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Magical Politics in Equatorial Africa


At the twentieth century’s end, religion and magic constitute one of the most powerful rhetorical questions of political culture in Equatorial Africa.  Public rumours depict sorcery as the most common way to achieve personal success, wealth, and prestige in times of economic shortage and declining social opportunities.  Political leaders are widely believed to perform ritual murder to ensure electoral success and power, and many skilfully use these perceptions to build visibility and deference.  In the domestic arena, familial and social conflicts repeatedly crystallize around accusations of sorcery, especially during times of sudden deaths or personal disasters.  Permeating the entire social and cultural spectrum, magic stands today as a ambivalent force that helps promote individual and collective accumulation as well as control social differentiation. 

Yet, the magical dimension of politics in Africa is oftentimes ignored by classic political and historical studies.  This preliminary discussion argues first that the magical dimension of politics is not a marginal, but a central dimension of the nature of public authority, leadership, and popular identities in Equatorial Africa. How and why do religious beliefs take such a central place in public life in Equatorial Africa ?  Can the role of magic in public life explain the violent, autocratic nature of post-colonial regimes in this region ?  How does magic leadership mobilize followers and provide ideological consensus?  How do political actors share magic resources for domestic and public purposes? 

Second, this paper calls for a grounded, comparative, and historical exploration of the multiple religious layers of political beliefs in contemporary Equatorial Africa.  Only recently has a burgeoning anthropological literature begun to pay attention to the unforeseen proliferation of such practices and beliefs, and to their relocation in modern settings  Anthropological accounts, however, do not provide a clear elucidation of the long and elaborate transformations of magical beliefs over the past century.  We have little sense of how Africans preserved their spiritual knowledge in the face of colonial assaults, or how Christianity, bio-medicine, and material culture influenced local ideologies and techniques.

Far from being destabilized by colonial rule, sorcery benefited from the existence of colonial dramaturgies of authority --monopoly, secrecy, bodily violence-- that fit local representations of power.  European obsessions with witchcraft promoted it as a prominent ground for strategies of resistance and innovation, thus recentering it at the core of political culture.  Finally, these developments help re-evaluate the colonial period as a moment of strategic cultural reconfigurations rather than as a rupture characterized by the destruction of existing African references and values.  An in-depth, grass-root history of magical politics will shed light on the broader issue of cultural innovation in Central Africa.

My regional focus is Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville, where administrative elites, leaders of political factions, political activists, militants, militias and soldiers, as well as civilian populations, have struggled for over 50 years --and are still struggling today -- for influence, authority, and survival within the field of the sacred.  Gabon presents a good case study for a number of histographical and theoretical reasons: significant urban, creolized communities had emerged on the coast since the eighteenth century, yet the interior had a reputation for sheltering exceptionally "primitive tribes" inclined to anthropophagy.  These visions were matched by high colonial anxieties over the fragility of white rule in this large, scarcely populated colony.  A cradle for small scale, stateless societies prone to fission and migration, Gabon also sheltered a very diverse set of local religions, including millenarist movements in the twentieth century, and Bwiti, a modern, syncretic African church.  In the Congo-Brazzaville, the recent political developments introduced by the civil war since 1992, have shed light on the ways in which magical politics are reconfigured in times of acute crisis.

           Politics and Magic

          The proliferation of political strategies pertaining to the sphere of the sacred in the Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon have been ubiquitous in public life since the “democratization waves” of the early 1990s, the increasing competition for national power and visibility (Gabon), and, in some places (Congo-Brazzaville) the fragmentation of national politics into warring factions.  During this period, the increasing scarcity of financial resources, the collapse of world-wide ideological and support networks (in particular the end of marxist-leninist regime in the Congo-Brazzaville, and the decline of France’s financial and political support of Gabon), have encouraged local struggles for power and the recourse to innovative tactics of power accumulation. These tactics include the manipulation of local, sacred emblems borrowed from the ancient cosmologies of power (leopard skins, minkisi: power charms and spirits), witchcraft (rumours about ritual murders), recent cults developed during the colonial period (Matswanism, Kimbanguism, Mademoiselle, Ndjobi, Mami Wata,  Christianity (such as Congolese leaders’ biblical nicknames: “Moses,” “Satan”), modern life (militias named after transnational legends --Zoulous, or movie characters: Ninja), and international, semi-religious networks (such as Masonic lodges). 

