The “political initiative” and the Political Representation of “organic intellectuals” Among a Marginalized Group in Benin

Paper presented at the American Anthropological Association, Washington, panel Translating subalternities today. Critical Perspectives on Gramsci and anthropology,  Sunday, December 7, 2014: 12:15 PM

Riccardo Ciavolella (CNRS/EHESS)

This paper retraces the political initiative of a marginalized community in Northern Benin, fostered by some local leaders claiming for the recognition of rights to politics and to economic resources of their constituencies. Their role is like that of “organic intellectuals”, maintaining the necessity of autonomous emancipation of these groups as a cohesive political subject. To do that, intellectuals – called “Jannguube”, which means both “political representatives” and “literate people” – insist on the idea of a “cultural and moral awakening”. Political representation then passes through the idea of a cultural representation of the subaltern groups, with discourses insisting on identity, cultural specificity and the necessity of re-discovering their own “history” as a tool for affirming their social and political presence. In this perspective, they show an interest in the monographic work of the anthropologist as an instrument for political recognition. In a more theoretical perspective, the paper addresses the issue of the “political initiative” of subaltern groups in the terms of Gramsci, but with an interesting convergence with political theories of anthropologists; and the issue of political representation and the “organic” link between intellectuals and their constituencies. 

A strong tradition of Italian Gramscian philologists has shown that the concept of the “subaltern” allows for bringing the Marxist analysis of materially-determined classes to the historical and political realm of transformation, rather than determination, and of political will and praxis. For Gramsci’s epoch, subalternity described both the situation of urban proletariat who was increasingly integrated into the Civil society-Political society relationship, and of those groups, such as notably the peasantry, who were still marginal. Subalternity was then defined as the condition of those who, I quote, “are always subject to the political initiative of dominant classes”. In the famous notes on Machiavelli, especially of Notebook 13, Gramsci put the stress on both the possibilities and the impossibilities for a catharsis of subaltern groups from a pure “economic-corporate condition”, determining their social and political fragmentation, to become “historical subjects”, that is a common strategic group with a political consciousness of its own identity and historical role in the transformation of society.

For ten years now, I have been doing fieldwork and research in West Africa on some marginal populations of pastoral and nomadic origin, inquiring into the possibilities and limits for their emergence as political subjects for their emancipation. Today, I will discuss the hesitating emergence of an “autonomous political initiative” among marginalized Fulani pastoralists in the Donga, a Northwestern region of Benin, with reference to the political and cultural activity of some intellectuals and leaders. In order to understand this effort to step from subalternity to political initiative, I should start by presenting the historical and material conditions of subalternity, that is the first point of Gramsci’s methodological criteria. The Fulani groups I worked with in the Donga do not form any cohesive “ethnic” or “tribal” community. Their different villages originate from dispersed migrant groups pouring in the region from more unattractive regions in the North and East. All these migrant communities were originally semi-nomadic, so that they now share a past condition of political and social autonomy. But the situation has dramatically changed with their arrival in the Donga. They are now socially and politically weak, having lost their lignatic links, and impoverished by the crisis of their pastoral activities. Sedentarization has forced the Fulani communities to accept a social, economic and political subordination to local customary “land-owners” (called Haabe), and to recognize them the political authority. Access to natural resources, and especially to land, then depends on the permission of local peasant communities, whose chief manages all the exterior political relations of the Fulani groups and filters all the resources dropping down from State and development agencies.

Under the pressure of cash crops plantations and land grabbing, recent reforms for privatizing customary land tenure prevent Fulani from having access to land property. Because of their nomadic origins, they are considered as “foreigners” and not as “locals”. Development agencies’ local governance link political rights to land entitlements, establishing priorities for “indigenous” groups in acceding to political participation. At the same time, conflicts explode between herders and farmers, with increasing cases of persecution, killings and lynching against pastoralists. On the level of national policies, in 2013, the government set up the Cheetah Operation, a military initiative “against the lawless transhumance” of Fulani, as the Minister of Defense affirmed, “to track down these outlaws to their last retrenchment”.

