Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa after the Cold War

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Since the end of the cold war, Africa has seen a dramatic rise in new political and religious phenomena, including an eviscerated privatized state, neoliberal NGOs, Pentecostalism, a resurgence in accusations of witchcraft, a culture of scamming and fraud, and, in some countries, a nearly universal wish to emigrate. Drawing on fieldwork in Togo, Charles Piot suggests that a new biopolitics after state sovereignty is remaking the face of one of the world’s poorest regions.

In a country where playing the U.S. Department of State’s green card lottery is a national pastime and the preponderance of cybercafés and Western Union branches signals a widespread desire to connect to the rest of the world, Nostalgia for the Future makes clear that the cultural and political terrain that underlies postcolonial theory has shifted. In order to map out this new terrain, Piot enters into critical dialogue with a host of important theorists, including Agamben, Hardt and Negri, Deleuze, and Mbembe. The result is a deft interweaving of rich observations of Togolese life with profound insights into the new, globalized world in which that life takes place.

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Editorial Reviews


“The book impresses with its well-researched theoretical framework, its strong anthropological base, its ethnography and documentation of the activities and politics of the charismatic churches, the crisis of subsistence and the impact of NGOs, and the most appealing of all the survival strategies: the lotto visa. This well-written book contains good illustrations that help readers contextualize the stories.”

Journal of Modern African Studies
Nostalgia for the Future is an invaluable addition to the relatively small body of literature on Togo and a provocative contribution to the on-going debate about how best to do ethnography in a complex, globalising world. As a sophisticated attempt to move beyond post-colonial frameworks of analysis that no longer quite capture the peculiarities of the present moment, it deserves to be taken seriously.” 

— Joe Philp

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
What Piot’s text best captures is the double edge of post-imperial predicament, where freedom and abjection go hand in hand. Intimately understood by Piot and his interlocutors, the contradictions of this post-postcolonial era surely merit further articulation. If not yet fully achieved, their specification by Piot in the case of Togo lays the foundation for ethnographically informed refinement of prevailing theorizations of imperial expansion and decline, old and new.”   

— Brenda Chalfin

Journal of Modern African Studies - Joe Philp

Nostalgia for the Future is an invaluable addition to the relatively small body of literature on Togo and a provocative contribution to the on-going debate about how best to do ethnography in a complex, globalising world. As a sophisticated attempt to move beyond post-colonial frameworks of analysis that no longer quite capture the peculiarities of the present moment, it deserves to be taken seriously.” 

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute - Brenda Chalfin

“What Piot’s text best captures is the double edge of post-imperial predicament, where freedom and abjection go hand in hand. Intimately understood by Piot and his interlocutors, the contradictions of this post-postcolonial era surely merit further articulation. If not yet fully achieved, their specification by Piot in the case of Togo lays the foundation for ethnographically informed refinement of prevailing theorizations of imperial expansion and decline, old and new.”   

Peter Geschiere

“In this vivid book, Charles Piot juxtaposes novel and unexpected trends that emerged in Togo—and elsewhere in West Africa—in the 1990s to convincingly argue that, in many respects, the post–cold war moment marks a dramatic break from the preceding decades and their postcolonial framework. The book shows with some urgency that this incisive rupture requires new theoretical points of departure, and thus will have a major, innovative impact in African studies and anthropology in general.”--Peter Geschiere, University of Amsterdam

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226669656
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 7/1/2010
  • Pages: 200
  • Sales rank: 687,055
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Piot is professor in the departments of cultural anthropology and African and African American studies at Duke University. He is the author of Remotely Global: Village Modernity in West Africa, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Nostalgia for the Future

West Africa after the Cold War

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-66965-6

Chapter One

States of Emergency

This chapter explores transformations in the Togolese state apparatus from early independence to the present. The Cold War years were marked by dictatorial rule, a mode of governance fully supported by Western metropolitan countries preoccupied with anti-Soviet geopolitics. With the end of the Cold War and the abandonment of Africa by the world's superpowers, local democracy movements were joined by Western embassies in seeking an end to the dictatorship and the inauguration of neoliberal reforms. To the surprise of most, the dictator survived and his family remains in power to the present day, although the state today bears little resemblance to its Cold War predecessor.

