Politics in Equatorial Africa
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Culture and the Magic Sphere
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.