Friday, February 20, 2009

Cherry Leonardi's paper on chiefship in Yei

Published in Africa (Vol 77(4), 2007), Leonardi's thick description of the internal politics of two chiefships, and their place in the broader regional arena, makes for a great reminder that all politics is local, and that the discourses of politics, especially the discourses of legitimation, are bafflingly inconsistent, dense, changing, situational, and well everything else. But they are eminently understandable, once one take the time (as Leonardi did) to listen to lots and lots of people.

So suppose someone asked the question, "Say I was going to an UNMIS project manager in the Yei area. What do I need to know?" At one level the response might be something like, you need to know the personalities and histories and identifications of the people involved. i.e. go read the "personnel files"... the British colonial authorities (and French, in their colonies) would keep on everyone- once a year. "A lazy thief." "Clever and cares about his people." "Worked with Slatin. Not to be trusted."

But Leonardi does more than that. She takes the local politics and personalities of chiefship in Yei to make a very general statement about one of the biggest and thorniest issues in African studies: What is the "constitutional" place of this office called chief? She shows the enduring power of a whole set of discourses brought to bear on the subject; and none of these discourses deal with democracy, checks and balances, merit, justice, etc. That is, the vocabulary of constitutional order based on the sovereignty of the people is absent when dealing with chiefship, much as it is absent when thinking about the priesthood in Catholicism. Tremendously important, because priests now content themselves to be counsellors, while chiefs continue to be rulers. Why would these discourses of democracy be so unresonant? Because the instituions that deploy these discourses, in the context of Sudan, do precisely the opposite in practice. They (states, rebel armies, freedom fighters) do not acknowledge the soveregnty of the people, instead they abuse, violently, the people they ostensibly claim to serve. They use- as means- people, to accomplish ends.

No comments:

Post a Comment