In addition to exploring shifts in state logic, this chapter aims to unsettle several reigning interpretations of Togolese politics, interpretations shared by many Togolese as well as those in the international community. One is that the ethnic divide between north and south remains key to understanding the larger political landscape—and is responsible for the nation's ongoing political impasse. Another is that Togolese politics has been held hostage since the early years of independence by a rivalry between two families—that of Sylvanus Olympio, the country's first president, and that of Gnassingbé Eyadéma, the soldier who assassinated Olympio and replaced him in power (where he remained until 2005). A third, more obsession than explanation, is the focus on the figure of Eyadéma—as if understanding him explains Togolese politics tout court, and getting rid of him was the answer to breaking the ongoing impasse. While all three contain elements of truth, each also obscures more complex political realities and power's other sources, in the process helping to reproduce power itself.

My own analysis places less emphasis on these explanations than on those shifts in global geopolitics and national-transnational governance that have taken place over the last forty years (Hardt and Negri 2001, 2005; Harvey 2005, 2007; Ong 2006), and on the emergence of a small ethnically mixed political class that has come to dominate Togo's political economy and that has siphoned the country's resources for its own profit (and, paradoxically, has increased its economic standing during the crisis of the past ten years). Because of the fixation on north-south politics, on the Shakespearean melodrama between the Eyadéma and Olympio families, and on the exploits and excesses of Eyadéma himself, the international community and this ruling elite have been able to operate in the shadows, largely beyond critique.

In drawing broadly on theories of the state and postcolonial governance in Africa, I owe much to the writings of Achille Mbembe (1992, 2001, 2003) and Comi Toulabour (1986, 2005). Their work takes us beyond conventional accounts of the state, to acknowledge the locally inflected nature of power in the African postcolony while also recognizing the ways in which (dictatorial) power deploys culture as technology and instrument of rule. Eyadéma was the very embodiment of such a politics, brilliant at both wrapping himself in and eliciting/manipulating local cultural signifiers. Both theorists, though especially Mbembe (2001, 2005, 2006), also productively theorize African postcolonial politics as surfeit and expenditure (cf. Bataille 1985, 1993), as rooted in excesses of consumption, waste, bodiliness, sexuality, spectacle, cynicism, laughter, narrative. Indeed, in that Eyadéma was largely invisible to his subjects, his presence—and his claim to power and sovereignty—was forever mediated and made real through proxies, often through narrative and rumor. Much of the chapter is an assemblage of stories and rumors about the dictator and the political—culled from conversations on the street, in bars and beer huts, in bush taxis, on village paths—stories and popular imaginings that constitute their own theory of the political.

A central preoccupation of the recent sovereignty literature has been the relationship between sovereign power and "state of exception." Thus, Agamben (1998, 2005) draws on Schmitt ([1922] 2007, [1927] 2006) and Benjamin ([1939] 1969b) to suggest that it is the sovereign's ability to decide who will live and who die, rendering himself purveyor of but also party to "bare life," that constitutes the essence of sovereign power. While hesitant to bring all of Agamben on board in an analysis of a West African political system (which, despite its origins in colonial-authoritarian systems of rule, has also evolved in locally distinct ways), I nevertheless find this aspect of his analysis useful in thinking through Eyadéma's long hold on power. The potentate was a master at proclaiming sovereign privilege in declaring states of emergency and suspending the law—because of imagined/real threats, both without and within. And in a stroke of evil genius, he even conjured emergency states, staging coup attempts that allowed him to declare states of siege and consolidate power in moments of vulnerability. Moreover, he carried the notion of exceptional state to capricious extreme, making of his own body a site of excess (and object of desire) in a sea of desperate poverty, and, by hinting at his deadly supernatural powers, reminding all of the sovereign's ability to let live and make die.

