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Politicians, non-citizens and rebel leaders

To understand which groups turn against their government, you need to understand the political culture in which they grew up, what they expect from a ‘state’ and what alternatives there are. With its long interdisciplinary experience, ASCL is often considered to be a regional expertise centre. But this background enables it to cast a critical eye on current theories on state formation and democratisation.

Focus on political cultures

You need the practice to prove or disprove a theory. Take research into ‘democratisation’ in Africa. Political anthropologist Jan Abbink says that field studies in Ethiopia and Rwanda undermine Staffan Lindberg’s theory that regular elections in autocratic states have a democratising effect over time. Such theories are often based on survey data, says Abbink, without consideration of the local context and political culture, which can be revealed in observations and interviews. With his chair in ‘Governance and Politics in Africa’ he wants to emphasise the internal local processes and experiences with ‘the political’.

In the young nation states of Africa, it is often a question of what exactly the ‘state’ is and means. In many countries, there is a schism between the government and many of the citizens, Professor Mirjam de Bruijn explains, but unlike those who actively turn against their government, these citizens simply have little to do with it. People are bound to ethnic, family or religious ties rather than to the state. There is no such thing as a sense of citizenship.
Like the nomads whom De Bruijn previously studied, many urban ‘non-citizens’ live an unsettled existence, but unlike many nomads, they are dissatisfied with this. Young people seek a permanent form of existence, which often also proves to be most fragile.

New forms of leadership

Whereas some see the government as an authority that should facilitate its citizens, many ‘non-citizens’ are more likely to see the state as a source of frustration. To gain more of a say in their own lives, many young leaders seek alternative ways to organise themselves. Some make a clean break from the traditional power structure, says Abbink. An armed group such as Al-Shabaab in Somalia shows its opposition to the older generation of moderate Sufi Muslims. It has rejected the influence of the local culture, customary justice and clan background to form new trans-ethnic transnational links.

However, some groups set great store in their own cultural background, such as the Ethiopian Borana-Oromo. They base their forms of self-regulation on the traditional Gadaa system – an extensive age and class system, in which different generations have clearly defined roles.

The traditional Gadaa system combines democratic elements such as elections with a hierarchy based on age and sex. A man’s life is divided into phases of eight years. Local leaders and ritual ‘rulers’ are appointed for periods of eight years, after which they ‘retire’.

Mobile phone masts

When in 2006 the first mobile phone masts were placed in the remote west and central African regions in which De Bruijn was conducting her research, she knew that this was a critical crossroads in history. With the introduction of mobile phones, and thus access to the internet and radio, political awareness changed: people no longer felt like local actors but that they were part of a state or the world. Nomads participate in the global discussion on jihadism and terrorism, and this changes their definition of who they are.

We see a new kind of awareness process that filters through to all current uprisings, says De Bruijn. In the coming years, we will need to establish what this means in different countries and regimes, in areas with emerging middle classes and in regions faced with starvation.

Politically sensitive regions, from the global perspective too. ‘We as researchers are entering sensitive times, in a constantly changing laboratory – technology in Africa is changing so rapidly that you constantly have to modify your conclusions. But it is clear that we must Politicians, non-citizens and rebel leadersdraw attention to places in which dissatisfied subjects, conflict and hunger come together: it could be that developments in the Sahel suddenly determine those in the rest of the world.’

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