Africa Today 47.3/4 (2000) 177-181
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It is fortunate that in the same year, the excellent "African Issues" series of London's International African Institute gives us the best that French Africanist scholarship has to offer. The Criminalization of the State in Africa is exemplary of the École de Paris, whose chef de file is none other than France's premier Africanist, Jean-François Bayart, and which includes such other luminaries as Jean-Pierre Chrétien and Achille Mbembe. Africa Works is representative of the École de Bordeaux, centered around that University's famed Centre d'étude d'Afrique noire and the journal Politique africaine, led (inter alia) by Patrick Chabal, Jean-François Médard, and Daniel Bourmaud, a School which ostensibly differs from--but often agrees with--Bayart's group in its approach to the study of African politics and society, as this review will demonstrate.
First published in French in 1997 as La criminalisation de l'État en Afrique (Editions Complexe), The Criminalization of the State in Africa definitely bears Bayart's intellectual imprint and builds on the author's earlier seminal work, The State in Africa (Longman, 1993), in which he developed the concepts of la politique du ventre ("the goat grazes where it is tied," "those in power intend to 'eat'") and of the "rhizome state" (so-called because of its metaphorical resemblance to a tangled underground root system). Resolutely taking a longue durée historical perspective à la Fernand Braudel, the authors suggest that contemporary Africa is returning to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: "a slide towards criminalization throughout the subcontinent is a strong probability" (pp. 30-31). Furthermore, following Charles Tilly's Coercion, Capital, and European States (1990), they argue that in Africa, the interaction between power, war, capital accumulation, and various illicit activities constitutes a specific political trajectory which must be viewed in a long-term historical perspective. According to the authors, this process of criminalization of politics and the state in Sub-Saharan Africa reflects the increasing normalization of patently criminal practices: "the relationship between economic accumulation and tenure of political power in Africa now exists in new conditions. These have been created by the restoration of authoritarian regimes, . . . through a process of economic and financial rot, by the erosion of state [End Page 177] sovereignty, and by the multiplication of armed conflicts covering entire regions" (pp. 8-9). Each of the authors then proceeds to give substance to this argument by focusing on various dimensions of the criminalization of the state in Africa: the political (Bayart), the economic (Hibou), and South Africa as a case study (Ellis) (in my view a better sequence than the book's outline, where South Africa is sandwiched between the two disciplines).
In an incisive and thought-provoking chapter strangely entitled "The 'Social Capital' of the Felonious State, or the Ruses of Political Intelligence" (by which he really means: "the political resourcefulness of African actors"), Bayart argues that historically war was endemic to Africa: "Inasmuch as the pax britannica or the paix coloniale ever existed at all, it was no more than a brief parenthesis in a history haunted by the specter of war" (pp. 43-4), and that the current political economy of low-intensity conflict linked to international organized crime "would be no more than an illustration of the reappearance of this mode of government" in Africa (p. 44). Indeed, Bayart goes as far as to argue that war has, in fact, become the dominant mode of state formation in contemporary Africa: "Perhaps what is really at stake in these conflicts is less the disintegration of the state, but the opposite, its formation . . . . Dissidence, war and banditry . . . do not necessarily threaten the formation or existence of a state. They can, on the contrary...