Politique du Ventre

Togo's military dictator of four decades, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, came to power in independent Africa's first coup d'état. Having fought for the French in Indochina and Algeria during the late colonial period, Eyadéma returned home at independence expecting to find a station in the independent nation's military. However, his request, and that of a small group of excombatants, most hailing from the north of Togo, was refused by those in power. In 1963, Eyadéma and his compatriots overthrew the government—and killed Togo's first president, Sylvanus Olympio, so the story goes, on the steps of the US embassy, where Olympio was seeking refuge. Eyadéma and his colleagues initially handed power to a more moderate southerner, Nicolas Grunitzky (a brother-in-law of Olympio), before taking full, formal control in 1967, with eyadéma as president.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Eyadéma ruled in textbook patrimonial fashion, playing favorites and rewarding those who were loyal with riches and special perks (Toulabour 1986). This "politique du ventre" (belly politics), in Bayart's (1989) evocative phrase, lined the pockets and filled the bellies of those in power at the expense of the rest of the nation—and made itself visible in the body of the dictator and the padded stomachs of members of the political class. The beneficiaries of Eyadéma's largesse were not only supportive individuals but also ethnic groups and regions. Those who showed proper respect were rewarded—with money gifts, with development projects—and those (individuals/groups/regions) who did not were denied and discriminated against. A trivial though revealing example of the patron-client system at work: when traveling on the national highway during the 1980s, one could immediately identify which préfectures were pro-Eyadéma and which not by whether or not the road had been maintained in that area. I remember a 20 km stretch just outside Atakpamé, an obstacle course of giant potholes that took an hour to traverse and left a thick film of dust on all who ventured there: the district of a disrespectful préfet.

Eyadéma's geometry of power also entailed ethnicizing the national polity and the military. While he strategically appointed southerners to high position within his government (thus cleverly dividing elements of the political opposition), all of the most important ministries were headed by trusted northerners, and the country's single political party (Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais [RPT]) was dominated by northern loyalists. Moreover, 80 percent of Togo's soldiers (10,000 out of 13,000) were from the north, with 7,000 from Eyadéma's Kabiyé ethnic group and 3,000 from his home village (Toulabour 2005:3), the latter often hand-picked by the president himself at the annual wrestling matches that are part of male initiation ceremonies in his home region (Piot 1999:91–92). For many southerners, the mono-ethnic military became the public face and icon of the north's monopoly on power, and it served as constant reminder of the violence that inaugurated the dictatorship and maintained it in place.

Indeed, most Togolese experienced the state most directly through the presence of the military in their daily lives. All who took the roadways—and most Togolese are prolific travelers (riding minibuses, route-taxis, and motorcycle-taxis to and from work, between markets and centers of commerce, to and from their villages of origin)—have had experience of the random roadside check: olive-green uniform rifling through their bags, AK-47 swinging carelessly from a shoulder, the interrogation and insults of the vehicle's driver, the inevitable bribe, the feeling that there is nothing negotiable here. These roadside searches are stagings of state presence as much as anything else, dramaturgical performances (Comaroff and Comaroff 2006a, 2006b; Hansen and Stepputat 2005; Mbembe 2001) intended to impress and intimidate—and to create the effect that one is in the presence of absolute authority, albeit an authority that is under siege and in constant state of emergency. Few ever forget such an encounter, no matter how infrequent. Indeed, the irregularity of the search and the element of surprise—the checkpoints remain for weeks and then disappear, sometimes for months, before migrating to another location unannounced—is one of the secrets of their effectiveness (Mbembe 2006:319).

Another technology of rule during this era: the periodic imprisoning of ministers and high military officials, including occasionally those close to the dictator himself and indeed those from his own ethnic group, on charges of embezzlement, of plotting to overthrow the government, of insubordination. The message was a simple but effective one: you were never safe nor beyond suspicion; absolute loyalty and perpetual uncertainty remained the order of the day. Yet another strategy of control: Eyadéma made a habit of sleeping with the wives of male ministers (and, needless to say, with those few female ministers he appointed), a practice clearly rooted in power politics as much as in the sexual appetite of the dictator. note at the same time a poignant example of power breeding resistance. One minister with an especially attractive—and also professional—wife went to extremes to prevent the dictator from sharing her bed: he had her resign her professorship at the university and left her at home whenever state dinners were held, so that Eyadéma would never set eyes on her.

Like military dictators across the continent (Mbembe 2001; Schatzberg 1988, 2001), Eyadéma sought to identify himself with the nation and the nation with himself (Toulabour 1986). His praises, as Togo's progenitor and savior, were sung whenever he appeared in public by dancing "animators" wearing cloth emblazoned with his image. His name was invoked at the inception of all development projects, whether large or small, whether in city or remote locale ("even a well or latrine in a distant village was thanks to Eyadéma," a cynic commented). His picture was hung from the walls of offices throughout the country and was daily displayed on the front page of Togo's single (state) newspaper: the potentate greeting an ambassador, hosting a development expert, convening the cabinet. The lead image on state television's nightly news, an image borrowed from Mobutu (de Boeck 1996:36), showed Eyadéma descending from heaven on a cloud. The blank face of a watch sold on the street morphed into a picture of the dictator in military uniform, appearing and disappearing, phantomlike, every thirty seconds. A popular comic book told the story of his life and his rise to power.

