New Contribution Text

The Horizon of National Liberation: Exiting the Neocolonial State

Kevin Ochieng Okoth

I.   Introduction
II.  National Liberation and the Modern State
III. The End of Radicalism: African Socialism as a “Third Way”?
IV. Money, Food and Land: Sovereignty and the Neocolonial State


I. Introduction

In 1970–1971, Guyanese radical historian and anti-colonial activist Walter Rodney gave a series of lectures on the historiography of the Russian Revolution at University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Inspired by C. L. R. James’s historical work on the October Revolution, Rodney set out to reveal the parallels between the problems confronting the postcolonial regimes in Ghana and Tanzania, and those that the Bolsheviks faced in building the Soviet state.[1] What Rodney sought to do, in short, was to create a distinct historiographic “view from the Third World” with the aim of resolving one of the most challenging problems of Marxist theory: what kind of state—if any— is compatible with the exercise of socialist power? At the time, Rodney was researching and writing How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972), his ground-breaking study of Africa’s systematic underdevelopment through slavery and European colonialism, and was actively engaging in strategic debates with national liberation movements across the continent. But political crises in the Caribbean eventually led him back to his native Guyana, where he was killed on 13 June 1980. Unfortunately, his work on the Russian Revolution remained unfinished—a set of sketches that leave us with more questions than answers on the type of state that national liberation movements in the “Third World” sought to establish. The question remains: how did they envision exiting from the limited version of the nation-state that has come to define efforts of postcolonial state building?

II. National Liberation and the Modern State

In Neither Settler nor Native (2020), political theorist Mahmood Mamdani traces the making of the modern state, offering an account that breaks from the narrative of its emergence from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years’ War in Europe. The standard account names two key principles underlying the creation of the modern state: religious tolerance at home and the guarantee of sovereignty abroad. The former meant that the nation-state vowed to protect minorities, rather than to banish or oppress them. The latter ensured that sovereign nation-states were protected from invasion by other states where those who were minorities in their territory constituted a national majority. Locke’s story of the modern state focuses on its ability to mitigate religious conflict and build a society based on the principles of tolerance and peaceful coexistence, but Mamdani insists that this story is false. In fact, the modern state emerged around 1492, owing to two developments: ethnic cleansing by the Castilian monarchy, which sought to create homogenous national homeland for Christian Spaniards by ejecting or converting those that were strangers to “the nation” (i.e., Moors and Jews), and the taking of overseas colonies in the Americas by the same monarchy. The “abstract notions of autonomy, sovereignty, and self-preservation—so central to liberalism—[therefore] developed in tandem with international practices of conquest and served to rationalize them.” In short, “modern colonialism and the modern state were born together with the creation of the nation-state.”[2]

These developments gave rise to the idea of the nation-state as an entity which “always seeks to [culturally] homogenize its territory.” In Europe, this process further defined the relations between a national majority and minorities, who were only to be tolerated if they did not rebel against the majority and pledged their allegiance to the state. But such tolerance was not extended to those in the colonies, who were deemed to be uncivilized and therefore not sovereign. Furthermore, since there could be no “native majority built to resemble the colonizer,” the colonial state was founded on the idea that there were “assorted minorities,” who were each under the guidance and direct authority of a native elite.[3] The colonized were therefore divided according to cultural and ethnic characteristics—later made material by the territorial claims and privileges awarded to different ethnic groups (as administrative political units) by the colonizers. Mamdani insists that the materiality of these identities has lasted long beyond the attainment of an independent state. In fact, the creation of these identities under indirect rule is at the root of the violent ethnic conflict that has come to define the postcolonial state.[4]

Mamdani’s argument, then, is that there can only be true democracy if we “decolonize the political”—that is, if we decouple the nation from the state, and with it the idea of ethnic belonging from that of legal citizenship. [5] This is because “power in nation-states lies always with those who identify with the nation, not with coalitions that assemble through a political process.”[6] The nation-state therefore reproduces the politicization of identity, constructing a world of permanent minorities whose demands for reform are constantly suppressed, leaving them no option but to pursue their political aims through violence. The problem here, for Mamdani, is that the “minorities the colonizer created sought after independence to become the nation,” which resulted in an “era of blood and terror, ethnic cleansing and civil wars, and sometimes, genocide.”[7] This is because national liberation movements took their idea of the nation-state from the European concept, imposing unity on fragmentary and disparate political communities. The nation-building process that they were engaging in, Mamdani claims, necessarily led to further violence, as those who had been excluded struggled for their right to be included. And this cycle is repeated ad infinitum since there will always be a minority that is excluded from the political community of the nation.

