The state of distortion in West Africa. From empires to nation.

In French “L’Etat de distorsion en Afrique de l’Ouest. Des empires à la nation”, a book by Jean-François Bayart, Ibrahima Poudiougou and Giovanni Zanoletti, published on 22 March 2019 in the “Terrains du siècle” collection and published by the french development agency (AFD) and Karthala Publishing.

In the aftermath of independence, African political classes chose to reproduce the territorial framework inherited from colonization and endorsed the principle of the nation-state.

While the latter contradicts most of the political, economic and cultural forces of African societies, it has also been the subject of an often massive, and always creative, appropriation by all their actors.

Based on concrete situations such as the Chad Basin or the recent tensions in Mali, this book describes the “distortion” that characterizes West African states. Written by political scientist and historian Jean-François Bayart, and two doctoral students Ibrahima Poudiougou and Giovanni Zanoletti, this book attempts to remind our memories of the different historical, political, socio-economic and demographic dynamics that structure the Sahel region.


Understand the historical space of West and Saharan Africa.

If we ask ourselves about the definition of this regional grouping, the answer is always problematic. First of all, it must be understood that the Sahel is a historical construction foreign to the population that occupies its territory. Almost none of the local languages mention the term “Sahel”, except perhaps among the Tuaregs. What finally unites this region is the convergence of certain internal dynamics: environmental dynamics, conflicts linked to the history of this space, or even ancestral nomadism.

The aim of this book is to restore West Africa to its complex history, too often simplified under the colonial prism. Much earlier tensions, dating back to the days of the great African empires, are, for example, very relevant to understanding the current Sahelian context.

To question the passage from empires to postcolonial nation-states.

It is common to present the borders of the African continent as the result of an arbitrary colonial division. However, here the authors remind us that colonial logics were in fact “grafted” onto earlier imperial forms (see map), such as the empire of Ghana, that of Mali, and the Songhai empire (Niger-Mali-Nigeria today). The memory of these dead empires is still perpetuated at the heart of the African nation-state, hence the idea of a “distortion” between the different influences within the Sahelian states.

The pre-colonial African empires of West Africa.

Anthropologists observe this pre-colonial past through the study of family narratives, relationships to genealogy, and more broadly the oral tradition of the Sahel. It then appears that the logic of lineage[1], still very present, structures the region. Thus, a large proportion of contemporary conflicts in the Sahel appear to be directly linked to the history of the great families of ancient societies and to the African imperial legacy.

For the authors, Mali was then an emblematic case, where large families who had mastered one or more spheres of social or political life (trade, war, politics, transport, etc.) always defended their power. This is the case, for example, of the Kounta who controlled trade in the 17th century, the Arma descendants of the Moroccan troops who conquered Timbuktu in the 16th century or the Keita heirs of the ruling family.

A fascinating painting of the Sahel as a commercial area linked to “marginal gains”.

Over the centuries, these various Sahelian societies have created powerful trade and commerce networks based largely on monetary pluralism and financial informality. What the authors call here “marginal gains” is none other than the result of an underground or informal economy, which characterizes the vast majority of the region’s commercial trade. Anthropologist Jane Guyer writes in this regard that “Sub-Saharan Africa has been marketable, but not bankable” (Marginal Gains, 2004, p. 18).  The tendency was then to think that these commercial networks were linked to an ethnic factor and the simplistic opposition between nomads and sedentary people. However, according to the three authors, this would be more related to a general characteristic of the region: its high mobility. Everything is subject to transformation and negotiation. Anthropologist Sarah Berry goes in this direction when she does not assert that no “condition is permanent in itself”.

This is indicated by the rapid emergence of certain cities resulting from smuggling gains, such as al-Khalil (Algeria-Mali border), Fotokol or Amchidé (Nigeria-Cameroon). Even between day and night, these territories are not necessarily controlled by the same entities. Adventurism, negotiation and the reversal of territorial realities are then part of a form of “moral economy[2]“, thus structuring the local economy and societies.

Strong socio-economic frustrations.

Another historical dynamic to understand contemporary tensions in the Sahel is the legacy of slavery. Whole families who have emerged from slavery and are eventually kept in domestic service are marginalized.

The same applies to those excluded from the livestock market. Indeed, in this area where herding is the mark of wealth, what the authors call “the cow policy”. Many people have lost their livestock in the ascent of large landowners. Livestock farmers often do not own the herds they care for. For the authors, this explains why the economic and social offer offered by armed groups may therefore be more attractive to these populations.

The portrait of a distortion zone: the conflictual combination of the Chad basin.

It should be recalled that what is referred to as the “Chad Basin” refers to two very distinct realities. The first is of a geographical nature and concerns the “lake hydro-geographical basin” including Algeria, Chad, Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, CAR and Chad (see map below).

The second reality is administrative and political. This is the area managed by the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC), a permanent consultative body dating back to 1964. It was founded by the four riparian countries of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, and was joined by the Central African Republic in 1994. However, it turns out that the CBLT is none other than the heir to the African empires that dominated the region: the Rabeh and Bourno empires.

Later confronted with colonial competition between the United Kingdom, France and Germany, the area was finally organized around two cities: N’Djamena (formerly the colonial city of Fort Lamy) and Maiduguri, propelled to the forefront due to Nigeria’s strong population growth – the population having more than doubled in 20 years (1960 and 2000[3]). Since 1990, two secondary cities have also emerged: Abéché (Chad) and Kousseri.

Three dynamics have therefore shaped the area according to the authors:

– The heritage of the principalities, kingdoms and empires of the region.

– Rivalry between colonial powers for additional territories, a rivalry that continues within contemporary nation-states in the Chad Basin.

– A series of adventures related to international events (opening of a Saharan front during the Second World War, management of the League of Nations and then the UN in the 1960s.)

– The involvement of three external countries (France – Libya – Sudan) in the Chadian rebellion.

The colonial question finally comes back….

Has the modern state been poorly imported into Africa? Could this be the cause of all the tensions and distortions that cross the Sahelian zone? The authors’ answer is clear: no. African societies have not been mere passive actors in the imposition of a foreign model. They have reclaimed the political forms of the nation-state: a parliament, a constitution, a government, elections. All these new tools have been integrated into daily practice and adapted to different national contexts. Previous tensions and violence are therefore reactivated through the new African geopolitical configurations….

Demonstrating a fine theoretical reflection on West Africa and teeming with field analyses of Sahelian political forms, this book puts the Sahel region back into these historical dynamics and shows us contradictions and tensions that are often overlooked. Find the page dedicated to this publication:

By Sarah Boisson, editor for Défis Humanitaires

Jean-François Bayart is a professor at IHEID in Geneva, and holds the Yves Oltramare Chair in “Religion and Politics in the Contemporary World”. Ibrahima Poudiougou is a doctoral student at the University of Turin. Giovanni Zanoletti is a doctoral student at the University of Paris-Nanterre.

[1] All the descendants of a common ancestor. Synonymous with a lineage referring here to the great African families (royal, merchants…) that occupied central places in pre-colonial Africa.

[2] A concept of historian E. P. Thompson used in historiography, political science and sociology, it refers to a set of community political, infra-political and cultural practices and values that aim to defend the community’s own economic interests.

[3]   Source: World Bank, United States Census Bureau