On the Haitian Revolution

This is from Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History:

The Haitian revolution therefore entered history with the peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happened. Official debates and publications of the times, including the long list of pamphlets on Saint-Domingue published in France from 1790 to 1804, reveal the incapacity of most contemporaries to understand the ongoing revolution on its own terms. They could read the news only with their ready-made categories, and these categories were incompatible with the idea of a slave revolution [p. 73]

The discursive context within which news from San-Domingue was discussed as it happened has important consequences for the historiography of Saint-Domingue/Haiti. If some events cannot be accepted even as they occur, how can they be assessed later? In other words, can historical narratives convey plots that are unthinkable in the world within which these narratives take place? How does one write a history of the impossible?

As the power of Louverture grew, every other party struggled to convince itself and its counterparts that the achievements of black leadership would ultimately benefit someone else. The new black elite had to be, willingly or not, the pawn of a “major” international power. Or else, the colony would fall apart and a legitimate international state would pick up the pieces. Theories assuming chaos under black leadership continued even after Louverture and his closest lieutenants fully secured the military, political, and civil apparatus of the colony….. [p. 94]

I read Silencing the Past right after reading C. L. R. James’ The Black Jacobins, and strongly recommend reading both together.

As I read both books I couldn’t help but wonder why my high school history had nothing on the Haitian revolution (which proves Trouillot’s point). It seems like the Haitian revolution, even if in sanitized form, would have been a good fit with the sanitized versions of the Mau Mau insurgency and the Algerian and Malaya wars that I was exposed to as a teenager.

More broadly, it seems like the teaching of decolonization in Kenya could benefit from more Haiti and Fanon, side by side with Mandela, Gandhi, and MLK. It is not a stretch to imagine that the threat of violence made the successes of the Mandelas of history more likely. To talk about the ANC without mentioning Umhonto we Sizwe is to stick one’s head in the sand.

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Some Africanist inside baseball

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Africa’s Billionaires in 2014

Only 9 out of 54 African countries are represented on the 2014 Forbes billionaires list. There are certainly more than 29 dollar billionaires on the Continent (most of the rest being in politics). Let’s consider this list as representative of countries in which (for whatever reason) it is politically safe to be publicly super wealthy – which in and of itself says a lot about how far Nigeria has come.

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Source: Forbes

Some will look at the list and scream inequality. I look at the list and see the proliferation of centres of economic and political power. And a potential source of much-needed intra-elite accountability in African politics. For more on this read Leonardo Arriola’s excellent book on the role of private capital in African politics.

See also this FT story on the impact of currency movements on the wealth of Nigeria’s super rich. Forbes also has a great profile of Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man.

tunisians run their president out of town

Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has fled the country. The Prime Minister went on television on Friday night and announced himself the new president. The NY Times reports:

The apparent fall of Mr. Ben Ali, whose authoritarian government ruled for more than two decades, would mark the first time in recent memory that widespread demonstrations had overthrown an Arab leader.

The UK Guardian reports:

Opposition leader Najib Chebbi, one of Ben Ali’s loudest critics, captured the sense of historic change. “This is a crucial moment. There is a change of regime under way. Now it’s the succession,” he said.He added: “It must lead to profound reforms, to reform the law and let the people choose.”

The events in Tunisia might have ramifications in the wider Middle East and North Africa region. Regimes in Algeria and Egypt are potentially the most vulnerable. Egypt has presidential elections later this year while Algeria has been experiencing disturbances in the Annaba province.

We might be seeing the beginning of the end of the peculiar fact that there is not a single Arab democracy in the world.

the world cup

African football is on the ropes. Of the six teams in the tournament in South Africa only Ghana has managed a victory, and even that only through a penalty kick. With Cameroon out (they crashed out today against an arguably weaker Danish team) the best African team in the tournament is Cote d’Ivoire. But the elephants got dealt a bad hand and find themselves having to struggle against Portugal and Brazil if they are to advance. If I had it my way I would have a CAF inquiry at the end of this tournament to determine exactly what it is that continues to perpetuate mediocrity in African football.

The organization of the World Cup tournament by the South Africans has been superb but going by the comments on facebook, among other websites, many are hugely disappointed by the lackluster performance exhibited by the Continent’s representatives at the tournament.

football hooligans and diplomacy

Both Egyptian and Algerian officials could have been classier in handling the mess that has resulted from their rivalry on the field. The two national football teams were competing for the last African slot in next year’s world cup in South Africa. Egypt won the second leg in Cairo, resulting in a deadlock in the group, which then necessitated a playoff in a neutral country. Sudan was chosen and Algeria won.

The fans of either team did not find it in their interest to keep things this simple though. From Khartoum to Cairo to Algiers to Marseilles they expressed their anger by rioting and setting business and boats on fire. FIFA is considering disciplinary action on Egypt because Egyptian fans pelted the Algerian football team’s bus with stones. In Algiers Egyptian businesses were raided by angry mobs. The running battles extended to France, where Algerian and Egyptian immigrants clashed in Marseilles. Egypt has recalled its ambassador to Algeria.

There is pride in making it to the world cup, but there is also sanity and diplomatic decency. This should not have gone this far.