Fulani communities try to react to this situation with several infrapolitical tactics. Some of these, especially for those who are still herders, still resemble the forms of resistance to statehood typical of their long history of nomadism: for example, hiding cattle to avoid taxation or high rates of mobility to flee conflicts and preserve activities. Despite social fragmentation, geographical scattering, and absence of political unity, the Fulani of the Donga are even capable of engaging into a particular collective action, called maɓaama. This is the act of “boycotting” people, such as urban butchers and rich cattle traders, who discriminate or try to cheat them in the ambiguous realm of market exchanges and of monetary values.

The crisis of pastoral activities and chronic poverty impels Fulani to look for income-generating activities without being very successful: poor women sell milk in modern markets but these are controlled by rich female traders from Southern Benin, or “big women” as they are known; herders having lost their cattle work as hired herders for “big hats” – as Fulani call rich urban people – investing in pastoral economy; or youngsters engage into banditry and smuggling activities or leaving for wayne, the “adventure” of migration. But in all these experiences, people find themselves victims of exploitation or injustices, or at best gaining from some individual benefits, which is faraway from changing the situation of their communities.

These cases certainly bring to surface people’s willingness to react to the frustration of their individual and collective aspirations. Nevertheless, some of these actions are, to use Gramsci’s categories, only “defensive” tactics of circumvention or resistance, and are unable to structurally change the position of Fulani communities in the social, economic and political arena. Others are only attempts to better integrate the economic or the political systems which actually exclude them, showing how they are, as “subaltern” groups, persistently “subject to the initiative” of others.

We know that, for Gramsci, subalternity is not an essence nor a sociological category, but a condition in a particular historical situation within a “historical bloc”. As Gavin Smith has suggested, Gramsci’s vision is close to that of anthropologists like Eric Wolf and William Roseberry who saw history as a “field of forces” and politics as an “open battlefield”. So, if the material and historical roots of subalternity usually force subalterns into a position of “defense”, the problem for Gramsci is to understand how to produce a step towards assuming a role of politically engaged subjects transforming reality. Especially in the famous Notebook 25, Gramsci proposes some “methodological criteria” for the study of “the history of subaltern groups”, wandering how their defensive forms of resistance, or what we now call infrapolitics, can turn into what he called an “autonomous political initiative” (AUTONOMOUS, POLITICAL, INITIATIVE), trespassing limits and constraints imposed by structure and history?

Doing fieldwork, I was struck by the fact that people consider, as the sole condition for collectively getting out of marginality, the acquisition of a new type, as they say, of “culture”, “knowledge” or “consciousness” (hakillo, annal, wumtere). That is why people see having “intellectuals” to represent them politically as the only solution for having a place in local and national development. Fulani use the word jannguDo (pl. JannguuBe), meaning “literate”, to refer to their possible “representative”. This term thus merges and blurs the notions of “intellectual” and of “political leader”.

In the last decade, a dozen of Fulani JanguuBe have tried to socially organize and politically mobilize their constituencies. JanguuBe’s emergence is related to different factors. The first one is religion. The majority of the Fulani of the Donga is Islamic or non-affiliated to any monotheist religion, but the few intellectuals are rather members of some Evangelical Churches, with a small minority being Islamic. In the Donga, Methodist missions developed among the Fulani in the 1970s, coupling discourses of moral redemption and salvation with an insistence on “secular” emancipation through education and culture. These churches are linked to the American Church Growth Movement which maintains a theory of “awakening” of “unreached peoples”, trying to reverse the stigma of marginalization. Thus, for Fulani Christian JanguuBe, spiritual salvation can be obtained by engaging into a process of “cultural awakening” that will bring social “modernization”, which implies approaching infrastructures, markets, administration, and schools combining literacy in Fulfulde and in French.

Thanks to this type of education and cultural transformation, JanguuBe from the Donga have participated into a larger socio-political movement, promoted by other Fulani on the national level. They have then engaged in a series of initiatives for the recognition of the Fulani people’s cultural specificity, for an autonomous economic development and for their right to participate to the distribution of State and development resources: for example, the institution of autonomous cattle markets, called “the market of herders according to their own will” (luumooji mareefuuji sago), intended for local Fulani to circumvent the control over cattle trade of traditional and urbanized privileged middlemen (dilaali); an association for the cultural and linguistic defense and the “cultural awakening” of the Fulani people (called Laawol Fulfulde, the “Fulani way”); and the establishment of an “association for the breeding of cattle and small ruminants” for defending herders’ rights and promoting the modernization of pastoral activities, introducing breeding and livestock farming and ranching, oriented to the trade of cattle productions on markets. All these initiatives articulate discourses around culture and autonomy, making coherence out of opposing values of identity, tradition and autonomy on one side and of modernization and openness on the other: the integration to State and local politics, to market circuits, to the development world of NGOs, is presented as the opportunity to recover political, social, cultural and economic autonomy.

