Making Sense of Political Violence in Postcolonial Africa

Linked with Mahmood Mamdani – USA & Uganda, with The Prince Alwaleed Bin Jalal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding ACMCU.

By Mahmood Mamdani – We have just ended a century replete with violence. The 20th century was possibly more violent than any other in recorded history. Just think of world wars and revolutions, and colonial conquests and anticolonial resistance, and, indeed, revolutions and counterrevolutions. Even if the expanse of this violence is staggering, it makes sense to us. The modern political sensibility sees political violence as necessary to historical progress. Ever since the French Revolution, moderns have come to see violence as the midwife of history. The French Revolution gave us terror and it gave us a citizens’ army. The real secret behind Napoleon’s spectacular battlefield successes was that his army was not comprised of mercenaries but patriots, those who killed for a cause, who were animated by national sentiment, by what we have come to recognize as a civic religion, nationalism. Reflecting on the French revolution, Hegel thought of man – in the generic sense – as different from animals, in that he was willing to die for a cause higher than life. Hegel should have added: man is also willing to kill for a cause higher than life.

This, I think, is truer of modern man and woman than it is true of humanity in general. The modern political sensibility is not horrified by all violence. Just put Identity, Culture and Politics Volume 3, Number 2, December 2002 millions in the wrong uniform: citizens and patriots will celebrate their death as the end of enemies. The world wars are proof enough of this. What horrifies modern political sensibility is not violence per se, but violence that does not make sense. It is violence that is neither revolutionary nor counterrevolutionary, violence that can not be illuminated by the story of progress, that appears senseless to us. Not illuminated paradigmatically, nonrevolutionary violence appears pointless.

Unable to explain it, we turn our back on history. Two such endeavors are worth noting. The first turns to culture, the second to theology. The cultural turn distinguishes modern from pre-modern culture and then offers premodern culture as an explanation of political violence. If revolutionary or counter-revolutionary violence arises from market-based identities such as class, then nonrevolutionary violence is said to be an outcome of cultural difference. On a world scale, it is called a clash of civilizations1. Locally, that is, when it does not cross the boundary between the West and the rest, it is called communal conflict as in South Asia, or ethnic conflict as in Africa. (Read the rest of this 24 Pages pdf-text on codesria.org / Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa /see also its Homepage).

Comments are closed.