More on Mobile Phones for Politics

This is one creepy dude...

"Hi Kids! Who wants to vote?!"

A while back I wrote about an interesting development in politics in Tanzania: the use of mobile phones to register members of political parties. A reader tried the service out and found that the safeguards and cost left something to be desired, but it served to illustrate an important point, that the rapidly spreading technology is being used in increasingly innovative ways to resolve the problems of distance, infrastructure and communication that so beset parts of the continent.

Zanzibar Leo, a Swahili daily, is reporting another clever use of mobile phones for the elections scheduled for October 31. The Zanzibar Electoral Commission is going to run a service whereby, on the days running up to the election, people can find out exactly where the polling station they have been allocated to is, though the service costs TSh 300 (approximately 2 cents – which means that this service could also be an earner for the Government). In Zanzibar, all voters are allocated a station and room to vote in; until now, they would have had to go to specific announcements boards to see which room they’ve been allocated, and would then have to try and locate it – not always an easy task in the labyrinth that is Stone Town.

The paper reports that the justification is to avoid ‘usumbufu wa kuhangaika’, literally the ‘disturbance of roaming around’. It’s not saying so explicitly, but there exist definite benefits to not being on the streets any more than absolutely necessary on election day here in Zanzibar. I think this service will prove pretty popular.

Street Fighting Men?

Whatever else a city might be, it is at the same time a place inhabited by a concentration of poor people and, in most cases, the locus of political power that affects their lives. Historically, one of the things city populations have done about this is to demonstrate, make riots or insurrections, or otherwise exert direct pressure on the authorities…

This quote, again from Hobsbawm’s collection of essays, Revolutionaries, has been at the back of my mind for the last few days. Compared to Europe’s historical habit of urban revolt and revolution (the city of Palermo alone had 12 popular insurrections between 1512 and 1866), Sub-Saharan Africa has actually had relatively few mass urban mobilizations that seriously threatened or achieved regime changes. Off the top of my head, I can think of only a few: the ‘IMF Riots’ that brought down Governments in Zambia, Liberia and Sudan in the early 1990s and the unionist insurrection against the Government in Brazzaville in the early 1960s. Of course there is also Zanzibar’s revolution in 1964, though it was not solely an urban phenomenon. Urban struggle against Apartheid was more complex than an insurrection, but clearly counts as well.

There are plenty of demonstrations, though they rarely seriously threaten Governments. There have been military coups, as in Nigeria; some leaders have been deposed by foreign forces or through full-scale civil war; and there have been regimes which have disintegrated into chaos. But the role of the city as a point at which popular rebellion is fomented, carried out and generates new Government is limited. Even independence movements, characterized by urban unrest, found their greatest success through negotiation with colonial powers or guerilla insurgency directed from outside the country altogether. Regime change is common, but rarely popularly-led and powered.

This is surprising for two main reasons. Firstly, there are plenty of Governments in the region that could do with a good shoeing: undemocratic, kleptocratic, violent and morally bankrupt regimes that maintain their hold on power through electoral fraud and intimidation. Secondly, cities in Africa are teeming with huge numbers of unemployed, dissatisfied young males, often with easy access to affordable weapons.

Yet, organized or spontaneous urban insurrection rarely threatens established regimes. Why has this been the case? Are Sub-Saharan African cities less prone to intrigue, or more docile somehow? I don’t think this is the case. There have been violent riots before, such as those in Nairobi in 1982, and more isolated and often smaller demonstrations or riots still occur with moderate regularity. In late 2008 there were a couple in Malawi, both small scale; last year Kampala witnessed some, and there were also demonstrations in Conakry that were met with a violent response from the army.

I also take issue with the common characterization of Africans as infinitely patient, capable of enduring endless suffering with dignity and acceptance. Like anyone else, people in Africa get angry at misgovernment, and they express it. In Swahili, there is a verb ‘to complain’, kulalamika; but people also use a word, dukuduku which can best be translated as a deep-seated, profound grievance. This word is normally used with the verb kutoa, which means to extract or give out, e.g. anatoa dukuduku lake (‘she is giving out her profound grievance’). This apparently minor piece of linguistic evidence has significance: the idea that Africa is a continent of Atlases, holding the weight of the world on their shoulders stoically and silently is at best incorrect.

Rather, there are rather three or four central reasons why mass urban protest rarely shakes Governments. The first two are related: firstly, there is the geographical and physical structure of modern cities; secondly, there is state violence, realized and potential; and thirdly there are the political realities of urban dwellers. Finally, the role of urban centres as political agents has changed. In sum, they have important implications for governance and reform in Africa.

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Hobsbawm on Violence

A few weeks ago I posted some speculations on the nature of violence in conflict situations, and wondered why popular discourse on conflict so rarely examines the role and nature of violence itself.

My holiday reading included a collection of popular essays from the 1960s and 1970s by Eric Hobsbawm, easily my favourite historian to read (though not necessarily the best historian I’ve read). The book is called ‘Revolutionaries’, and one of the chapters is called The Rules of Violence. In it, he answers many of the questions that have formed in my own thinking about the subject and poses many more interesting ones. I quote some of his more interesting points below:

On the plurality of violence:

For the point to grasp about violence, as a social phenomenon, is that it exists only in the plural. There are actions of differing degrees of violence which imply different qualities of violence… It is quite useless… to treat these various types and degrees of violent action as essentially indistinguishable.

