Interrogating Categories and Assumptions in African Political Economy

tanzania map

This course explores the ways in which Africans understand, articulate, organize, and practice democracy, as well as concepts like development, corruption, or good governance that are often linked in global, neoliberal discourses.  In doing so, we must inevitably also interrogate the ways in which these terms and practices are defined through international financial institutions and institutions of global governance like the World Bank and the IMF and through Western governments that effectively control those institutions.  IFIs have shaped a global discourse and practice of neoliberalism, which shapes our own assumptions, expectations, and understandings of African political and economic challenges.  But, since the 1980s, neoliberal ideology has also increasingly influenced the political and economic policies of African governments, through the conditions imposed through structural adjustment loans and through the actions of individual African leaders.

Neoliberal discourse is only the most recent in a much longer conversation about the political organization and economic development of the African continent–debates that figured prominently in European colonial expansion, but which also shaped processes of political and economic change within the continent.  The longer history and ethnography of African political economy reminds us that Africa is not a mere figment of European or global imaginations.  Rather, African populations formed complex states and systems of economic exchange for centuries, responding both to the local demands of class politics, resource allocation, economic aspirations, and cultural practices, as well as regional, national, and global processes of interaction and exchange.  Contrary to European discourses, colonialism did not end these debates and processes.  Rather, the arrival of European colonial rulers reframed much older debates and contestations.  In the process, they established profoundly unequal social, political, economic, and cultural relationships that not only structured African societies and their relationship to the imperial metropoles of Western Europe, but which also lay at the very root of the emerging and expanding global capitalist system itself.  But, in recognizing inequality, we must be careful not to deny the agency of African populations, who continued to shape political, economic, social, and cultural systems in more or less overt ways and with varying degrees of success.  Africans, in other words, are involved in these debates and processes in a profound way that belies the discourses of marginality that dominate contemporary conversations about Africa.





Tanzania provides an interesting site to interrogate these questions.  Shaped by the cosmopolitan culture and economy of the Indian Ocean world, as well as complex and varying political formations of the Omani Sultanate on the island of Zanzibar and the city-states of the Swahili Coast, Tanzanians have long negotiated the often contradictory demands of local and global.  Historians like Laura Fair and Jonathan Glassman have demonstrated the ways in which Africans continued to negotiate these processes well into German and British colonialism of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, using the cosmopolitan cultures of Swahili society to make complex and often contradictory claims to status, identity, and rights.

nyererenyerere new

Julius Nyerere, founder of the Tanganyikan African National Union/Chama Cha Mapinduzi (1960-1990), President of Tanzania (1960-1985)

Nationalism in Tanzania provided another vision for the future, rooted in a fundamental opposition to the inequalities of capitalism.  Julius Nyerere’s African Socialism centered on the Swahili concept of ujamaa, or familyhood.  Nyerere used African cultural and social concepts as the foundation for a postcolonial Tanzanian political economy.  While some policies like villagization were certainly controversial, Nyerere maintained both the respect of people and the power of the state for decades.  When Nyerere stepped down from power, his successor faced not only the challenge of following such a highly respected and capable leader, but Mwinyi also faced the increasing power of transnational or international financial institutions and global economic challenges.  The end of Nyerere’s presidency, in other words, provided an incredibly stark shift, marked by transition from socialism to neoliberalism.  The relatively recent date of this political and economic shift means that these terms and practices remain highly debated in contemporary Tanzania.

The history of Tanzania forces us to think beyond the assumptions and categories of neoliberal ideology and practice.  As such, histories and ethnographies of Tanzanian political and economic culture are part of a much broader conversation among African Studies scholars, which takes seriously the categories and practices of local populations.  Particularly in the realms of political economy, an emerging body of scholarship in the history and ethnography of technology, informal economy, development, and popular culture not only seek to recover local categories that can better explain the histories of African populations in countries like Tanzania, but which also challenge the validity and usefulness of analytical categories like democracy, development, and modernity that have long structured academic scholarship, political debates, and popular conversations about the African continent.

Throughout the semester, we are reading a number of important texts that have contributed to this ongoing scholarly conversation about institutions and practices of political economy in Africa.  We get the unique opportunity to speak with many of these scholars directly, learning about the methodologies and theories that guided their research.  Students also get the opportunity to speak about and work through their own research interests with scholars who are experts on Tanzanian history, culture, politics, and economy.  We look forward to seeing how these processes and practices manifest on the ground today, as we travel in Tanzania for 10 days in late October.  In the process, we will also be observing elections and thinking critically about what, exactly, democracy means today for Tanzanians.


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