I haven’t properly written up my observations from last year’s African Studies Association meeting yet. In reviewing my notes, I found that one of the themes that cut across the various panels I attended was the unexpected uses of non-state power. By this I mean the exercise of (potentially) coercive power by non-state actors in ways that challenge the state’s monopoly on violence or taxation. Here’s a snapshot:
- Steven van Bockstael noted that most artisanal mining in Liberia is done without the permission of the central government and is therefore illegal, but that miners also frequently ask the permission of land owners, chiefs, and even local government officials before proceding. This type of “highly personalized” authorization clearly has value to the miners, but also means that they’re in a constant process of negotiation with officials.
- Joshua Walker made a similar observation about diamond mining in Mbuji-Mayi, saying that artisanal miners often pay a daily fee to local militias to gain (illegal) access to land owned by parastatal mining agencies. Note that this is actually a bit at odds with the “conflict minerals” narrative of militarized mining in the Congo, which seems to assume that rebel groups operate the mines themselves, rather than simply charging others for access.
- Komlan Agbedahin observed that colonial borders have done less than expected to shape the exercise of chiefly power in central Ghana and Togo. Local chiefs still engage in cross-border power struggles, and the religious spheres of local gods often cross borders as well. Less surprisingly, he also found that local border agents frequently supplemented their salaries by cutting holes in border fences and charging people who wished to cross.
- Nicole Eggers noted that Christian prophets in South Kivu often exercise real political power, sometimes to the point of challenging the mwami or other local authorities. Part of the reason for this is that the South Kivutien mwamis’ power is typically tied to the land, and diminishes if they’re forced to flee due to violence, while the prophets’ power is seen as “heavenly” rather than local, and thus not so easily diminished by flight.