Subnationalism in Africa: Ethnicity, Alliances and Politics by Joshua B. Forrest
Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, 2004
Pages: 279. $55.00
||International Studies Review
|Date accepted online:
|Published in print:
||Volume 7, Issue 1, Pages 98-100
Regionalism as Fragmentation
Subnationalism in Africa: Ethnicity, Alliances and Politics by Joshua Forrest is premised on the notion that contemporary Africa is experiencing a "growing tendency toward regional assertion and autonomy-seeking [that] is gradually posing a significant challenge to African nation-states" (p. 1). This assumption is explored through a discussion of the issue of subnationalism, namely, domestic demands for autonomy or even secession. Forrest classifies subnational demands and strategies on the basis of four criteria: the ethno-regional morphology of the groups concerned (the significance of "ascriptive" features, the development of inter-ethnic alliances, or the preservation of "uni-ethnic" movements), the behavior of their elites (a leadership component), the ability to take advantage of specific conjunctures (changing international context, failure of nation-state integration, improved organizational competency), and the material context of the demands (inequalities in development or discrimination).
The challenges to Africa's colonial and postcolonial nation-states are viewed as an opportunity for the revivification of precolonial values based on "intergroup cooperation" and a "cooperatively oriented culture." Forrest argues that, "despite occasional wars" during the precolonial era, state-making was primarily marked by peaceful and inclusive procedures, such as "autonomy within the polity," "alliance formation," and "respect-based networks of cooperation" (pp. 35, 45). Violence and domination were usually contained, even when "the culture of a host society emerged as so dominant that ethnic boundaries of the incorporated group dissolved" (p. 39). Colonization and capitalism ushered in the predominance of radically different values that still play significant roles in postcolonial Africa. These values emphasize "individualized personal power acquisition and zero-sum political reasoning" as well as "greed and material accumulation disconnected from their particular social bases" (pp. 46-47). Thus, the end of the Cold War, the failure of national integration, and the decline of state territorial control have stimulated the resurgence of subnationalist claims, but they have also led to a revival of trust-based authority construction.
Subnationalism in Africa identifies six categories of subnationalist movements-three of them "inter-ethnic," the other three quintessentially uni-ethnic (p. 71). It then presents a rich crop of case studies to illustrate each of these categories. High levels of ethnic-heterogeneity and a history of economic underprivilege account for the formation of movements described as "cultural mosaics" (p. 77) due to their ability to create alliances (for example, Southern Sudan and Casamance). A second group of pluri-ethnic movements relies on "a long history of persistent political self-assertion" (p. 105; for example, Eastern Congo and Southern Sudan). A third category consists of the only two ethnically pluralistic movements that have so far achieved secession (Somaliland and Eritrea). Demands for autonomy have also been originating from movements that have managed to garner "macro-level uni-ethnic corporatism" (p. 153; for example, the Oromo in Ethiopia and the Ogoni and Igbo in Nigeria); another pattern of uni-ethnic regionalism relates to claims to territorial autonomy associated with an instrumentalist leadership (for example, the Angolan highlands and Namibia's Caprivi region). Finally, uni-ethnic strategies can relate to movements that "aim to reclaim a self-perceived rightful position of political and historical preeminence" (p. 195; for example, Tigrayan activism in Ethiopia, and the Zulu and Afrikaner movements in South Africa). All these patterns of subnational assertion operate in an overall context frequently marked by the "retraditionalization" of power and authority, a trend that also contributes to local level autonomy. The book concludes by reiterating the significant potential contribution of subnationalism to the emergence of new borders and new polities in Africa. Indeed, Forrest foresees a major restructuring of borders, along with a "revision of the way in which political authority is established and consolidated" (p. 248).
Subnationalism in Africa provides a rich crop of case studies designed to promote an argument (the rise of subnationalism and the revitalization of "deep cultural values" inherited from the precolonial period) that largely remains open to empirical validation. Nearly a decade and a half after the end of the Cold War, the more general claim that "subnationalist efforts have proven increasingly successful around the globe" (p. 68) does not appear so readily obvious. Authors like Jeffrey Herbst and Greg Mills (2003) do advocate state fragmentation as a proactive step toward asserted territorial control and developmental perspective. Forrest seems in fine to make another case for fragmentation, but essentially as a first step toward broader recomposition. It is yet unclear whether the somewhat idealized description of precolonial Africa's aversion to violence and centralized authority expresses a wish for the future or monitors a trend effectively gathering stamina. Forrest sometimes seems so eager to build his case for inclusive ethnicity and subnationalism that the volume contains hardly any reference to the instrumentalization of violence and disorder. Nor does Forrest discuss the poor developmental record of those areas that have experienced increased autonomy or fragmentation, such as Nigeria after it divided its three original regions into thirty-six federated states (Suberu 2001). The much-emphasized distinction between uni-ethnic and inter-ethnic movements is also somewhat surprising given the plasticity of ethnic identities, which Forrest himself acknowledges.
The overall picture that emerges from the case studies presented in Subnationalism in Africa is that secession is still much talked about but seldom achieved. One might even add that the capture of state power or improved access to its resources remain at the core of many of the subnationalist strategies described. A good case in point is Nigeria, where the rhetoric of secession or confederation has often been little more than the flip side of demands for better access to federal and state resources (namely, the politics of geoethnic communalism and state or local government creation). Indeed, a deep-seated ambivalence emerges in the lessons that may be drawn from the case studies presented. Are we talking about attempts to challenge the territorial format of the colonial state boundaries or about strategies aimed at improving access to state power and resources? In other words, do the movements that Forrest encompasses under the term "subnationalism" reflect a decline of the territorial states and boundaries inherited from colonialism, or should they be interpreted as a reflection of the endorsement of those states and boundaries via ad hoc strategies? The fact that Africa's two successful breakaway nations (Eritrea and Somaliland) have done so through the reenactment of colonial partition lines certainly invites caution. In this respect, it would have been useful to complete the case studies presented with a discussion of Western Sahara. The Saharawis' case for independence radically departs from the configurations discussed by Forrest because it proceeds from demands for the enforcement of colonial boundaries. In this case, it is the Cherifian kingdom (Morocco) that claims to build on precolonial ties of allegiance and authority to legitimize its annexation of this former Spanish colony.
These criticisms, however, should be viewed, not as a recommendation to avoid, but rather as an incentive to read Subnationalism in Africa-a welcome contribution to an ongoing and important debate. The volume will be particularly useful to students of regionalism due to its comprehensive survey of the politics of state fragmentation.