For Mamdani, South Africa is an example of the “states without nations” which might offer a way out of the ethnic and racial conflict that have characterized the postcolonial nation-state.[8] South Africans did this by trying “with incomplete success, to destroy the settler and the native by reconfiguring both as survivors” of political and not individual criminal violence.[9] But it wasn’t Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress who led the way, it was in fact the Black Consciousness Movement, labor organizers, and student groups opposed to apartheid who “overwrote the political identification associated with race” and “encouraged Africans, Coloureds, Indians, and whites to see themselves as inhabiting the same political community” in the 1970s and 1980s.[10] They showed that the political identities created by colonialism and apartheid were products of a particular history and not fixed categories that existed outside of the political process. This meant that these identities could be—and were— challenged. “This was the heart of the South African moment,” Mamdani writes. “Redefining the enemy not as settlers but the settler state, not whites but white power. By doing so, South Africa’s liberation movements eased whites into the idea of a nonracial democracy.”[11]

But the process of post-apartheid truth and reconciliation in the 1990s was less constructive, and effectively reversed some of the important gains previously made by social movements. Truth and reconciliation transformed “the political violence of apartheid into criminal violence” and made it a matter of individual human rights violations.[12] Moreover, the post-apartheid settlement legally enshrined property relations that preserved white privilege.[13] Yet former settlers were still able to become part of the post-apartheid political community, which laid the foundation for a “democratic, nonracial citizenship” and allowed South Africans to move beyond the colonial identities of a permanent black majority and white minority. This was enabled by a political consensus between the National Party—the party of apartheid—and the ANC. As Mamdani puts it: “The installation of so much power in the ANC and National Party was acknowledged by many as a blatant curb on [Black] majority rule. But there is another way to think of it, too: as subordinating the majority-minority frame to a larger quest in the name of general interest.”[14]

In his account of South Africa’s decolonization, political process and compromise played a much larger role in creating a new political community than the social revolution, which would have more explicitly addressed “social justice” issues and antagonized large sections of survivors. “Enemies may not have become friends, but they did become political adversaries who could shape a common future in a single polity.”[15] This, for Mamdani, is the key to overcoming political violence and embarking on the road to decolonizing the political. And although this decolonization is still incomplete, he argues, it does point us in the right direction.

Mamdani concedes that “South Africans have thus felled only one pillar of the settler-versus-native distinction in their country: race as political identity.”[16] The other pillar—the politicization of ethnic identity—has persisted: “It is no surprise, then, that the extreme violence of the post-apartheid era has had tribal rather than racial targets. Acts of xenophobic violence in South Africa have been recurrent since 1994, starting with attacks against undocumented African migrants.”[17]

Mamdani points out that the victim of xenophobic violence is no longer the “racial stranger but the tribal stranger.”[18] This, he argues, is the legacy of the legal apparatus of indirect rule and the needs of the apartheid labor market, i.e., of creating a workforce of seasonal migrant laborers that would go to the cities to work and would be sent back to the Bantustans—the so-called tribal homelands—when they weren’t needed in the mines or factories. Because this process ensured that workers could not organize on the basis of common racial interests, the apartheid state “moved decisively to subordinate race to tribe in the formulation of native policy.”[19] While the South African constitution abolished Bantustans as political structures, elements of customary law have persisted within these spaces, in effect legitimizing the tribe as a category of identity.

But Mamdani doesn’t give us the full picture: what is the South African state’s role in furthering such violence against “others” who are often not just “tribal strangers” but citizens of a different African nation-state? [20] Can we really say that South Africa is somehow in the process of decoupling the nation from the state and forming a new, inclusive political community that undoes the identities of permanent minorities and majorities associated with the idea of the nation? Or is the “rainbow nation” just another re-articulation and re-entrenchment of the nation-state as we know it?

