Day II: A Resilient Smile

Development Policy05 Jun 2009Marieke Hounjet

The one programme-item that has been on my conference schedule from the very beginning was the book launch today of Patrick Chabal’s most recent book, Africa: The politics of suffering and smiling (London: Zed Press, 2009). After today I almost hesitate to say that I was a real fan of his (and co-author Jean-Pascal Daloz) book Africa Works: disorder as political instrument (Oxford: James Currey, 1999). However I think more people must have been fascinated with Chabal’s work, otherwise the room would not have been as packed as it was today. The event was set up as such that Chabal was joined by a panel of 4 other academics as his discussants: Nicolas van de Walle, Dieter Nubert, Jan Kees van Donge and Preben Kaarsholm while the session was chaired by Paul Nugent.

Firstly Patrick Chabal introduced his book, and started with a short review of how Africa Works has been received over the last years. He said that he encountered much ‘unease and hostility’ towards the book, a book that was meant as a critique towards the prevailing ‘political correctness’ in writing on Africa these days. However, Chabal is correct in claiming that Africa Works has over the years been completely integrated into the body of prominent social science literature on Africa, not only in academic but also wider circles. The impression I got is that this book’s style is very similar to the former, hence provocative again. I liked how Chabal summarised the idea behind this book: If I could have a million or fifty million discussions with Africans on the continent certain things would come out of it, and this is what this book represents for me; it is a ludicrous undertaking, but here we are. He tried to capture key moments of what is important of life in Africa, hereby moving away from the paradigm called ‘theory’ and more towards ‘thinking’.

Some of the core points of the book became more clear by hearing his fellow academics respond, who indeed from time to time seemed to see Chabal’s project as ludicrous or even ‘failed’ in Jan Kees van Donge’s words. Nicolas van de Walle was basically offended by this attack on social science and felt inspired to defend especially the political science discipline and its methodological value. Van de Walle admits that we simplify by operationalisation, but that this serves the purpose to move beyond mainly claiming that everything is complicated and multi-causal. Other speakers addressed some specific issues where they disagree with Chabal, for example Jan Kees van Donge refutes, by using the Zambian case, Chabal’s statement in the book that ‘elections do not equate with accountability in African politics’. Others miss causality claims, comparative study and even footnotes (which Chabal apparently barely uses in the book, although his bibliography is very extensive). Chabal responds by saying that he is not looking for causality and that he understands that the book can be frustrating as evidence for statements might be absent, but that this might encourage the reader to do some own research. Furthermore, he says: I put no footnotes, so everyone is equally frustrated.

Thus, Patrick Chabal remains an author who stirs up debate amongst academics. I agree with Dieter Nubert that this guarantees his book will be widely read. Moreover, I felt much more at ease listening to Chabal, and even his critics, than some of the other panels I visited today, where often jargon, literary footnotes and even French obstructed my understanding. Jan Kees van Donge is probably right by saying that Chabal is cynical about African politics, to which Chabal responded that he feels it is not his task to be opportunistic. His chapter on the ‘politics of smiling’ is even missing in his book, awaiting a later time when he might be able to write the chapter, “when a firm smile is one of hope rather than pure resilience”.