On the rules of violence:

Genuinely violent societies are always and acutely aware of [their] rules, just because private violence is essential to their everyday functioning, though we may not be so aware of them, because the normal amount of bloodshed in such societies may seem to us to be so intolerably high. Where, as in the Philippines, the fatal casualties in every election campaign are counted in the hundreds, it seems hardly relevant that, by Filipino standards, some of them are more open to condemnation than others. Yet there are rules. In the highlands of Sardinia they constitute an actual code of customary law, which has been formally described in legal terms by outside observers.

On the changing attitudes to violence as societies develop (equally relevant to societies in crisis):

One of the major dangers of societies in which direct violence no longer plays much part in regulating the everyday relations between people and groups, or in which violence has become depersonalized is that they lose the sense of such distinctions [rules]. In doing so they also dismantle certain social mechanisms for controlling the use of physical force.

On changing forms of violence (his references to anarchism reflect that this was written in 1969; today we can substitute terrorism in this quote):

Most traditional violence… assumes that … violent actions … have a specific and identifiable purpose. But a good deal of contemporary private violence … is non-operational, and public violence is consequently tempted into indiscriminate action. Private violence does not have to or cannot achieve very much against the really big and institutionalized wielders of force… Where it occurs it therefore tends to turn from action into a substitute for action… Some nominally political forms of violence (such as ‘trashing’ or some neo-anarchist bombing) are similarly irrational, since under most circumstances their political effect is either negligible or more usually counter-productive.

On personal realization through violence:

The terrible thing … is that for the disoriented fringe, for the weak and helpless poor, violence and cruelty – sometimes in the most socially ineffective and personalized sexual form – are the surrogate for private success and social power.

It seems to me that the lines of thought he begins to probe on personal realization, on the rules of violence and the changing forms of violence all remain centrally important in understanding violence as it exists in the developing world today. Elections will be held here in about 6 months, and are likely to be attended by various forms of violence. To understand why and how they will arise and can be mitigated should be a major concern of development agencies; but it can only be done if we understand exactly what violence achieves on multiple levels.

Hobsbawm is one of the best writers and most intelligent among modern historians. He is famously Marxist, but is more thoughtful and flexible than the vast majority of Marxist historians, and there have been few better writers on the great social upheavals of the 19th and 20th centuries. I would strongly recommend reading almost anything he has written.

A Short Post about Violence

Killing in the name of... well... Killing...

Killing in the name of... well... not much...

I’m currently re-reading that classic of anti-colonial rage, The Wretched of the Earth. For those of you who haven’t come across it, it was published in 1961 as Les Damnés de la Terre by Frantz Fanon. Fanon was a young man from Martinique who worked as Psychiatrist in Algiera during their rising against France. His experiences there radicalized him and he became a spokesman for the FLN’s violent anti-colonial rebellion. The Wretched of the Earth was the most articulate expression of the logic of their campaign, drawing on socialist and pan-African rhetoric as well as Fanon’s own experiences as a doctor, drawing a direct link between colonialism and a range of psychiatric conditions. Perhaps even more famous was the Preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, addressed to European readers. He painted a grim picture of their moral complicity in the worst outrages of colonialism, and asserted the inevitability of their own revolution.

The book is a curious mix of the naïve and the insightful. The naïve I will deal with another time. I’m concerned now with the insight, specifically those into the nature of violence in the liberation struggle.

Violence in Africa is one of the central issues exercising academics concerned with development these days. Texas in Africa has done a great job in educating us about some of the issues in the Congo, and one of the things that emerge starkly from her writing is the complexity of motivation that drives violence. Single-issue causality simplicity or an analysis that denies the personal or direct motivation of violence is insufficient for her:

Many Congolese join armed groups … in order to defend their homes, villages, or co-ethnics. They are not necessarily fighting for control of gold mines or to take territory

For a layman in this issue like myself, this immediately has me thinking about the role of violence as an ends in itself and the importance of the form and practice of violence as an internally logical consequence of circumstance. Though I can’t claim an intimate knowledge of the academic writing on conflict, this seems to be a strand of analysis that gets relatively little attention.

In the Wretched of the Earth, Fanon and Sartre excel in is representing how in circumstances of oppression or intense dissatisfaction, violence is itself an ends. Sartre first:

To shoot down a European is to … destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remain a dead man and a free man…

Now Fanon, for whom the process of decolonization was necessarily violent:

The ‘thing’ which has been colonized becomes a man during the same process by which it frees itself…

What both of these quotes imply is that there is a self-expression and actualisation that occurs through the process of engaging in violence, which will in turn need consideration when addressing the causes, consequences and solutions to conflict. In other words, if the act of violence plays a direct role in the remaking of the individual or groups conducting the violence, transforming them from victim to positive agent, solutions to conflict which remove violence altogether need to conceive an alternative solution to the remaking of the self-image of individuals and groups engaged in conflict.

Are there academics out there who examine this issue? It seems to me that most analysis of violence (particularly structured violence) tend to take a functionalist or instrumental view of the violence itself. It’s conceived as a means to an end, and a symptom of a relationship. This seems to me a major aspect of it, but perhaps also insufficient insofar as we wish to understand how violence is used to create new identities and outcomes and thus also how it can be averted.

There are plenty of bloggers out there who know much more about this than me. Anyone care to point me to some useful reading or present counter-arguments?