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  • A Socialist Peace? Explaining the Absence of War in an African Country by Mike McGovern
  • Carole Ammann
McGovern, Mike. 2017. A SOCIALIST PEACE? EXPLAINING THE ABSENCE OF WAR IN AN AFRICAN COUNTRY. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 249 pp. $30 (paper), $90 (cloth).

In A Socialist Peace? Explaining the Absence of War in an African Country, the anthropologist Mike McGovern elucidates why Guinea, unlike its neighbors, has not fallen into civil war. He convincingly argues that the explanation for the population's decision not to go to war lies in the country's socialist past. Sékou Touré, Guinea's first president (1958–1984), left a contradictory and highly contested legacy, but he successfully inculcated a sense of national identity in the country's citizens. In times of acute threat, as during the cross-border attacks of 2000 and 2001, well after Touré's reign, habitual practices learned during the socialist period reemerged.

McGovern's ambition is to speak about the whole country during the turbulent times between 1990 and 2010, emphasizing the Forest Region and the cross-border attacks of 2000 and 2001. He has at his command a profound knowledge of Guinea in general and the Forest Region in particular, where he has been conducting fieldwork in rural and urban areas for more than twenty-five years. This volume, engagingly and clearly written, provides political, social, and ethnolinguistic details of transformation processes taking place at local, prefectural, and national levels. [End Page 113]

The book is structured in three parts. In the first, McGovern explains how narratives around historical marginalization, victimhood, and betrayal have led to a hardening of identities among the Loma-speakers of the Forest Regions since the early 1990s. These sentiments were the basis of a massacre in Nzérékoré in 1991. This and other, less extensive killings added to the idea, already widespread in Guinea, that the inhabitants of the Forest Region are savage and nonmodern. In times of political contestation, food preferences and taboos are politically instrumentalized to discredit political opponents. Hence, because people from the Forest Region eat bush meat, the rest of Guinea imposes its superiority through a discourse of disgust.

In the second part, McGovern presents the paradox of the volume: in the context of the cross-border attacks that took place in the Forest Region in 2000, the Loma-speakers would have had a justification for ethnonationalist violence and could easily have begun a civil war. Instead, they chose to put their national identity over their Loma identity. Under the threat of these attacks, the concerned villages and towns revived socialist practices—which McGovern calls a socialist habitus—to protect themselves. In brief, the Guinean population closed ranks by referring to their national instead of their ethnic identity—a process that, in the end, helped Lansana Conté's government stay in power for a few more years.

The final part of the book provides ambivalent and double-edged examples of the legacy of Sékou Touré's socialist period. Here, McGovern argues that poor socialist countries like Guinea developed a specific discourse of future orientation. This discourse, used to justify current suffering for the national good, eventually created both division and solidarity. To conclude, McGovern returns to Guinea's Gordian knot, the question of how Sékou Touré's government, violent and autocratic, can be said to have created peace, even after the end of its socialist reign. By addressing this contradiction, A Socialist Peace? nicely illustrates the strength of anthropological research: its ability to show the countless nuances that exist, for example, between good and evil, as well as the everyday lived realities that are much more complex than Euro-American dualistic thinking typically acknowledges.

A major shortcoming of the book is that McGovern does not take into consideration more recent literature on Guinea, especially because the scholarly work on the country is already scarce, compared to that on other West African countries. Most pitiful is the absence of Mohamed Saliou Camara's overview, Political History of Guinea since World War Two (2014), where questions of ethnicity also figure prominently. By contrast, one of the volume's laudable features is that McGovern honestly and transparently...