What if people do not move into political movements? – The case of Fulani pastoral nomads in West Africa

Paper presented at the workshop “Activism and Possibilities of Justice: Anthropological Perspectives”, organised by the Anthropology and Social Movements Network of the EASA, University of Perugia (Italy), 26th October 2013 –

This paper inquires into the consequences, for the debate on social movements, of considering the situations of depoliticised or under-represented populations, rather than those of groups already active and engaged in political and social struggles. Actually, the recent attention paid to popular uprisings in the Global South should not neglect, in a Gramscian sense, the need for a reflection on the conditions for mobilisation or non-mobilisation, and on the different stages of politicisation of subaltern groups.

The paper relies on two different, but interrelated field studies. The first one is on the political expressions (from daily resistances to overt political contestation) of marginalised pastoral and nomadic Fulani communities of West Africa (Mauritania, Mali, Benin). Despite their capabilities for resisting State discrimination and increasing economic marginalisation by global forces, these subaltern groups’ resistances hardly turn into more structured political initiatives. The second study focuses on the emergence of transnational ethnic organisations of elites advocating for pastoral Fulani in global arenas (international institutions, internet, state authorities…). Nevertheless, the study shows that this type of social movements can hardly represent “organically” the subaltern people they claim to defend. –

I must confess that I feel a little bit uncomfortable in being the first speaker. Actually, as the title of my paper suggests, I will engage in our debate on social movements with a quite contrastive point of view. Rather than focusing directly on social movements as historical formations already active on the political scene, my reasoning stems from the experiences of people who are weakly mobilised. Even if the recent global uprisings have shown the politicisation of civil societies in every corner of the world, there are many people, probably the majority, who have trouble in engaging in more overt and structured mobilisations. Under the visible surface of claims heard, read and seen through the media, many people’s social and political subjectivities develop in less structured ways and manifest themselves in more tactical, hidden forms of contestation and resistance, or are even affected by depoliticisation. What are the consequences for debates on social movements of those experiences?

For scholars of social movements, the work of E.P. Thompson on the Moral economy[i] is an inevitable reference for understanding any popular mobilisation as culturally and historically motivated reactions to the perceived injustice of the dominant system[ii]. But as a colleague of Thompson remarked, his interpretations, I quote, tells us “virtually nothing about why some places were almost perennially subject to disturbances, whilst others remained almost completely undisturbed”[iii]. Thompson rightly answered that this was not the theme of his study, but he nevertheless agreed that we can get a comprehensive interpretation of popular riots also by looking to the reasons for not rioting[iv]. So, thinking to contemporary social movements, my question is when, how and why some people, and not others, elevate into a higher stage of politicisation. This is about understanding how marginalised people could overcome their subalternity, if we understand this as a condition where, for Gramsci, people lack the capacity of taking the political initiative. So, participating into the debate of the anthropology of social movements from the point of view of people who are not mobilised is not an enemy’s infiltration for sabotage, but an effort to think to social movements in counterpoint, by tackling the flipside of the issue.

In my paper, I tackle these issues in relation to marginalised pastoral and nomadic Fulani communities I have been studying for the last ten years in Mauritania, Mali and Benin. I will present this in three steps. Firstly, I will describe their current situation of marginality. I will then show how these communities try to cope with State and ethnic discrimination and increasing economic marginalisation by global forces, but also how and why their subaltern resistances hardly turn into more structured political initiatives. In the last part, I focus on some social movements emerging in the transnational elite of Fulani, advocating in global arenas for pastoral communities and aiming at making up for their inabilities or impossibilities to mobilise. As I will try to show, the problem is that these political and social subjects can hardly represent “organically” the subaltern people they claim to defend.

The people I have been working with for the last ten years are known in the anthropological literature as “Fulani” with a nomadic origin and a pastoral way of life. Nomadism and pastoralism are important for understanding their long history as one of a typical “society against the State”. Until very recently, they have managed to preserve an independent political organisation against external State powers. Both before and during colonisation, they have taken advantage of their high mobility to escape forced labour, modern school enrolment, administrative control and taxation. They have also prevented themselves from developing large social and political inequalities within them, inhibiting the emergence of a detached and centralised power.

Nevertheless, since the 1970s, their situation has dramatically changed. The Sahel droughts and the expansion of independent State powers have drastically reduced the conditions for their pastoral way of life and thus for their political autonomy.

In our present-day world, it is like there is no more space for these pastoral communities. Pastoral lands are progressively occupied by agricultural activities. As Ferguson noted regarding Southern Africa, neoliberal policies foster market-oriented agricultural development, considering pastoralism as an irrational mode of production. Governance is also promoting reforms for converting common pastures into private fields. The perverse effect of these land reforms for pastoralists is that they do not have access to land property since they are considered as “strangers”, because of their nomadic origin. They are not recognised full citizenship and so they are often hampered in participating into politics.