Nina Støttrup Larsen, The Cut, The Punch, The Press, 2021, video still detailing an image of a phosphate mine on a 500 CFA franc banknote, 1959–1973.

A different account of the South African case is given by Marxist philosopher Michael Neocosmos, who argues that the process of building the “rainbow nation”—and the subsequent decline of a positive political nationalism—gave way to the chauvinistic xenophobia that has resulted in attacks on those perceived as “outsiders.” The “rainbow nation,” Neocosmos argues, is not a non-racial state at all, but a “mere accumulation of existing (apartheid state-defined) ethnic and racial groups, which were supposed to “tolerate” each other, so that the toleration of difference replaced the formation of a non-racial nation.”[21]

The fact that the government has been instrumental in fostering xenophobic sentiments in the country shows that “despite its popular character, this xenophobia was founded on a state politics of fear.”[22] Xenophobia in South Africa is therefore not only the result of the reification of ethnicity, as Mamdani claims, but of the fusing of nation, state, and party, alongside the defeat of mass politics beginning with the ANC’s rise to power and the establishment of a state democracy. What Neocosmos is concerned with here is the political process by which popular politics is excluded from the state and the people are excluded from the nation. Much like Mamdani, Neocosmos wants to decouple the nation from the state, but unlike the former he intends to question the imperialist character of the neocolonial state and readdress the national question to form an emancipatory nationalism linked to Pan-Africanism. Only then, he argues, can we “recover the kind of subjective becoming that Fanon extolled in the Algerian people’s struggle for freedom,” i.e., the promises of national liberation.[23]

The subtle but important difference between the two accounts concerns Mamdani’s dismissive treatment of nationalism. As researcher James Barnett puts it:

If there is a shortcoming with Mamdani’s central argument it is that he seems to believe that national identity . . . could be effectively removed from the political equation if humans were only so enlightened. He holds out hope for an “epistemic revolution,” in which humans come to see themselves as common “survivors of history” rather than victims in an endless cycle of violence. This conclusion seems incomplete since Mamdani does not offer much of an explanation as to the psychological or social factors that underpin nationalism in the first place, leaving the reader to wonder why, if nationalism is so counterproductive, the phenomenon persists.[24]

There is also a disagreement here about Mamdani’s elevation of political compromise over social revolution, and his failure to truly question the role of the state in the process of decolonizing the political. It would, of course, be an important step to “reform the national basis of the state by granting only one kind of citizenship and doing so on the basis of residence rather than identity,” or to “loosen the grip of the nationalist imagination by teaching the history of the nation-state . . . and bolstering democracy in place of neoliberal human rights remedies,” as Mamdani suggests.[25] But the process of decolonizing the political does not take place in a vacuum. Popular democratic aspirations of this kind are today confronted by new forms of imperialism and neocolonialism which “pose a renewed threat to independence on the African continent.”[26] In his book, Mamdani does not use the term “neocolonial,” and rarely makes any references to contemporary imperialism and its effects on the South African state. This conceptual omission leads him to dismiss the achievements of emancipatory nationalisms in other African countries, and to disregard how armed struggle and the social revolution did indeed—if only briefly—form new political communities in their processes of anti-colonial resistance.

A constitutive feature of freedom as it was articulated by the national liberation movements was the right to self-determination—a political question concerning the democratic rights of oppressed nations. Historically, there have been two strands of thinking about self-determination: former President of the United States Woodrow Wilson’s call for a “free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims” at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919[27]; and the Bolshevik conception of the right to self-determination.[28] In Worldmaking after Empire (2019), political theorist Adom Getachew argues that while the emergence of self-determination is often read as anti-colonial nationalists’ universalization of the Westphalian regime of sovereignty, it instead “marked a radical break from the Eurocentric model of international society and established nondomination as a central idea of a postimperial world order.”[29] Therefore, it gave colonized peoples the language to challenge the existing international order. But, as Getachew points out, the Wilsonian moment was a counterrevolutionary episode.[30] With his declaration, Wilson “excised the Bolshevik right to self-determination and repurposed the principle to preserve racial hierarchy” in the new international order, making it entirely “compatible with imperial rule.”[31] The disintegration of the Wilsonian promise thus set the stage for the “resurgence of international hierarchy and a newly unrestrained American imperialism,” and what Getachew calls “the fall of self-determination” in the subtitle of her book.[32]