          These tactics have intensified under the impact of economic crisis and rampant war, and the dramatic fragilization of public health and of national education.  In this context, political survival as well as political protection (clientelism) becomes, literally, a matter of life and death.  Manipulating supernatural powers as a charismatic leader, or as a political militant, deriving magical protection from allegiance to a powerful patron, allow individuals to seek life options.  These options, moreover, are part of longstanding ideas about power.  In particular, ancient rituals of authority “charged” local chiefs and ritual specialists (in Kikongo, mfumu and nganga) with a power of life and death over people.  Political regulation, therefore, is strongly connected to keeping a balance between the benevolent and malevolent mystical capacities of the leader.  In the context of contemporary wars in the Congo, leaders are first and foremost warlords, deriving legitimacy from their capacity to mobilize soldiers, provide a sense of community to their faction, promote significant military and political success as well as relative security and prosperity.  In fact, even in neighbouring Gabon, a stable and comparatively rich country, the political game functions, to some extent, as a form of war, thus encouraging the recourse to magic. 

Of course, such recourse, instead of being a consequence of the political context of the time, can be analyzed as the factor of warring politics and current crises.  This ambiguity leads to important questions.  Does the use of magic strengthen or undermine leaders' ability to promote popular communities, and eventually the emergence of a viable nation-state ?  Can the cosmology of power in Equatorial Africa coexist with the more “modern,” democratic, and technical aspects of national and international politics?  What is the nature of the articulation between the two? 

Recent studies on the relationship between religion and politics in Africa have tried to answer these questions, and have provided scholars with revised typologies and theoretical models in sociology, anthropology, and political science. Two major lines of argument have emerged from this literature:  first, the 're-traditionalisation' of Africa, a theory arguing that contemporary political crises must be analysed through the recycling of older local beliefs and institutions (for instance, ethnicity or ritual violence); and second, the "modernity" of African politics, a common argument explaining recent politics as emerging from the constraints of modernity" and "globalisation", seen as entirely new contexts and new dynamics.  I argue on the contrary that far from being a brutal resurgence of ancient, unchanged superstitions, or recent inventions answering entirely new needs and new functions, mystical reconfigurations have a long history in Equatorial Africa.  The reformulation of sacred leadership in the twentieth century provides a good example of this.

 Sacred Leadership

          During the colonial period, nationalist élites accumulated both popular support and official recognition from the colonial state, through the fusion of different reservoirs of legitimacy.  Some works have paid close attention to the magical aura and regalia of contemporary leaders. Yet few have gone beyond the sense that leaders merely indulge in backward, pathological popular superstitions, betraying the failure of the modern state and democratic system.  The remarkable endurance and vitality of these repertoires speaks not only to the centrality of magic in the contemporary experience of power, but also to its capacity to promote political dialogue between leaders and civil society, in particular by addressing the problems posed by modernization, new identities, and economic security.

Magic and ideas about spiritual forces (understood in this region as both benevolent and malevolent, able to heal or to destroy) do not derive mechanically from an old, unchanging stock of ancient beliefs.  Contemporary leaders acquire popular influence partly because they creatively connect different spheres of power.  For example, the former president of Congo-Brazzaville, Pascal Lissouba, was nicknamed “le professeur” because of his former career as a specialist of bio-genetics, and his strong connection with academia and science.  Yet his political influence was also believed to be based on a powerful, recently reconfigured local cult, Njobi.  In addition, Lissouba’s partisan emblem (three palm trees) sparkled popular rumours about his murdering of three officers in the 1970s, reflecting a long standing belief in the ability of “chiefs” (and other chiefly figures, such as Kongo charms, minkisi) to kill people. Studies that stress the irrelevance, or pathology, of the figure of the big man, in modern times also tend to obscure the fact that modern leaders strive to strengthen legitimising narratives about their ascendance. Lissouba’s opponent in the 1990s, Bernard Kolélas, made spiritual alliances with diverse categories of political and religious actors in order to reinforce his triple “historical” descendance from Matswa (messianic leader revered since the 1940s), from ancient chiefs who had resisted the French in the 1880s (among his own ethnic group, the Lari), and from the first president of the Congo-Brazzaville, Fulbert Youlou, whose grave Kolélas kept as private and ethnic shrine.  A significant feature of modern leaders, therefore, is their ability to insert themselves into a historical continuum of prominent political figures through legendary narratives of ascendancy.