These mediations represent some attempts by Janguube of building different but interrelated types of “organic” connection. First, they aim to organically and collectively mobilize fragmented social groups; then, to graft their constituencies’ values and aspirations onto a common political and social strategy of cultural transformation and social emancipation; finally, to form and consolidate an “organic” link between themselves, the “intellectuals”, and their constituencies. We have seen that, as geographically scattered, socially fragmented and political unorganized communities, for the Fulani of the Donga seem to apply Marx’s famous statement about the French peasantry: “they cannot represent themselves, so they need someone to represent them”). But if, on the one side, people need leaders with a “different” consciousness to interact with “modernity”, on the other, they have a fundamental distrust for these engaged leaders who have a different social experience and the power of knowledge, so that JannguuBe constantly have to reaffirm and to justify an organic link.

Looking at JanguuBe’s initiatives, it is striking to see that these are oriented to social emancipation through cultural awakening, but are not followed by an initiative that would be strictly “political”, in the sense of participating to institutional politics. In part, this depends on the difficulties JanguuBe meet in mobilizing their constituencies, which are weakly politicized. But this is also a sort of voluntary retreat from formal politics. In this perspective, the insistence on autonomy and on the concept of self-reliance (sago) is the historical consequence of the deception for the promises of development and democracy of the last decades, something that is increasingly generalized in West Africa, as I have also witnessed in Mauritania, and maybe even beyond in our post-political times. Since last year, I am following the establishment of a Donga-centered association of Fulani, which is called “Let’s rise up” (En ummee) but it is also known as the association for “a change of mentalities” (Waynungo hakillo). It aims to reinforce alphabetization and education of Fulani communities, to modernize pastoral activities, to promote the integration of local economies to market circuits and of villages to local governance, but again within a discursive frame insisting on “autonomy”. His founder and promoter is Biyagui Djodi, the Janngudo whom I have been frequently working with in Fulani villages since 2010. In 2011, Biyagui told me: “I am writing, just like you, the history and customs of the Fulani of the Donga and if I had had the chance to attend university, now we would not need any of you the anthropologists”. I retype his work and published it online. When I first read it, I was struck by the fact that his writings strangely resemble to an ancient colonial ethnological monograph. I was confused by the fact that contemporary political issues were not included at that time (he will add them later), and that he insisted on a mythical historical ethnogenesis, disappearing customs and traditional social organization. I now understand that his work was intended to give visibility to his constituencies: the process of reconstituting history and identity is, in Gramscian terms, an attempt to exit a condition of subalternity, where subaltern classes, I quote, “have not achieved any consciousness of the class “for itself”, and consequently it never occurs to them that their history might have some possible importance, that there might be some value in leaving documentary evidence of it”.

I would say that JannguBe’s attempts of social and political mobilization are probably not a clear successful example of subaltern people taking an “autonomous political initiative”. Their insistence on “autonomy” as a value in the political, the social, the cultural and the economic realms might be misleading: their aims are to better integrate a system that produces in any case a ladder of marginality. Their political initiatives remain “subject to the initiatives” of others, without aiming at transforming the moral grammars and the structural dynamics of the current historical bloc: they fit into the fourth and fifth stage of Gramsci’s subaltern stages, as they are limited and partial in their aims and reproduce the same grammar of power. Thus, “autonomy” is likely to appear as a rhetorical tool not for transforming the whole society, but to get social “recognition”, in the Honneth’s sense, of their condition of marginality to be finally included in “modern” society. Nevertheless, these initiatives are maybe “glimmers”, to use Gramsci’s words, of attempts to give people a political consciousness of their social position and possible historical role and to organically connect their resistance to an active political project of emancipation.


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