Everyday Transnationalism and the Postcolony in West Africa

By Galvan, Dennis | Development and Society, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Everyday Transnationalism and the Postcolony in West Africa


Galvan, Dennis, Development and Society


West Africa is a paradoxical region when it comes to the tension between the nationstate and the transnational. It stems from fundamental continuity of state power inherited from colonizers in postcolonial situations. The discursive grid of the postcolony is more robust than most observers would expect to find in a region like West Africa. Everyday, as opposed to formal-institutional, transnationalism turns out to be a more important. In West Africa, transnationalism is a tactical matter with regard to everyday life. There are not so much efforts to alter the discursive grid of the postcolony, but to begin to erect an alternative discursive grid, such as a joking kinship. Joking kinship ignores the discursive grid of the postcolony, and lays down in identity and imagination the basis for an entirely different, more transnational framework for political belonging.

Keywords: Everyday Transnationalism, Postcolony, West Africa

There is no other place on the planet where political maps are so deceptive - where in fact, they tell such lies - as in West Africa.

Robert Kaplan "The Coming Anarchy," 1994

The surface of this order is everywhere punched and torn open by ellipses, drifts, and leaks of meaning: it is a sieve-order.

Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 1984

Introduction

West Africa appears home to the most quintessential weak states of the postcolonial world. Most borders reflect almost nothing more than the caprice of colonial cartographers. States float above society. Governments can extract only easy-to-grab resources, coerce and brutalize obvious opponents. They are anemic when it comes to broad-based revenue generation, providing comprehensive public services, or "capturing" peasantries. States collapse on a seemingly annual basis, with some of the most celebrated cases of disintegration of order and political community clustered in this small region - Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d'Ivoire, plus near collapses in Guinea- Bissua and Guinea-Conakry since the early 1990s (Herbst, 2000; Hyden, 2005; Reno, 1998).

But this is a first glance, a journalist's eye view from a taxi cab racing from airport to Hilton, the way a popularizer like Robert Kaplan (1994) oversimplifies West Africa. There are two other important layers missed in this superficial account. First, state and society across West Africa are woven together in what Achille Mbembe (1992, 2001) refers to as shared epistemes of the grotesque, of brutal, excessive displays of embodied power that constitute the postcolony. Even when the state collapses, the discursive logic and practices of the postcolony persist.

Even so, Mbembe tells a story that makes a fetish of state power within the postcolony, idealizing and reifying disciplinary power in classic Foucauldian terms. This misses the second layer of West Africa reality, the ongoing unraveling of postcolonial polity, economy, community, and consciousness through the weaving of new mechanisms of transnational connection across the region. This is partly an elite project of "building transnationalism," of sometimes fairly deliberate EU-envy, sometimes more rooted forms of institutional creativity.

Drawing on Certeau (1984), it is also a "tactical" project, a consequence of everyday life within the postcolony and through emergent transnational channels and symbols. Everyday life increasingly traces, in movement of bodies, in daily practice, and in quotidian imagination, webs of transnational linkage that work around, undermine, and eventually render irrelevant the postcolonial order.

As we will see with reference to regional common currency, regional organizations, and regional imaginations of pan-ethnic "joking kinship," everyday life rips open gaps and fissures in the grid-like disciplinary order of the postcolony. In part, this quotidian ripping and tearing helps constitute transnational spaces and circuits of interaction that turn the purportedly smooth and seamless order of postcolonial states in West Africa into what Certeau calls a "sieve order everywhere punched and torn open by ellipses, drifts, and leaks of meaning" (1984: 107).

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