Postcoloniality and the Postcolony: Theories of the Global and the Local

Sverker Finnström, M.A., Dept. of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology, Uppsala University

Previously published in the series Working Papers in Cultural Anthropology, No. 7, 1997. © Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology, Uppsala University and the author.

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Inheritance of Institutions or a Second Colonial Occupation: The Case of Uganda

In the previous section I argued for the importance of observing that modern phenomena are locally manifested and therefore locally understood. Needless to say, they should therefore be described from the perspective of the local. In other words, it is useful to talk of the localisation of the global as a critique of the concept of global westernisation, common in cultural studies. At the same time, however, it is important not to lessen the actual "institutional inheritance," to use a term of Brett (1991). Brett argues that the colonial background of many Ugandan state institutions have escalated the postcolonial turbulence of the country. This can be related to the discussion in the first section of my paper, here caught in the words of Bayart:

Although it would be too much to maintain that all contemporary ethnic groups are the products of the colonial period, the precipitation of ethnic identities becomes incomprehensible if it is divorced from colonial rule. (Bayart 1993:51)

The colonial inheritance is evident when it comes to the Ugandan army during the three first postcolonial regimes: Obote I (1966-1971), Amin (1971-1979), and Obote II (1980-1985). In 1905 the British created the King’s African Rifles, with the task to serve their own imperial ambitions as opposed to Egypt’s (Kokole 1995:49). The core of this army was taken from decentralised and segmentary societies, such as Lugbara, Logo, Moru, Azande, Alur, Makaraka and Kakwa. According to the British, these different Sudanic and Nilotic groups were the most suitable for army service, due to their "inherited warlike traditions" (Hansen 1977:76). The largest political force of Uganda, the Buganda kingdom, as well as other Bantu kingdoms, was excluded from the military organisation. On the other hand, the Bantu population, especially the Baganda, were seen as more suitable to educate and employ in administration service. In this way, the British increased their indirect rule by their well known divide and rule-strategy (Hansen and Twaddle 1994:13; Mazrui 1978; 1986:16f). [7] To put it bluntly, the colonial situation very much produced an ethnic and, as it turned out, detrimental division of labour.

The variety of non-Bantus in the King’s African Rifles were soon bound together in their profession as soldiers. Many of them had a Muslim background and spoke some version of Creole Arabic. Kokole (1995:49) presents the idea of a new Semantic breed that was in the making, the Muslim Nubis (already introduced above). The Nubis illustrate the problem and pitfalls of describing homogenous and bounded ethnic groups. In the eyes of Kokole the Nubi collective is more of a ‘club’ than a ‘tribe.’ Although Creole Arabic is a central feature among the Nubis, a Nubi need not necessarily be someone whose mother tongue is this language, not even his or her third or fourth language (Kokole 1995:48f). Sometimes this Nubisation is presented as an expression of urban sheltering in times of social change and uprooting (Hansen 1977:89). Twaddle describes the Nubi collective as "a secondary and expandable social category capable of assimilating Ugandans previously classified under other tribal names" (Twaddle 1979:221; cited in Kokole 1995:53). Thus the concept of Nubism is very open-ended and flexible, cutting across ethnic boundaries.

It is important not to limit the Nubi collective to a club-like association, while at the same time it is no better to classify them as a tribe. But just as ethnicity is constituted by social networks and complex exchanges of social relations, internal as well as external, so is Nubi identity. This involves areas of political, social and economic agency, rather than simply illustrating the reductionist idea of tribal struggle. Nubism is constantly in the making, not a static expression of a primordial past, regardless of scholars categorising them as a tribe, an ethnic group, or an elite club.

