The poetics and politics of national commemoration in Africa

Doctoral research group in the context of the programme of the University of Mainz “PRO Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaften 2015”

Ghana@50. Foto: C. Lentz

In the year 2010, as many as seventeen African states have celebrated their independence jubilees. These events invite an exploration of the politics and poetics of commemoration, which were, and continue to be, an integral part of the nation-building process. The debates surrounding their organisation, the imagery and performances they employ, reflected the fault lines with which African nation-building has to contend, such as competing political orientations, issues of social class and gender, and religious, regional and ethnic diversity. At the same time, the celebrations in themselves represented constitutive and cathartic moments of nation-building, aiming to enhance citizens’ emotional attachments to the country, and inviting to remember, re-enact and re-redefine national history. They have become a forum of debate about what should constitute the norms and values that make up national identity, and, in the interstices of official ceremonies, provided space for the articulation of new demands for public recognition. A study of the independence celebrations thus allows scholars to explore contested processes of nation-building and images of nationhood. Since October 2009, a research group of six doctoral students at the Department of Anthropology and African Studies, University of Mainz, has been exploring the poetics and politics of national commemoration in Africa. In cooperation with the supervised fieldwork of a group of masters students, comparative research has been conducted on the golden jubilees of independence in Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Mali and Nigeria, as well as on the twentieth anniversary of independence in Namibia. A collectively designed research programme provided the basis for comparative insights into African national memory at work. This was supplemented by the focus areas that emerge from the doctoral students’ individual field research projects.

Succeeding project: "Performing the nation and subnational differences in African national days" (2016-19) "Marking ethnic and national differences in African national-day celebrations" (2013-16)

Christine Fricke studies the jubilee celebrations in Gabon. The political changes caused by the death of President Omar Bongo Odimba, who was considered to be a national symbol, and the controversial succession of Ali Ben Bongo, provide the background that makes research into the politics of remembering especially interesting. The celebrations have to be considered as a cathartic and controversial moment of collective remembering, societal integration and political legitimisation as well as the (re)production and negotiation of divergent national self-perceptions. The position of Gabon within ‘Francafrique’, the high number of migrants and the Gabonese diaspora are also to be looked at in this context.

Svenja Haberecht’s research on the independence jubilee in Burkina Faso is concerned with the tensions between official commemorative events and unofficial practices of remembering. A central question is: who on this occasion remembers the nation’s history and how is it recounted? Which historical phases and personalities are considered to be important to Burkinabé identity and therefore worth remembering, and which personalities are forgotten (for political or other reasons)? Particular attention is paid to the negotiation of a ‘collective memory’ among various political parties, labour unions and civil society initiatives as well as the (re)production of national identity in the context of the independence day celebrations.

Godwin Kornes is analysing the complex interdependencies of state-sponsored memory politics and communal commemorative practice in Namibia. Based on a close reading of national and regional memory events, his research is dealing with the question of how the narrative of liberation is appropriated, framed and retold by various actors and mnemonic communities. Here, it is especially the respective strategies of inscribing these commemorative practices into the two dominant lieux de mémoire – “independence” and “the struggle for liberation” – which is at the center of this study. For this, a theory of the nation is necessary which can accommodate the contested memories of multiple mnemonic communities, not as a contradiction or crisis but as a constitutive feature of nation building in a young, postcolonial nation-state such as Namibia. The subsequent debates on the nature of heroism, the construction of national museums and appropriate memorial sites, or the struggle’s legacy of violence, allow fascinating insights on post-apartheid Namibia as a ‘nation in the making’. Chapters focus on the commemorative calendar of national holidays, with a special focus on the 20th anniversary of independence in 2010; the development and curation of the North Korean built Independence Memorial Museum in Windhoek; the commemoration of communal liberation history in Hoachanas; the restitution of human remains from Germany.

Konstanze N‘Guessan is studying the politics and poetics of national remembering in Côte d’Ivoire. Following the introduction of a multi-party political system in 1990 and the death of the country’s first president in 1993, a new generation of politicians is grappling to find an appropriate way to deal with the legacy of Houphouët-Boigny. Against the backdrop of the end of the Ivoirian economic boom the current president Gbagbo, now in his tenth year of office, is attempting to ‘refound’ the nation, particularly by loosening what have traditionally been close ties to France. This has provoked sharp criticism from those loyal to the Houphouëtist legacy. The focus of this research endeavour is the question of the narrative, performative and iconographic (dis)continuities of national remembering. Particular attention is given to the ‘blind spots’ of the official celebrations and counter-celebrations and to the competing meanings that are accorded to historical events in the context of current political debates.

Mareike Späth is examining the politics of remembering and nation-building in Madagaskar. Because it is an island, there is no immediate ‘other’, in contradistinction to which a sense of national unity can be fostered. Internal differences, such as the presence of various ethnic groups, existing social hierarchies and regionalism, are therefore very prominent. Yet how does a sense of national belonging nonetheless take root? Nationalist narratives trace the birth of the nation back to the pre-colonial kingdom of Merina. The project looks at how historical practices of remembering and commemoration play into the present-day celebrations of nationhood and how in the course of this official discourses, private practices and popular experiences compete with each other or are brought together.

Kathrin Tiewa Ngninzégha is studying how in the case of Cameroon the tensions between the Francophone part (independent since 1 January 1960) and the Anglophone part (independent since 1 October 1961) of the country shape the festivities in honour of the 50th anniversary of the nation’s independence. Although a sense of national unity is quite limited, the government has made national unity the focus of the celebrations. Thus, the common date on which the golden jubilee of national independence is now commemorated is referred to as the day of national ‘reunification’ (20 May 1972). These efforts must however be understood in light of the 2011 presidential elections, which have made the jubilee festivities a platform for party political activities. Whether and the degree to which the celebrations actually foster unity or rather emphasize differences are questions that lie at the heart of the research endeavour.

Photo: Ghana@50. ©C. Lentz