Violence, Political Culture and Development in Africa

Article excerpt

Preben Kaarsholm, ed. Violence, Political Culture and Development in Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press; Oxford: James Currey; Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2006. xi + 208 pp. Notes. References. Index. $24.00. Paper.

This is an excellent book to the degree that it is a collection of unusually fine essays on a contested and often ill-understood topic. For the same reason, paradoxically, it is also somewhat of a disappointment. For the book does not, and does not even pretend to, have a common framework for the case studies. The introduction is little more than a useful review of the literature on a wide range of issues (statehood, state collapse, political culture, democracy) . On the strength of the chapters, one could argue that the contributions speak for themselves. However, that the book does not even offer a conclusion to pull at least some of the findings together is an omission that cannot go ignored, precisely because the book's nine case studies offer interesting insights that go considerably beyond many works addressing violence in Africa. The title of the book is also slightly misleading inasmuch as development, here understood as political development, is barely considered.

The book's focus is violence and "the ways in which violence, political culture and development have interacted in recent political history" (14). All contributors demonstrate an impressive grasp of their subjects and succeed in contextualizing violence in their proper historical setting. Employing a micropolitical approach, they give social and political meaning to acts and strategies of violence that are all too often portrayed either as meaningless (mainly by journalists) or explained by ethnicity, greed, or whatever happens to be in vogue (in the world of academia).

Not the least merit of the book is that some contributors analyze aspects and meanings of violence that are often overlooked. This is particularly true of chapters that deal with political discourses and narratives, showing how history and political narratives are mobilized by certain actors to generate political capital and (often) to exercise political dominance. Nigel Eltringham's chapter "Debating the Rwandan Genocide," for example, explains how groups in Rwanda have interpreted the 1994 genocide by reference to the United Nations Genocide Convention and how this contrasts to interpretations of previous episodes of violence in the country. Likewise, Jocelyn Alexander's chapter on Matabeleland (Zimbabwe) and Alessandro Triulzi's chapter on Ethiopia provide illuminating accounts of how collective memories of violence are shaped and redefined, either as a matter of political exclusion (Zimbabwe) or as an attempt to forge political unity (Ethiopia). …