It has been substantiated that Amin preferred Nubis, Kakwas and other West Nilers in the army during his dictatorship, while the Obote regimes were to favour Langi and Acholi groups. As Hansen (1977:92) observes, after the Amin coup of 1971, Obote became the symbol for the whole Langi group, and his regime with the Acholi as well. Later on the West Nilers were to be stereotyped in the person of Amin, himself being a Kakwa. Further, during the Amin years the Muslim-Christian division was made explicit, Amin himself being not only a West Niler but a Nubi Muslim as well. Patrimonialism and ethnic categories became stigmatised, pinned on the individuals of Amin and Obote (Mazrui 1978:59). Differences, real and fictitious, became polarised. Thus the political power was intimately interconnected with the social order. Hegemony produced "homogeny" and vice versa (Friedman 1994:236, 252). This illustrates two contradictory moments, when it comes to ethnicity. On the one hand ethnicity involves aspects of social emancipation. On the other, however, it involves social and political control (Mamdani 1995:223). As we have seen, this was disastrous for the civil stability of Uganda.

Hansen (1977:92) emphasises that the coup of 1971 cannot be reduced to a personal vendetta of Amin (Kakwa) and Obote (Langi). These effective but reductionistic stereotypes are not correctly mirroring the complexity of the actual political processes. However, despite this analytically important distinction, in praxis ethnification does work as a homogenising process of identification, sometimes regardless of specific and multifarious situations. Processes like this are present all through Uganda’s postcolonial history. And this was once again manifested in the civil war against the Obote II regime. During this civil war the division of north and south was implicitly exploited when Yoweri Museveni’s guerrilla fighters, mainly recruited from the Baganda and Banyankole population, fought Obote’s army of Acholi and Langi soldiers (Brett 1994:88).

To this complexity of ethnic division one should add that the Christians of Uganda for a long time have been divided into three political factions: Catholics have been identified with the Democratic Party (DP), Protestants outside Buganda with the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), and the Protestants of Buganda with the Kabaka Yekka, ‘the King Alone’ (Twaddle 1988:320f). Recently in Kampala a peace walk to be arranged by the Catholic church was cancelled on the request of President Museveni. The Catholics wanted to protest against Museveni’s unwillingness to negotiate with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of northern Uganda, but according to one source the planned march assumed a political dimension since exiled Obote had been inciting all members of the former UPC to join the march (Africa News Online 1997). This exemplifies President Museveni’s biggest problem of today; how is he to reduce historical determinism and the division between north and south? To finally unite and pacify Uganda is not a simple task. As illustrated by the postcolonial turbulence, ‘Yuganda’ is not only an English term, the country was initially bounded as a result of the Berlin conference of 1884-85 (Wrigley 1988:32).

The history of postcolonial Uganda exemplifies Mazrui’s somehow cynical critique of Marxist analysis: "And so the ultimate power resides not in those who control the means of production, as Marxists would argue, but in those who control the means of destruction." (Mazrui 1986:182). According to Mazrui, this is a most common situation in postcolonial Africa that cannot be separated from European policies of constantly supplying Africa with tools of destruction, weapons, rather than with tools of production, or more specific, the means of processing industry (Mazrui 1986:166, 232; see also Davidson 1994:19).

However, since the National Resistance Army (NRA) and Museveni seized power in 1986, the situation in Uganda has stabilised, not least when it comes to civil rights. Today, in the south in general, and in Buganda in particular, Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) with its local Resistance Councils (RCs) are working quite well. The NRM concept of democracy is assimilated to local conceptions and existing socio-political cosmologies (Karlström 1996). On the other hand, in the northern, north-western and eastern parts of Uganda, economically neglected because of still ongoing rebellions, the NRM is very much identified with the south (Kasfir 1994).

The development in African countries like postcolonial Uganda are often said to have resulted in the alienation of the African state from civil society. Thus one scholar describes the political development of Africa as follows: "Liberation thus produced its own denial. Liberation led to alienation." (Davidson 1992:10; see also Mazrui 1986:240). The idea of alienation is not a very new one. Indeed, since the days of Hegel alienation seems to be the feature of modern life per se. As a recent text by the sociologist Kellner (1992) exemplifies, this modern alienation is often discussed in relation to the assumed life of premodern societies as non-reflective, unproblematic and static: "One was a hunter and a member of the tribe and that was that." (Kellner 1992:141). In using an inference like this, Kellner implicitly equates the premodern with the non-Western. But the non-Western world cannot be used merely as an objectified tool in the analyses of modern conditions of the Western world, since people of the cultural other share many modern conditions that we as Westerners experience also. Cultural difference, then, is not to be a question of cultural dichotomies, of absolute types. This is emphasised by Geertz (1995:28), who goes on to remark that differences can be mutually framing and reciprocally clarifying, while dichotomies hardly can.

