Conference on Sustainability and the State in Africa: How political rules shape conflicts and their resolution, Point Sud, Bamako, Mali


23-27 November, 2019, Bamako, Mali


The analysis of politics and the state in Africa is often marked by a strong essentialising tendency. The State appears to be a kind of maladjusted tropical “Leviathan”, as it is necessarily an imported product, a tool of government poorly controlled by indigenous people unfamiliar with modern governance rules. This perspective tends to arbitrarily separate the state as an institution from the general historical dynamic, for all African political authorities, which are thought to resist modernity, remain irreparably attached to a past order. Conflicts are often seen as evidence of State failure. Since conflicts are often rampant in Africa, they do raise important theoretical and methodological questions concerning how best to think about the nature and role of rules in establishing sustainable political arrangements.

The conference aims at bringing the concept of sustainability to bear on the relationship between the emergence of the State as a social network and the rules by which the network governs itself over time. This commits one to both observing the social crystallization of configurations as institutions guaranteeing the management of the public good as well as examining the technical implementation of this public good. This interest brings important dimensions of the concept of sustainability into broad relief, as it helps focus attention on the constitution of politics over time.

How, then, can the concept of sustainability help us give meaning to the constitution of the political space in Africa and the rules by which it is governed? Sustainability has become an essential part of contemporary political discourse. Understanding this concept requires studying its political trajectory, which in the African context allows us to discuss the production of knowledge. Grounding the search for the relationship between sustainability and the state in Africa is a way of contributing to the scientific debate. In this sense, the relevance of the concept of sustainability to the analysis of political processes depends on our ability to understand that only a complex study of historical meanings and current divisions can reveal the logics that lead to the manifestation of violent social relations. The formation of hierarchical, oppositional groups and the emergence of social conflicts within the State take place at the same time as the ability of the groups that control it to maintain effective control over legitimate instruments of competition and accumulation is called into question.

Sustainability as a notion or doctrine has a particular discursive history and presence which lend themselves to a closer analysis of the role of rules. These entail not only a genealogy of this discourse, but also of the crucial moment when it took the mantle of a “doctrine”. It raises the question concerning overlaps, parallels or tension with other related discursive manifestations. Finally, it also entails the ideological underpinnings of the sustainability discourse, one that an anthropological sensitivity might identify as a kind of "harmony ideology" (Nader) or the general hope for states of equilibrium.

It is bearing this in mind that weinvite contributions that address the following themes:

1.    Legislative bodies and state means of exercising violence as objects and issues in social struggles for the appropriation of property: what aspects of the discourse on sustainability are appealed to in order to secure property rights?

2.    The questioning of the State and the forms of violence that involve it, i.e. questioning the dynamics of the composition of social values and that of the definition of legitimate means of struggle: what values underpin the yearning for sustainable social orders?

3.    Debates on the decline of the State: what visions of the future inform the construction of the state as a collective institutional invention enduring over time?

4.    The capacity of the State, as an expression of a central configuration, and its dependence on the referential association of all individuals and citizens with collective norms: What ultimate goals lend themselves to intervention from the perspective of sustainability?

5.    The social life of sustainability in the political realm: How does the “doctrine of sustainability” translate into concrete practices, objects and institutional configurations?