Personalizing power also entailed fashioning a spectacular presidential biography, replete with foiled assassination attempt and plane crash survival—real events that were nevertheless fetishized and fictionalized in the telling. The attempt on Eyadéma's life—the first of many (van Geirt 2006)—took place in 1973 at the presidential palace, with the assassin, a Kabiyé soldier from a village near Eyadéma's own, somehow slipping past the president's bodyguards. When he fired at Eyadéma from close range, however, the bullet was intercepted by a small book—some say a Bible—in the dictator's breast pocket. Imprisoned, the attacker was released a year later and invited to dinner by the man he had tried to kill, a touch—part charm, part sadism, all power—that was trademark Eyadéma. Despite the ruthlessness and sadism of many of his political tactics, Eyadéma also had his charming—and even generous and gentle—side. He was constantly surprising visitors in unexpected ways with his friendliness and gifting—giving to people, even rivals, when there was no apparent political gain to be had. Like a strict/punitive but by turns indulgent/generous father, such kindness could be deeply affecting, especially for someone expecting the opposite.

The second mythical biographical moment, the plane crash, occurred a year later when the president was returning to his home village in the north. The small plane in which he was traveling went down, killing all except him and one other. The event immediately came to stand for more than itself, with Eyadéma claiming divine protection, and the crash site (Sarakawa) becoming a national monument and pilgrimage destination—to which the potentate returned each year, entire cabinet in tow, to narrate the event and his miraculous survival. "Sarakawa" also became a day of the week in the north and the name of a five-star hotel in Lomé, and the dates of both events—the assassination attempt and the plane crash—became national holidays.

Indeed, in perhaps the ultimate instantiation of this cult of personality, all state holidays celebrated during this period were associated with Eyadéma: January 13, the day of the 1963 and 1967 coups; January 24, the plane crash; February 2, the post-crash return to Lomé; April 24, the assassination attempt; June 21, the death of a "martyr" from Eyadéma's natal village who was killed fighting the first Germans (a critic's commentary: "as if no village other than his own resisted the colonial order!"); June 28, the day (in 1986) when the president's mother died; August 30, the call (in 1969) to found Eyadéma's political party (the RPT); September 23, the 1986 defeat of an invasion force from Ghana (purportedly organized by Gilchrist Olympio, the son of the man Eyadéma killed when he took power); September 28, the inauguration of the RPT (also in 1969). A notable omission in the holiday cycle: April 27, the day of Togolese independence from colonial rule—excluded because it was also the birthday of Eyadéma's political rival, Sylvanus Olympio.

Like other African presidents during this time period—and, needless to say, another powerful technology of rule—Eyadéma cultivated the image of himself as someone with heightened mystical powers (Toulabour 1986). Stories embellishing his reputation as a witch—as someone possessing the ability to kill with mystical power—were legion, and indeed he was rumored to have ensorcelled his parents as a child. He claimed also to be protected by powerful deities. Thus, when he survived the 1974 plane crash, he insisted that he had been saved by the spirit Gu (Ogun), to whom he sacrificed all-white animals—the color demanded by the spirit—when he returned each year to the site of the crash. He periodically consulted powerful diviners and had a live-in southern savant—an old man (an Ewe from Notse, origin and sacred center of southern Togolese culture) who had been close to Olympio, and who, many insist, was the power behind the throne, counseling Eyadéma on how to defeat his southern opposition. "He revealed all our secrets and is the reason Eyadéma's still in power," a southerner once told me. The dictator was also famous for calling meetings—with ministers, with visiting dignitaries—in the middle of the night, cultivating the impression that he didn't sleep, thus enhancing the image of someone who possessed superordinate powers.


Excerpted from Nostalgia for the Future by CHARLES PIOT Copyright © 2010 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1 States of Emergency 21

2 The End of History 53

3 Exit Strategy 77

Mise En Scène 97

4 Charismatic Enchantments 103

5 Arrested Development 133

6 The Death of a Culture 163

Notes 171

Bibliography 185

Index 197

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