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Africa Today 49.2 (2002) 161-163



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Schatzberg, Michael. 2001. Political Legitimacy in Middle Africa: Father, Family, Food. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 292 pp.

During this reviewer's first prolonged stay in Gabon, the rationale behind the choice of articles published in state-operated newspapers and segments presented on the national television station never failed to baffle me and my African colleagues. Other than a sprinkling of international news and the invariable appearance of progovernment editorials, journalists spent most of their time detailing lists of participants in political and religious events and visits of ministers to rural regions. Until reading Michael Schatz-berg's latest work, I thought these materials consisted simply of thinly veiled and poorly crafted government propaganda. Using sources rarely touched by political scientists such as newspapers, press communiqués, and literary sources, Schatzberg has made a compelling challenge to recent discussions of civil society and common American social-science methods in grappling with politics in contemporary Africa.

Schatzberg's central arguments will not surprise those familiar with Jean-François Bayart, Peter Geschiere, or Achille Mbembe. Political scientists, the author contends, have misunderstood the nature of political legitimacy in Africa by making a sharp distinction between state actors and civil society, concentrating on state-centered approaches and formal ideology, and ignoring the social meanings embedded in political language. Through newspapers and novels, one can discern "threads of a common discourse" that reflect "certain unarticulated assumptions about political life" (p. 7). The author tries to tie together the words of state authorities, views of ordinary people, and "indigenous commentators" within African societies (p. 69). To make a comparative study that crosses religious, regional, and linguistic divides, Schatzberg examines material from eight countries: Senegal, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, and Cameroon.

These discourses form a "moral matrix of legitimate governance," which presents the nation as a family guided by a paternal leader. Leaders, according to this cultural logic, are expected to distribute aid and wealth just as fathers are expected to provide food for their families. Though father-chiefs are seen as having the right to punish and correct those who have gone astray from expected behavior, heads of state must accept limitations of proper consumption of resources for selfish ends or face criticism [End Page 161] for their gluttonous "eating" of resources. Within the matrix, women are often excluded from formal political activity in favor of economic activities. Even so, political figures must respect in principle the role of women to provide commentary on their behavior during times of crisis. In regard to the alternation of power, state authorities should eventually accept the need for younger people to replace them, just as children grow up to become parents, rather than remain perpetual children. Finally, government authorities and religious leaders share common ground in their ability to control public and occult powers for their own ends. People use and combine alternative forms of rational, religious, and supernatural causality to understand political leaders' actions

Though his presentation is not startlingly original, Schatzberg scores points in reviewing his broad array of sources in clearly written prose. Photographs of officials visiting religious leaders and the presence of Muslim and Christian clerics at state meetings are acts of mutual recognition between figures of authority working in a common field of power (pp. 77-83). Instead of viewing religious leaders acting as political agents as coopted by governments, one should recognize the lack of a fixed boundary between political and religious interests. Schatzberg's succinct review of "sorcery" in Mobutu's regime in Congo is thought-provoking. Though perhaps a bit too fond of criticizing colleagues in political science, he recognizes that Western social-science models do have some value, as many areas of overlap exist between ideas on politics in Africa and ideas on politics in the West (p. 142).

This book will undoubtedly create controversies. Scholars trained in anglophone political science undoubtedly know of the importance attached to supernatural power and the ideology of paternalism, but might reply to Schatzberg that his evidence supports their contention...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1978
Print ISSN
0001-9887
Pages
pp. 161-163
Launched on MUSE
2003-03-14
Open Access
No
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