The fall of self-determination was driven by the growing hostility of western politicians and thinkers, but it also coincided with an important internal development in newly independent countries: the retreat into a minimalist defense of the nation-state that could then be accommodated in a reconfigured international (imperial) order. In Modern Imperialism, the late Egyptian political economist Samir Amin argued that national liberation movements faced two conflicting and almost irreconcilable objectives of independence. On the one hand, they had to develop productive forces whose progress had been impeded by imperialist domination, and on the other, they had to forge post-capitalist social relationships that could form the basis for a postcolonial subjectivity.[33] This led to a tension between the idea that politics is not reducible to state capacity on the one hand, and the reality that, as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o writes, “any ideal, any vision, is nothing unless it is given institutional forms and solid economic bases.”[34] The conflict between these two aims is therefore the engine-transforming projects that began as efforts to rethink the sovereign into defenders of the nation-state. There were also tendencies within these movements that rejected the idea that the development of national productive forces necessarily meant a curtailing of popular democratic struggles, and which imagined alternatives to the nation-state. After all, “during the national liberation struggle . . . an emancipatory politics at times existed beyond the party or state (in waiting), often developing within independent social movements, cultural organisations, religious movements, trade unions and other sites.”[35]

What happened to these alternatives? To learn what happened, we must reinterpret the cycle of national liberation as more than just a struggle between nationalists in the limited sense. We might also readdress those for whom anti-colonial nationalism was a way to articulate a vision for a world free of all colonial hierarchies.

Nina Støttrup Larsen, The Cut, The Punch, The Press, 2021, video still detailing an image of a uranium mine on a 500 CFA franc banknote, 1973–1984.


III. The End of Radicalism: African Socialism as a “Third Way”?

In his critique of anti-colonial nationalisms, Mamdani argues that the lines of division at independence were “political rather than social: on the one side were those who claimed the independent state as the patrimony of the nation; on the other were those that were politically excluded.”[36] For Mamdani, the division was therefore internal (between those belonging to the nation and protected by the state, and those who were not), rather than external (between nationalists and imperialist capital), as is commonly assumed. Mamdani’s emphasis on internal division is not entirely misplaced, but differences between reified ethnicities inherited from colonialism are not the only ones we should pay attention to. “The end of radicalism”—a phrase used by historian Wunyabari O. Maloba to describe Kenya’s first post-independence president, Jomo Kenyatta’s, elimination of his leftist opposition between 1963 and 1978—refers to the violent and almost complete erasure of any radical socialist opposition by post-independence regimes.[37] Maloba’s phrase forces us to reconsider the under-theorized political assassinations committed by national liberation governments which sought to bring about the “end of ideology” in Africa and fuse party, state, and nation in the one-party state.

The final report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission of Kenya, published in 2013, gives us an idea of the extent of the injustices and abuses committed in Kenya between December 1963, when Kenya officially gained its independence, and 2008, when the post-election violence ended. The report, which collected over 40,000 statements and 1,000 memoranda, showed that political repression reached its apex under Kenyatta’s Kenya Africa National Union, which was also responsible for the largest number of political assassinations in the country’s history. By independence, Kenyatta, who had been portrayed as a Soviet-trained Mau Mau leader in British and international media until around 1963, had come to be seen as a responsible anti-communist nationalist whose loyalties lay with Britain and the US. The shift can largely be attributed to Kenyatta’s famous speech to the representatives of white settlers in Nakuru, assuring them of the safety of their farms and property in post-independence Kenya. In doing so, however, Kenyatta was betraying the Mau Mau, a movement of landless squatters whose violent anti-colonial struggle against the British had made Kenyan independence possible in the first place.[38]