The hardship of their situation has increased conflicts between the Fulani and nearby communities. As I have been witnessing in Northern Benin, they are increasingly persecuted, with some cases of killings, and they are often banished from the territory. They are seen everywhere in West Africa as a threat for local societies’ orders and, for some, the Fulani issue will soon or later be compared to the Tuareg situation in catalysing regional conflicts.

Their integration into what they also start to call “modernity” does not offer them many opportunities. On the contrary, they are now exposed to increasing State discrimination and unprecedented global threats. Elders remain in the villages in extreme poverty, while some of the youngsters bet on what they call the “adventure”. They migrate to nearby urban centers looking for chance, but they often bump into precarious informal activities, exploitive jobs or risky and violent banditry. I would say that pastoral Fulani are now in a liminal position between a past condition that is no more possible and a contemporary society where they can hardly find a place. They feel marginalized by a society, which nevertheless they need to be included to.

Despite the depth of the crisis affecting them, in my work I refuse to consider these people as only victims. An ethnographic insight into their subjectivities, practices and discourses shows their great resistance to discrimination, injustices and exclusion. James Scott’s interpretative tools are well fit to understand this. Fulani herders have tactics and strategies to keep the State at distance, to bypass its control, and they deploy a set of “weapons” to resist domination and avoid subordination. In their private “social site”, they ironically criticise power with their “hidden transcripts”. For example, in Mauritania they call politicians with the sorcery-like term sukuñaaBe – the bush spirits eating children souls. After being persecuted and expelled from the country for ethnic reasons by state authorities, many of these communities also engaged into transborder banditry and in rural militias of darinaaBe – literally meaning “those who resist”.

These forms of resistance seem to make the Fulani perfectly fitting into the categories of anarchist communities James Scott talks about. As we all know here, Scott is one of those radical intellectuals who use anthropological examples of past anarchism or contemporary infra-politics in order to inform present-day rebelliousness. Nevertheless, if we remain attached to the ethnographic reality, my conclusions on these resistances are quite different from Scott’s one. Actually, as Gramsci argued, one should not confuse these microforms of resistance as effective possibilities of emancipation. They certainly allow to survive and to cope with reality, showing people’s force and shrewd obstinacy in resisting and in not accepting their situation. But they do not change the social and political basis and the conditions of production of their subalternity. Marginal people’s agency, hidden criticism, and tactics of bypassing state and laws, epitomise their will of freedom. But I think, as Slavoj Zizek claims in a heated debate with David Graeber, that one should not confound proves of interstitial resistance and dissent from power, with a pathway for effective emancipation.

As I came to this conclusion with my research on popular and local resistances, I have tried to understand the possibilities for these people to get to a higher level of political mobilisation. And I did this with what I would call a multi-layered ethnography. Firstly, I kept on inquiring in the same non-mobilised communities in order to understand what they think they would need for being more politically active. These almost illiterate people consider that their marginality is also the consequence, in their own words, of their lack of “culture”, “knowledge” or “consciousness” (hakillo, annal, wumtere in fulfulde). Only a different type of consciousness would allow them to cope with “modernity”. And only intellectuals can bring this new consciousness.  In a way, political representatives should be completely different from them from a cultural point of view: “different” in the sense of being able to understand and manage the relationship with State, market and magic global forces. So, we see that, for illiterate pastoral Fulani communities, there is a strong link between culture and politics. In Benin, for example, Fulani use the same word to call an intellectual or a political representative, that is janguDo, meaning “literate”, showing the implicit link between culture or consciousness and political representation.

Actually, small local intellectual elites have emerged in the three contexts I have studied. These people manage to build up associations for the defence of pastoralists’ rights and for the promotion of some local development projects. Sometimes, they even succeed in mobilising pastoral communities in small manifestations, which I would consider as the premises of a kind of social movement. These leaders are often people who had a different social trajectory from most of their relatives, having acceded to modern schools or to religious and ethnic networks promoting a cultural and moral awakening. It is exactly this cultural and social exceptionality, which gives them the legitimacy for representing their communities of origin. In this case, the need for intellectuals apparently seems to confirm the famous Marx’s statement about the impossibility for the peasantry to represent itself and thus its need for someone to represent them. But things are not so simple.

From Rousseau to Bourdieu and Spivak, critical theorists have argued that political representation is a sort of unfulfilling promise. In the process of political mediation there is inevitably a form of betrayal of people’s will: creating an organic link between representatives and the people is a hard task. 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 – politicians or intellectuals – precisely because they perceive them as “different”. Leaders have been historically incorporated into State logics and into successful transnational networks, that have partially disconnected them from the interests and aspirations of the people they presumably represent. Their mobilisations can be very successful for leaders themselves in political, social and economic arenas, but they hardly allow tackling the political and economic dynamics, which determine the marginalisation of their constituencies.

