Locating the African Città futura? Spatializing powers and displacing politics in the margins of the African city (Nouakchott, Mauritania)

Paper presented with Armelle Choplin at the colloquium « Practices of the State and Contested Spaces in Africa », 26-27 March 2015, Università di Napoli L’Orientale

Abstract

A recent interdisciplinary literature is largely insisting on the African city as the site of conflicting political tendencies: depoliticizing forces of neoliberal urban governance on the one hand, and the repoliticization of urban public spaces by subaltern urban dwellers on the other. This dialectics especially emerges from the intervention of capitalist urban projects, like slum clearance, and people’s strategies to react to them (resisting, escaping, mitigating or benefiting), making of the city a highly conflictive space. Scholars introducing postcolonial and critical theories insist on the relocation of African political conflicts on the spatial domain of land and real estate, but also on a gradual displacement of politics itself from state institutions to marginal, interstitial and informal sites of civil society. The issue at stake here is to understand whether contemporary African cities, and especially their margins, can become the social setting for the production of new forms of political citizenship and engagement. In order to tackle this issue, we propose to develop the reflection in two steps.

First, in a theoretical perspective, we propose to explore the concept of Città Futura, theorized by Gramsci in 1917, to show how it can be transposed to the context of the African postcolonial city to analyse and understand urban subalterns’ political actions and resistances. We refer to the gramscian notion of Città Futura because in Italian, the expression “Città” characterizes at the same time the words “urbs” and “polis”, and thus refers to “cityness” and “citizenship”, with both geographical and political aspects, in order to wonder about the concrete possibilities for the resistance of subaltern groups to become a structured political movement, able to change the reality in which they live. This “controlled anachronism” intends to develop further the discussion of urban theory and critical geography and anthropology increasingly referring to the Gramsci’s concepts of “subalternity” and “hegemony”.

Secondly, relocating this theoretical framework to postcolonial Africa, the paper highlights the difficulty for cittadinanza (citizenship) to express itself in the contemporary African city. Drawing on Nouakchott’s case, the capital city of Mauritania, dynamics of hegemony and subalternity are analysed to understand urban transformations in a globalized capitalist system. At a time of post-political condition, the African city is no exception to the depoliticization process. However, to counterpoint the post-political thought, the paper focuses on the urban subalterns’ everyday forms of resistance and subaltern peoples’ forms of contestation and mobilization: young people practices, slum dwellers resistance against clearance, or ancient slaves mobilizations in urban settings. With its local “quiet encroachment” (Bayat), a harbinger of broader political mobilization, could embryonic forms of resistance be considered as political and what is the degree of politicization of these protests?

 

 


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