Kenyatta had been chosen by the British as the preferred president of an independent Kenya; but for British and US capital to succeed in installing a pro-imperialist government in the country, Kenyatta had to sell imperialist positions to the public as “authentically African and therefore most appropriate.”[39] This was done through the “Sessional Paper No. 10 on African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya,” which used the language of African socialism to define a project of national development that relied heavily on private capital and ensured the continuity of an economy centered on the export of primary commodities. The purpose of the paper was therefore to remove the terms capitalism and socialism from public discourse and to establish a dependent economy. “Kenyatta made it clear in his introduction . . .  that the intent was not to stimulate discussions on Kenya’s economic policy, but to end it.” [40] More importantly, as Kenyatta himself admitted, the document was to be the end of ideology in Kenya; the country could no longer tolerate ideological debate since it threatened national unity and stability. Because “no class problem arose in traditional African society and none exists among Africans,” the document’s author Tom Mboya argued, Marxism was irrelevant in Africa and especially in Kenya. In any case, the implementation of African socialism in Kenya would avert the rise of antagonistic social classes based on ownership of property by “Africanizing” the economy.[41] For the “moderates,” there was no need for Marxism—and even less for the political ideology of communism—which was portrayed as “alien” and therefore “un-African.”[42]

At the time, however, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the leader of the socialist opposition in KANU and the Goan-Kenyan MP Pio Gama Pinto were preparing a competing paper, which would reject the government’s proposal and call for a vote of no confidence in Kenyatta.[43] The opposition faction around Odinga had argued that independence must mean a total break with the colonial system; of course they were dissatisfied with the Sessional Paper and its articulation of a subservient capitalist economy in post-independence Kenya. To ensure that there would be no further conflict, Pinto—who was described by the last colonial governor of Kenya, Malcolm MacDonald, as “a dedicated Communist, and the principal brain behind the whole secret organisation of . . . Odinga’s movement”—had to be eliminated.[44] But why was it so important for the US and Britain to prevent a competing paper from being presented in parliament? As Rodney put it in “Class Contradictions in Tanzania,”

[Kenya] is the point of entry for foreign capital into the whole of the East African community, not just into Kenya alone. Consequently, the opportunities for pickings, if you like, were always higher in Kenya. The presence of the multinational corporations, partially determined by the presence of settlers in the colonial period, meant that Kenyans could actually think in terms of becoming directors of various multinational corporations.[45]

The British, US, and their local allies had a vested interest in ensuring that they could form a neocolonial elite that could curb democratic empowerment and maintain a dependent economy serving the interests of the imperialist center. Any alternative could not be tolerated.

At the heart of the Sessional Paper was the language of African socialism as developed by Julius Nyerere, the first post-independence president of Tanzania, in his Ujamaa (familyhood, in Swahili) socialism. Nyerere’s ideology was founded on the assumption that traditional African society was inherently socialist. Therefore, African socialism, whose proponents saw it as an extension of traditional African life, was an ideology that was independent of the foreign influences of Marxism, and could provide the blueprint for post-independence governments all over the continent. In the early 1960s, Nyerere’s African socialism was only one conception among many; today, however, the term is “generally taken to mean a set of relations which leave capitalism and imperialism unchallenged.”[46] By seeking a “third way socialism” somewhere between the two poles of the Cold War’s participants, African socialism sought to break with foreign domination by returning to vague “traditional” socialist principles that had allegedly been undermined by foreign intervention. But African socialism also meant the centralization of economic power and the penetration of government and party into the economy, as well as the repression of alternative political and economic visions. “The key slogan was self-reliance,” suggests writer, journalist, and activist Amrit Wilson, “but in reality it was much more about austerity and control.”[47]

