearly separate, even if some politicians are able to combine their attributes successfully. Not only must authority and power be conceptualised separately, they must also be placed in their appropriate context. Comparative politics has very little to say on the matter save for the trivial, though not wholly untrue, remark that the former belongs to the realm of ‘tradition’ whereas the latter is of the ‘modern’. Yet this only confuses the issue because it confines it to a simplistic dichotomy that does not reflect reality and, more significantly, fails to come to terms with the ways in which ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, formal and informal, actually overlap or coexist.
Issues of authority have been acute since the colonial period because the imperial powers contrived to rearrange ‘native’ political structures to their best convenience. This meant collaborating with established chiefs in some instances and appointing so-called colonial chiefs in other cases. The result was the creation of a political system in which power and authority became dissociated. Even legitimate ‘traditional’ leaders, recognised as such by the population, were discredited when it became obvious they had to become colonial auxiliaries. Their authority was not necessarily in doubt but it became clear that authority without colonial endorsement meant powerlessness. As for ‘colonial’ chiefs, they never acquired legitimate authority but they could sometimes exercise enormous power. The post-colonial transition confused matters even more since in most cases it amounted to a nationalist ‘coup’ by a generation of politicians that lacked either age or ‘traditional’ authority but who wielded virtually untrammelled power. Since then, not only have authority and power grown further apart but new questions have arisen about the legitimacy of politicians, and even of politics tout court.
Since independence, politicians have sought, with uneven success, to combine power with authority. If in the early days of the postcolony it seemed they had managed either to obliterate or usurp ‘traditional’ authority, it became apparent during the one-party period that this was not the case. Not only did ‘traditional’ kings, chiefs and spirit mediums continue to exercise authority, but the ‘modern’ politicians themselves began to feel the need to acquire ‘traditional’ authority. This was not just for the reasons adduced by political scientists: that is, as an instrumental means of buttressing their legitimacy. It was also, and perhaps more importantly, because politicians remained part of their grouping of origin as defined above and their own identity rested in part on their ability to propitiate the keepers of their locality. In other words, these politicians themselves realised that their ‘modern’ roles did not really address the demands of the ‘traditional’ world to which they also belonged and in respect of which they defined themselves as individuals. As we shall see later, the influence of the community is perhaps most graphically demonstrated by the impact of witchcraft upon national politicians, who thus remain susceptible to local pressure.
To conclude, the concept of the politics of being is an attempt to focus attention on issues of identity and locality that are usually neglected or, worse, taken for granted. Because most political theories of Africa rehearse the same arguments about the primacy of certain forms of identification, especially ethnicity, they overlook other, arguably more important, questions concerning the meanings of the individual, the import of origin, the significance of age and the nature of authority. These markers of identity, which are particularly relevant in Africa today, need to be studied in their local and historical context. They all have distinct influence on the discourses and connotations of politics as well as on the complex ways in which power is exercised. They are also characteristics that filter the sense given to political issues and map out the texture of political opinion.