I met the same problem at a higher level of social mobilisation. Last year I have been doing research on a newborn international association for the defence of Fulani herders and more generally of pastoral communities in Africa. Fulani politicians, university professors, local leaders are gathering in order to form a Commission for the defence of pastoralists’ human rights and the prevention of conflicts. As I learnt about this mobilisation, I got extremely happy and excited. If we take a look at the literature on social movements from the Global South, and especially from rural subaltern peoples, we see that all the people we are talking about are peasants, in the sense of farming communities, and that there is no trace of grassroots pastoral or nomadic people engaging in global movements. So, when I heard of the new transnational Fulani association, I was then ready to follow what seems to me an unprecedented mobilisation and I even engaged into it, by participating to conferences and common discussions.

The Commission now is developing a huge lobbying power on State governments. Some members are proposing to make Fulani people recognized as an “indigenous people”, protected by the United Nations’ legislation. They are amazingly using all kinds of resources and technologies in order to survey all the conflicts and injustices involving pastoral communities, in order to make them visible to medias and public opinions.

Even political strategies are now discussed in the Commission and in other Fulani networks, especially through the internet. Young intellectuals are, for example, proposing mass mobilisations by taking inspiration from the Arab springs. A big debate they raise is, I quote, on “how to mobilise immobility in the Twenty-first century – or the new type of people power”: these strategies are, for example, flash mobs, online petitions and all the famous 198 Methods of Nonviolent Protest and Persuasion, written by Gene Sharp, which has been read in Squares around the world, from Belgrade to Tahrir and Taksim.

After a deeper analysis, I still perceive this social mobilisation as something necessary, and maybe the only opportunity for pastoral communities in Africa to have their voices heard and their interests represented in the global arena. Nevertheless, I think we should not overemphasize this experience has a popular mobilisation for self-emancipation: the movement remains an elite initiative, despite all the efforts made for bridging the social and political distance with grassroots communities and for building up an organic link between the elite and their constituencies. I am not arguing that leaders are necessarily going to betray people’s trust by pursuing their own interests. The main problem is the difference in elite’s and people’s aspirations and strategies. Actually, the elite has a modernizing discourse, which aims at transforming the pastoral way of life in something more “well-suited” for the Twenty-First century. On the other side, marginalised communities are still waiting for someone representing and defending them – an organic intellectual – for integrating the Twenty-First century, but without losing themselves and their mode of life. That is why their dilemma of representation remains unresolved.

Coming to my conclusions, I am perfectly aware that, in our times of civil societies’ uprisings, my paper seems out-dated. Actually, it raises issues, which rather belong to an outmoded Twentieth, or even Nineteenth century jargon: the acquisition of political consciousness; the mobilizing capacities of leaders, vanguards or organic intellectuals; the dilemma of representation between elites and people. That is why many colleagues of mine tell me that my work is not about contemporary politics, but about a people who has not been completely integrated into modernity, yet. I can accept this as partly true, but nevertheless I refuse to look at pastoral Fulani as simple vestiges of an ancient world, who can only aspire in modernity to their preservation as “indigenous people”. I rather think that their experience is a radical example of a much more common political situation than we may think: the situation where mobilisation and self-emancipation are not possible, or are extremely hampered by structural constraints and injustices. My point is that only by encompassing this political situation in our reflection and finding an answer to it, we could think of more organic social mobilisations for emancipation.


[i] Thompson, E.P. (1971) ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, Past & present (50): 76-136.

[ii] Interstingly enough for anthropologists, Thompson thought of his notion of « moral economy » as being in opposition to social and cultural anthropologists’ ideas, such as Durkheim’s and Milinowski’s, whose functionalism would explain riots or other popular mobilisations as emotional and spontaneous upsurging of failures in their cultural and social systems of values, noramally reproducing themselves giving order and stability to society. Thompson was then asking anthropologists to consider riots as a cultural phenomenon as any other (that is informed by values, expectations and norms and historically situated), even if it takes the form of disorder. Actually, this disorder was produced by riots, in pre-industrial Britain, as a way for rebellious people to « defend customs », a way to maintain the cultural and social order being menaced by the transformations of the dominant society.

[iii] Stevenson, J. (1974) ‘Food Riots in England, 1792-1818’, (ed.) 33, p. 67.

[iv] Thompson, E.P. (1993) ‘The Moral Economy Reviewed’, p. 259-351 in E.P. Thompson (ed.) Customs in Common. Harmondsworth: Penguin, p. 261.


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