Because Tanzanian independence was granted by the British and was therefore not the result of a liberation war, it is often described as a peaceful transformation to independence.[48] In neighboring Mozambique, however, the liberation struggle involved prolonged fighting between the Portuguese and the anti-colonialists, and later between the socialist Liberation Front of Mozambique (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique, FRELIMO) and the South-Africa-backed Mozambican National Resistance (Resistência Nacional Moçambicana, RENAMO) rebels. Political economist and solidarity activist John S. Saul often argued that FRELIMO offered “a clear alternative to the cynical manipulation of ethnicity and the neocolonial compliance of kleptocratic elites who increasingly defined African governance in the 1970s and 80s.” But as the nationalist revolution has unraveled, Saul has changed his tone, lamenting the “curtailing of any substantial democratic empowerment of popular forces in the country.”[49] Saul’s shifting position raises important questions about the “difficult dialectic of socialist politics,” i.e., that leadership is necessary, but that it “must be linked to a simultaneous process of creating democratic institutions designed to empower the masses further to understand and act upon their own class interests.”[50] The balance between democracy and leadership is therefore always a work in progress that needs to be continually renewed by popular movements holding the leadership to account.

While FRELIMO would eventually adopt an “official ‘Marxism-Leninism’ with its Stalinist rationale for vanguardism” and the repression of mass organizations (including trade unions and the Organization of Mozambican Women), this was not the only possible outcome of the nationalist revolution.[51] As Mozambican physicist and anti-colonial activist Aquino de Bragança and Congolese historian and militant Jacques Depelchin argued in 1988, the ideological character of the party may have been closer to a truly revolutionary Marxism during the period of the liberated zones (i.e., during the war of independence when Eduardo Mondlane was president of FRELIMO) than when it was officially institutionalized as a vanguard party of peasants and workers.[52] During the liberation war, FRELIMO had experimented with radically different socioeconomic relations and institutions in the liberated zones that had been won through military action. In these zones, popular democratic structures were established that could form the basis of a future independent Mozambique; and although these transformations did not reach the same level in all fronts—and despite the militaristic nature of the zones—they were still an important site for democratic experimentation.

In The Struggle for Mozambique (1969), Mondlane observes:

Already, as a result of the struggle, profound changes have occurred in the life of the people in the liberated and semi-liberated areas. These changes comprise much more than the removal of the colonial structure and its influence; forms of government, of social and economic organisation, have been introduced which are essentially new, owing their origin marginally to African traditional life and not at all to the colonial system.[53]

In the liberated zones, FRELIMO encouraged a complete transformation of social and economic relations through a combination of the most useful elements of both traditional and revolutionary culture. FRELIMO militants not only brought elements of their own cultures with them to the camps, they also “learned those of others, while in the fields of production new ideas and techniques [were] being introduced both from different areas of Mozambique and from outside.”[54] As Mondlane argues, the culture of the revolution and the best aspects of traditional culture were developing in tandem with the “growth of entirely new political structures,” and people’s lives and outlooks were changed in fundamental ways.[55] So, can we really claim, with Mamdani, that it is an “unreasonable presumption” to maintain that a “new political community is constituted in the course of anti-colonial resistance”?[56] Or that the limited idea of the nation advocated by liberation movements was necessarily exclusionary and consequently the source of ethnic conflict and violence?

Other studies of the Mozambican War of Independence support Mondlane’s narrative about the liberated zones. Social historians Barbara and Allen Isaacman, for example, argue that once Mozambican women “began to make their own demands,” the issue of women’s emancipation became a crucial part of the revolution, and led FRELIMO’s leadership to “treat women as an integral part of its post-independence socialist agenda.”[57] Sociologist and gender scholar Signe Arnfred further corroborates this account, arguing that there was a massive participation of women in the liberation war, and “at the request of women themselves, a women’s detachment of the guerrilla army [was] formed,” with the aim of informing peasant women about the struggle and mobilizing the peasant population.[58] The women in FRELIMO participated in the war effort “on equal footing with men,” and often stayed away from their homes for significant periods of time. Prior to the liberation war and the establishment of the liberated zones, peasant men and women in Mozambique “had led separate lives with a clear division of labour and different rules of conduct”; women’s participation in the war therefore served as a reminder that FRELIMO were not only challenging those aspects of women’s oppression introduced via colonialism and capitalism, but also those elements that were deeply entrenched in traditional Mozambican society.[59] Political scientist Sonia Kruks’s and human ecologist Ben Wisner’s evidence supports this argument and shows that women’s liberation was not seen as a matter of rights, but rather as a crucial aspect in the transformation of the social relations of production, along with family relations and the relations of political power.[60]

