Academic journal article Humanity

From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel: An Introduction

Academic journal article Humanity

From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel: An Introduction

Article excerpt

Gregory Mann's new book, From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel: The Road to Nongovernmentality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), is excerpted here, as a prelude to an interview with the author.*

Frantz Fanon was growing angry. It was 1960, and he was deep in Mali, a vast country, ''fervent and brutal,'' a place where there was ''no need of great speeches.'' The country had just gained independence from France weeks before, and its new president, Modibo Keita, ''ever militant,'' had assured him of his support. Everything was set. Fanon and his colleagues, Algerian revolutionaries seeking to open a southern front for the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), had already avoided prying French eyes in Bamako and dodged what they took to be a kidnapping attempt in Monrovia. They were headed east and north, to Gao, Aguelhoc, Tessalit. So how to account for the road block, the intransigence?

At Mopti, a snag. On the way out of town: a gendarmes' roadblock, and the sentries demand our passports. Difficult discussion because, in spite of the document from the Minister of the Interior [Madeira Keita], the gendarmes want to know our identities. Finally the commanding officer arrives, and I'm obliged to introduce myself. But it seems we're faced with a man who's after intelligence. He wants to know the nature of our mission and the roles of my companions.1

In the end, Fanon and his comrades get out of it. ''Promising absolute secrecy,'' the officer lets the militants go, but that's not the end of their troubles. ''The road from Mopti to Douentza is a joke,'' Fanon tells us.2 Decades later, when I traveled it on a small but sturdy motorcycle, that joke wasn't funny anymore. But along that same road, some forms of political power were visible to the naked eye, just as in Fanon's roadblock experience. What struck me then, and stays with me still, was the immobility of the state, represented by the somnolent gendarmes manning scattered checkpoints, and the humming power of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), whose white Toyota Land Cruisers shot like arrows the length of the country. Neither Fanon nor the two Keitas could have imagined such a future, but they'd seen something like it in the past.3 From the saddle of the motorbike, the easy conclusion was that the state was weak, the NGOs strong. That was wrong.

In 1960, people living in the West African Sahel became citizens of newly independent states. At the same time, many of those living along that long, thin band of arable land limning the Sahara found themselves foreigners in states to which they had long ties. In less than a generation, Sahelians would become the subjects of human rights campaigns and humanitarian interventions. From Empires to NGOs looks beyond the familiar political formations that came into being at the end of colonial rule-new nation-states and ex-empires-to consider newly transnational communities of solidarity and aid, social science and activism. In the two decades immediately after independence, precisely when its states were strongest and most ambitious, the postcolonial West African Sahel became a fertile terrain for the production of new forms of governmental rationality realized through NGOs. I term this new phenomeon ''nongovernmentality,'' and argue that while its roots may lie partly in Europe and North America, it flowered, paradoxically, in the Sahel.4 In this book, my question is not simply how African states exercised their new sovereignties, but how and why NGOs began to assume functions of it in a period when it was so highly valued.5

From Empires to NGOs attempts to break out of the colonial and postcolonial frame in which much of contemporary African history is situated. It does so by encompassing the decades of postwar economic growth punctuated by imperial reform (1946 - 60), African independence (after 1960) and coups d'état (notably in Mali in 1968 and in Niger in 1974).6 No less significantly, it does so by looking east-west, along some of the many vectors tying the Sahel together as a coherent space, in addition to north-south, within the frame of the former European empires. …

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