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Ethnicity in Africa  

Gabrielle Lynch

Among today’s scholars there is a near consensus that precolonial African identities were relatively fluid, permeable, overlapping, and complex; that ethnic identities are socially constructed; and that a colonial order of delineated control encouraged Africans to rethink group identities and heightened a sense of socioeconomic and political competition along ethnic lines. There is also growing consensus that ethnic identities are nevertheless the subject of ongoing (re)negotiation and that, to find resonance, the politicization of ethnicity, while instrumental in motivation and opportunistic in character, must be rooted in linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic similarities and communal experiences of marginalization, neglect, injustice, and achievement. Many scholars also emphasize how the realities of ethnically delineated political support reflect pragmatism and expectations of patronage in the context of difficult and unequal socioeconomic contexts, as well as the significance of remembered pasts and associated narratives of justice and strategies of acquisition. Such realities and discursive repertoires provide a list of grievances that elites can use to foster a sense of difference and mobilize local support bases, but that also provide nonelites with a means to question and counter intra- and intercommunal differences and thus social and spatial inequalities. Ethnic support then strengthened by a reinforcing cycle of ethnic bias and expectations of greater levels of assistance from co-ethnics. According to such arguments, ethnic identification and political support are rational, but not for the simple reasons that classic primordial, instrumental or neo-patrimonial accounts suggest.

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Popular Politics in East Africa from Precolonial to Postcolonial Times  

James R. Brennan

Popular politics have influenced the development of East Africa’s political institutions from roughly two millennia ago up to contemporary times. Among the discernible political dynamics over this time period were pressures to include or exclude peoples from key institutions of belonging, the decisive role of patron–client relationships across all political institutions, the role of generational conflict, the source of political authority based on command of the visible and invisible worlds, and the changing role of indigeneity and “first-comer” status claims. These dynamics can all be found at work in the development of conventional political structures that span this time frame—that is, from the small chieftaincies and kingdoms of the precolonial era; to cults of public healing and medicine making; to engagement with European colonial institutions and the 20th-century creation of “traditional” indigenous authorities; to the growth of associational life that led to political parties, one-party states, and their postliberalization successors. Yet there was also tremendous diversity of these experiences across East Africa, which goes some way toward explaining the differences not only among the region’s contemporary nation-states but even within those nation-states. Popular pressures for inclusion either resulted in the expansion of existing political institutions or created demands for new institutions that directly challenged the exclusionary and often brittle existing political structures.

Article

African Intellectual History and Historiography  

Jonathon L. Earle

Intellectual historians of Africa are principally concerned with how Africans have understood and contested the contexts that they inhabited in the past, and how ideas and vernacular discourses change over time. As a particular approach in historical methodology it is closely associated with cultural history, and its evolution followed the emergence of political history writing during the 1960s and social history during the 1980s. The first innovative works in African intellectual history were concerned with pan-Africanism and Négritude. These studies were followed by histories of religious ideas and social dissent. Historians have since offered varying descriptions of Africa’s “intellectuals.” For some, Africa’s colonial intellectuals were mostly missionary-educated literati, while others emphasize Africa’s rural intellectual histories and the importance of studying “homespun,” or vernacular historiographies. African epistemologies and knowledge production have also remained a central concern in the study of African intellectual history. To illuminate Africa’s intellectual registers, historians interrogate different topics, regions, and temporalities. Historians of precolonial Africa use historical linguistics to understand the intersection of ideas about public healing and social organization. Scholars of the colonial period challenge many of the earlier assumptions held by colonial researchers and policy makers, who had cast African communities as primordial, conquered peoples. Intellectual historians, by contrast, explore the constantly changing arenas of ideational disputation and political contestation within African societies. Intellectual historians of gender have shown how ideas about production, masculinity, and femininity have informed competing nodes of authority. By the early 21st century, global intellectual historians began demonstrating how Africans reworked European political ideas into local vernacular debates about the past, and how Africans have shaped the making of the modern world. To write Africa’s intellectuals histories, scholars draw from a range of sources, which are often maintained in institutional archives, public libraries, and private homes. These sources—textual, oral, and material—include letters, diaries, annotated libraries, vernacular newspapers, grammars, novels, oral histories, linguistic etymologies, sculptures, clothing, paintings, photography, film, and music.

Article

Obafemi Awolowo  

Insa Nolte

Obafemi Awolowo (full Yoruba name: Ọbafẹ́mi Jeremiah Oyèníyì Awólọ́wọ̀, b. 1909–d. 1987) was one of the most important statesmen and political thinkers of Nigeria in the 20th century. After losing his father at the age of ten, Awolowo worked as a teacher and journalist to complete his secondary education before moving into business. Following his marriage to Hannah Awolowo in 1937, he was able to mobilize the resources to travel to the United Kingdom, where he obtained a law degree in 1946. Confronted with ethnic rivalry during his early activism in the Nigerian Youth Movement, Awolowo developed a federalist vision for Nigeria. Building on his understanding of grassroots Yoruba politics, he mobilized Yoruba ethnicity and solidarity through the cultural organization Ẹgbẹ́ Ọmọ Odùduwà. Awolowo’s party, the Action Group, became the dominant Yoruba party in the 1950s, and Awolowo served as the first premier of the Western Region in 1954–1960, when he presided over an ambitious modernizing program. Reduced to the leadership of the opposition in 1960, Awolowo was subjected to a politically motivated trial in 1962 and imprisoned. The loss of his eldest son while in prison encouraged a turn toward the spiritual but also gained him widespread sympathy: after his release from prison in 1966, Awolowo was recognized as the leader of the pan-Yoruba politics, to the emergence of which he had contributed. As he also embraced a more distinctly socialist politics, many of his supporters also saw him as a potential reformer for Nigeria. However, as the vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council (1967–1970) and as federal commissioner for finance (1967–1971) during the Nigeria–Biafra War (Nigerian Civil War), Awolowo also attracted bitter criticism by eastern Nigerians, who held him responsible for the loss of human lives caused by the war. In 1979, Awolowo returned to party politics with more explicitly socialist policies but, having failed to win the presidency, resumed his role as the leader of the opposition. When another military coup ended the Second Republic in 1983, Awolowo retired from active politics. Following his death in 1987, Awolowo became a focal point of struggles within the Yoruba elite both over his succession and over the nature of Yoruba politics. In the process, he was posthumously ascribed virtues, agency, and powers beyond the historical record. However, in the context of a broader Nigerian politics, he was also seen as having larger-than-life negative qualities. His legacy continues to divide Nigerian public debate in the 21st century.