However, just as the sociologist Kellner (1992:142) sees modern identity as "extremely alienated," so is the postcolonial situation in Africa stereotyped by the historian Mbembe (1992a). [8] In the perspective of the latter, alienation is postcoloniality par excellence: the postcolony is nothing but a hollow pretence, a regime of unreality or simulacra, merely an idol, a fetish (Mbembe 1992a:8ff). He continues: "The postcolonial polity can only produce ‘fables’ and stupefy its ‘subjects,’ bringing on delirium when the discourse of power penetrates its targets and drives them into the realms of fantasy and hallucination." (Mbembe 1992a:16; see also Berman 1982:235f).

In concluding my paper, I would argue that it is unacceptable to apply Davidson’s, Mbembe’s or Kellner’s ideas of alienation as generalisations of the over-all African postcolonial situation, if we as analysts are not to be more concerned about our postcolonial theories than we are about the actual postcolonial subjects described. I honestly hope that anthropologists will refuse to describe their informants as living in abstract worlds of delirium, fantasy, and hallucination. As Bayart (1993:191) reminds us, far from being an isolated or solely alienated object, the state more often derives much of its substance from transactions, symbolic and otherwise, with the actual society. Local agents are not doomed to live in worlds of fantasy and hallucination. Therefore it is essential to include local people as active subjects in the analysis, not only in their strategies of resistance but also in their strategies of accommodation and collaboration. Fortunately, this is pointed out by Mbembe (1992a) as well, even though he is over-stressing the supposed consequences of alienation. Even a regime which appears to be unreal, a simulacrum, as the Amin or Obote II regimes in Uganda, is actually involving real people, in real relations. By closer investigating local participation in regional, national and international affairs, anthropologists are able to shade off the image of the postcolonial states in Africa as nothing but manifestations of vulgar and hegemonic patrimonialism.

Theorisation on modernity and alienation must thus be complemented with local opinions and world-views, and of locally understood versions of social action (see, for example, Devisch 1996). When working with this double-sided perspective, anthropologists must closer investigate the localisation and cultural creativity of power (Arens and Karp 1989). The notion of power is better understood if not limited to a reductionist idea of hegemony and resistance. Power does not emanate from a single or central source, neither is it only confronted directly. On the contrary, power is manifested in a myriad of ways; in the creativity of local management and practice; in the specific cultural and personal resources that are used in guiding actions, defining goals; and in interpreting experience of corruption and violence (Arens and Karp 1989; Mbembe 1992a:24ff). In other words, if we are to avoid abstract theorisation of alienation, the Western image of modern life per se, we are to deconstruct the fixation of historicity and ethnic divisions (cf. Schoenbrun 1993).

This is important, since many of the postulations of alienation seem to originate in reductionist ideas of tradition as opposed to modernity, of sociocultural decomposition in non-Western societies, of colonialism and history as teleological determinants, and of Western science as the single way to enlightenment and understanding. Just as local actors break with this eurocentric dichotomisation, or situation coloniale (Devisch 1996), so must we as analysts. Thus, when Whyte’s (1990:322) Nyole informants of today express "a pride in being locally modern," this is one important key to the anthropological understanding of modernisation, modernity and global processes.


7. The strategy was strikingly similar in Punjab, India. The Sikhs were recruited to the colonial army, while the Hindus were recruited to the administration, due to the British imagination of the groups inherited and specific race qualities respectively (Fox 1985; Oberoi 1994).

8. A similar version of Mbembe’s article in Africa (Mbembe 1992a) is published in Public culture (Mbembe 1992b) as well. In this paper, however, I choose to refer mainly to the Africa version, which seems to be the most elaborated one. The main difference is that the paragraph called "The domain of drunkards," from where at least one of my quotations is taken, is included only in the Africa version.

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