The fact that leaders display political charisma through a conscious, systematic accumulation of markers from different sources (Christian tradition, local rituals, Western material culture, universal science, transnational cults), thus fusing various repertoires, illuminates the flexibility of local beliefs and their capacity to articulate with modern and foreign elements.  Current studies of magical leadership have attempted to analyse this modern construction of power through the metaphor of capital accumulation.  The magic markers and capacities of leaders can be described, according to such hypotheses, as political or cultural capital, i.e. as material or spiritual “things” that can be amassed. This interpretation fits well with current paradigms about the proliferation of warlords, predatory economies, and the “criminalization” of the State. However, in many Equatorial societies, chiefs’ magical abilities and power are not comparable to material, or even spiritual possessions.  Chiefs, minkisi, or nganga (ritual specialists) the three indisociable figures of power, are less owners of supernatural powers (brought by spirits and ancestors), than interchangeable containers for such entities.

Magical power is therefore associated with physical fragility, a crucial dimension of politics today.  For example, in July 1995, during a relatively quiet episode of the ongoing civil war in the Congo-Brazzaville, the tomb of the former president Fulbert Youlou was found opened and Youlou’s remains visibly profaned.  This desecration was immediately interpreted as an attempt to undermine the sacred authority of Bernard Kolélas, a leader of a fighting faction, and to destroy the Pool region’s territorial integrity.  Corpses and bodies play an important part in the symbolic and spiritual configuration of political territories.  To eliminate or weaken a rival, political leaders use spiritual and physical mutilation, described in French by the verb “bomber” or “bombarder” (to bomb, bombard, or shell). This vocabulary betrays the importance of the material location of political and spiritual power, whether in territories, or in individual bodies.  Just as the districts of the capital of the Congo, Brazzaville, were bombed during the war of 1992-97 as the realms of political power, bodies and corpses could be bombed as shrines of power.  Competing political factions derive unity and strength from sacred sites as much as from military forces and popular support.  Political or ethnic strongholds are oftentimes perceived as geographical receptacles of supernatural and sacred forces.  However, the connection between sorcery, collective identities, and sacred territories, is not synonymous with the confinement of politics into a protected, stabilized physical space.  Each leader can attack the sanctuaries and vital force of his enemies.  Each stronghold can to some extend be redrawn, incorporated or enlarged according to the political rapports de force.  

Shedding light on these patterns can help us understand the dissemination of politics in Equatorial Africa, particularly in time of crises. Any ambitious leader can borrow from the stock of existing emblems of sacred power, or invent new ones, while the public dimension of power and healing power has been replaced by rituals of secrecy and invisibility. Political innovation, therefore, goes hand in hand with an increasing criminalisation of politics, both real and metaphoric. 

Popular Culture and the Magic Sphere

Such power configuration presents dramatic analogies with earlier uses of sorcery in Equatorial Africa, in particular when new forms of supernatural tactics emerged in the 20th century as an innovative folklore shared by leaders and commoners, a common field of dialogue informed by complex demands and needs. 

While sorcery was probably used in ancient times both as a social equalizer and a legitimising tool for leadership, old notions of wealth and prestige altered during the slave trade era.  In accordance with the Equatorial tradition, wealth and authority were based on the accumulation of people.  The slave trade provided new economic opportunities for acquiring dependents.  However, as the commoditisation and destruction of people increased, sorcery was perceived less as a instrument of social adjustment, and more as a big men’s tool for destructive competition, attracting dependents against their will, or capturing the spiritual and material vitality of their rivals.  At the turn of the century, European rulers, helped by Christian missionaries, directly attacked and partly destroyed old beliefs, as well as the functions of religious leaders, traditional healers, and ritual specialists.  However, as they monopolized the exercise of official authority, the Whites were perceived as the holders of new spiritual forces, characterized by secrecy, violence, and direct exploitation of Africans, hence involuntarily reinforcing local ideologies that connected power with the exercise of supernatural, hidden, and malevolent actions.

Early in the century, Africans used sorcery and ordeals in order to solve the intense crises brought by colonization. Simultaneously, colonial authorities devoted extraordinary energy to redefining the divide between the physical and the invisible world, the sacred and the criminal, and "civilization" and "savagery."  They moved quickly to dismantle what they considered criminal or backward practices, banning such vital techniques as the making of shrines with ancestors’ skulls, poison ordeals, the burial of the dead outside official cemeteries, and almost all healing practices.  In addition, penal codes and colonial taxonomy imposed generic labels that obscured the difference between right and wrong as defined by local religions.  The term witchcraft (sorcellerie) was used to stigmatise all religious beliefs that resisted the spread of Christianity.  However, colonial law simultaneously ignored such criminal acts that resorted to the supernatural and remained, in European eyes, impossible to prove by rational investigation (curses, mystical transmigration, infliction of disease and evil), and strictly forbade Africans to punish alleged witches.  The codification and criminalisation of local beliefs struck at the core of African social and moral orders. 

