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Review of State of Violence: Politics, Youth and Memory in Contemporary Africa


By Michael Etherton

State of Violence: Politics, Youth and Memory in Contemporary Africa. eds. Edna G. Bay and Donald L. Donham. University of Virginia Press, Charlotteswille and London, 2006. Pp 268. ISBN 978-0-8139-2569-1 (hb) $49.50

This collection of essays is the published output of an interdisciplinary conference on violence in African states, held at Emory University in the autumn of 2003. The eight contributions contextualise and analyse violent events that have occurred in six African states. The perspectives are from anthropology, history, political science and sociology. All the events are post-independence, although the rebellion in Alexandra Township, South Africa, in 1984, happened under the Afrikaner apartheid regime. Through these essays, which include also Edna Bay’s excellent Introduction and Donald Donham’s important theoretical exploration of the study of violence in Africa, a detailed analysis of violence emerges, challenging preconceptions of both violence and Africa. The research is thorough and the analysis important for a wide readership. There is a shared determination among contributors to merge careful representation of violence to its multiple causes. The studies try to show how ordinary people in communities become complicit in violence; and how both perpetrators and the victims who have survived unspeakable brutality deal with the aftermath, and perceive its causes ex post facto.

Three of the essays explore specific events, each a seemingly sudden convulsion of violence. The essay by Longman and Butagengwa explores the memory of the Rwanda genocide and massacres in 1994, with enormous loss of life. Joanna Davidson details the driving out of the Fula from the community in Susana, Guinee Bissau, in May 2000, with no direct fatality but resonating nationally. Belinda Bozzoli analyses the Alexandra rebellion in 1984 and the accounts of that event recorded in the immediate trials in apartheid South Africa and again later at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Two of the studies are specific to a group of people, whose experience of violence as victims and perpetrators evolves over a period of time. One group is the Zipra fighters for Zimbabwe’s war of independence and their subsequent violent history in Mugabe’s state. This is a riveting account, based on research over a number of years by the authors Jocelyn Alexander and Joann McGregor. The other group is analysed in two essays, one by William Reno and the other by Martha Carey, on Sierra Leone’s youth militias in the on-going civil war in that country. Finally, two essays consider youth vigilantism: Dan Smith’s study of the Igbo Bakassi Boys in southern Nigeria and Elaine Salo’s extraordinary vivid account of adolescent masculinity in youth gangs in Manenburg in the Cape.

There is a tripartite division of the book into ‘states’, ‘youth’ and ‘memory’. Donham, in his opening essay defines violence as the “force that threatens bodies and the bare life of bodies”. He raises a number of contentious and critical issues, rejecting the tendency to study violence outside of its social and community context. That context is especially important in Africa because of the nature of statehood and the number of failed states. He analyses the social scientist’s motivation for studying violence and surveys the problems inherent in a professionally-based engagement with ordinary people who have become victims or perpetrators of violence, or both. “Violent acts are ‘limit’ events, both for the social actors and for the cultural analysts”, he concludes. They change the ways in which we see ordinary everyday life.

I am familiar, over time, with four of the six countries depicted in this book. I have followed all the events recounted, yet my understanding of the violent situations in all the individual countries has been changed and enhanced by the essays in this book. It is an important publication and should be widely read.

There are, and will be, further imbrication of the causes of violence in states: in Africa and elsewhere, and particularly among dispossessed young men, globally. Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse [Penguin, 2005], gives a convincing Malthusian analysis of the Rwanda genocide as one of a number of causes. Honwana’s and De Boeck’s collection of essays, Makers and Breakers… [James Currey, 2005] on youth and violence in Africa offers important insights into the globalised context of young Africans. Studies of Islamic fundamentalist training camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s that attracted thousands, if not tens of thousands, of young Moslem men from around the world, are another strand of masculine patriarchal violence. The question is how States of Violence, and similar important research, can inform the activist in civil society, in NGOs, in peace and reconciliation initiatives These social actors are concerned with the same ordinary people and the same fractured communities who are struggling to understand and reorder their lives. They need to access the deeper understanding this book embodies.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 69 (2007), pp. 92-94]

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