Yet, through daily struggles with death, disaster, and racial inequality, Africans strove to resist, appropriate, and change the ideological system that Europeans sought to impose.  Hidden practices, borrowing to colonial images of death and healing, strove and developed.  Today, the circulation of ideas and artefacts from worldwide networks (medias, circulation of commodities, printed and visual culture, foreign religions), provide new resources for the popular perceptions of politics.  The reconfiguration of repertoires of sacred power has never been confined to the governing elites, rather, it has strategically connected popular culture and magical leadership throughout the twentieth century.

These reformulations oftentimes took place within the arena of cannibalism, both a core aspect of sorcery  in this region (to appropriate somebody’s vitality through sorcery is symbolically expressed as eating the victim) and a spectacular obsession among colonialists.  In Gabon and Congo, where a number of rituals involve the use of body remains as relics, Europeans singled out these practices as the most offensive among African customs.  As a consequence, cannibalism delineated a particularly heated site of knowledge, discourse, and practical struggles between Africans and Europeans. Among Africans, cannibal stories had been equally widespread prior to colonization, serving in particular to define the boundaries between humanity and inhumanity, nature and culture.  Moreover, since the sixteenth century, Africans had interpreted the demand for slaves as European acts of vampirism. Starting in the 1880s, the colonial extraction of labour and taxes was stigmatised using a similar repertoire.  In the late twentieth century, popular perceptions of economic globalisation, combined with an increasing circulation of goods and people, continued to borrow from these visions, feeding rumours of human labour exploitation by invisible zombies, or fears about commodities as hungry and malevolent fetishes. 

On the ground, magic responses to economic globalisation do not represent the sole aspect of the connection between magic and modernity.  Magic is also a growing, international commodity.  The importation and exportation of charms, magical ingredients, and ritual specialists, has multiplied in Equatorial Africa over the past ten years.  In Libreville, a thriving market of artifacts imported from West Africa, in particular from Nigeria, sustains an expanding community of marabouts.  These merchants-pharmacists not only monopolize the international import business of artefacts from West Africa, they also serve as intermediaries in the exporting business of collecting and selling animal skins and skulls, wooden artefacts, healing or harmful powders, iboga (a hallucinatory plant used in the local Bwiti religion) from Gabon to customers in West Africa and Europe.


A micro-history of the early, reciprocal impacts that took place in the colonies and post colonies of West Equatorial Africa and shaped modern ideas about power and the sacred, challenges determinist views about African relations to the supernatural.  I suggest that we should not envision such relationship as permanent, unchanging ones,  nor analyse the twentieth century as a moment of progressive fragmentation and impoverishment of ancient cosmologies of power. Modern African struggles over the sacred, through intensified circulation of artefacts, ideas, and anxieties, have persistently reconfigured and enriched local repertoires and strategies. 

Moreover, the strategic reconfigurations of magical politics that took place from the end of the nineteenth century onwards question the originality and novelty of the globalisation of African cultures.  My research suggests that modern witchcraft cannot be analysed only as a product of recent modernity.  The early patterns of innovations and borrowing at the beginning of the twentieth century indicate that such dynamics are both ancient and in constant flux.  Rather than documenting how the societies and leaders of Equatorial Africa react today to an undifferentiated “modernity," we need to reflect upon what makes these dynamics specific and original to this particular region and time, and to investigate the changing connections people invent between local, regional, national, and international ideas about magic and politics.  In doing so, we will be able to shed fresh light on the complex nature of the “moral matrix” of politics in this region, and to provide new insights on the local history of power and knowledge accumulation.

Magical politics also provide a new angle for studying the nature of modern ethnicity and social identities in contemporary Equatorial Africa.  Although we have a wealth of studies on the political nature of modern ethnicity, we lack any in-depth study on the mystic perceptions of ethnic identities.   As the unfolding of the current civil war in Congo-Brazzaville has shown, ethnic identities are also constructed in connection with the sphere of witchcraft and magic, and the crafting of mystical narratives.  In Equatorial Africa, many ethnic identities are grounded in a violent political canvas where militants and voters share legitimising narratives in order to solidify, however temporarily, fluid electoral bases into ideologically rigidified communities.  We need to investigate this important, although poorly understood dimension of contemporary ethnicity in order to understand current crises of governance, nation-building, and ethnic hatred.  The mystical aspect of ethnicity also bears considerable significance for revising current ideas about space, politics, and territoriality in this region.

Florence Bernault


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