But Mondlane, who insisted that his own thought and FRELIMO’s political project could not exist “outside or above the Mozambican people itself” was killed by a bomb hidden in a book that was sent to his office in Dar es Salaam in 1969, at the height of the Mozambican War of Independence. It is for this reason that Saul asks us to take seriously the political assassinations that are at the very heart of the counterrevolutionary project that resulted in a retreat into the structures of the neocolonial state.[61] He explains that because hope is necessary to make “objective possibilities to change actual” political assassinations can be employed as a tactic for the removal of hope and the curtailing of democratic politics.[62] Scholars like Mamdani frequently gloss over such assassinations in their analyses of postcolonial violence, choosing instead to see the political conflict at independence as the result of ethnic divisions and not ideological differences about independent nation-states’ position within the global imperialist configuration. Mondlane, for example, could not be more different from current leadership of FRELIMO, with its embrace of the neocolonial development models that dominate policy-making all over the continent. Revisiting the political thought of anti-colonial revolutionaries, such as Mondlane, shows us that there were and are alternative paths toward emancipation—paths that have since been forgotten, but that nonetheless remain as radical and transformative as ever.  

Nina Støttrup Larsen, The Cut, The Punch, The Press, 2021, video still detailing an image of a palm oil plantation on a 500 CFA franc banknote, 1977–1991.


IV. Money, Food and Land: Sovereignty and the Neocolonial State

Clearly, political assassinations in Africa in the post-independence period were not merely the result of a corrupt elite trying desperately to hold on to power, as the popular media discourse in the global north often suggests. As academic Andy Higginbottom argues in “A Self-Enriching Pact: Imperialism and the Global South,” “imperialism [today] does not for the most part rule directly through colonial means, but indirectly through an alliance with national elites.”[63] Therefore, these political assassinations must also be seen as a function of imperialism’s control over African nations, which is enforced both militarily and economically. Foreign military and intelligence operations have a long history on the continent, owing, at least partly, to the over 60 successful coups orchestrated by the US and the CIA with help from local agents between 1956 and 1985. Economically, we can trace a continuity with colonial relations in the sense that the imperialist centers still rely on export-oriented capitalism in nations in the global south. The results of “the end of radicalism” and the minimalist defense of the nation-state by national liberation movements has been the emergence of the neocolonial state, which enables the continuation of surplus value transfers from the global south to imperialist centers. The Zanzibari communist A. M. Babu—a fierce critic of Ujamaa socialism, who was imprisoned and later exiled by Nyerere’s Tanzanian government—once warned that “Our action must be related to our concrete experience, and we must not give way to metaphysical hopes and wishes—hoping and wishing that the monster who has been after us throughout history will someday change into a lamb. He won’t.”[64] And indeed, the monster hasn’t. One needs only to briefly consider the political economy of contemporary imperialism to see how dire the situation really is.

Author and researcher Ndongo Samba Sylla has explained in detail how France employed military intervention and economic sabotage, and manipulated nationalist elites to ensure that former French colonies adopted the CFA franc: a system in which African currencies are pegged to the Euro, which forces central banks to deposit large quantities of foreign currency reserves in the French treasury (sometimes used to pay French debt), and effectively undermines the monetary sovereignty of independent nation-states. “When it was created in 1945,” Sylla writes, “the CFA franc originally meant franc des colonies françiases d’Afrique” (franc of the French colonies in Africa).[65] Despite efforts at the “Africanisation of its management in the 1970s, it is still governed by the operating mechanisms inherited from the colonial period.”[66] Because the CFA franc is pegged to the Euro, CFA franc countries are forced to maintain exchange rate parity at all cost, leaving them no choice but to “internally devalue” their currency in times of crisis, i.e., to regain competitiveness through lowering wage costs and increasing productivity without devaluing the currency. This focus on exchange rate parity has frequently led to the implementation of harsh austerity policies, such as “higher taxes on households and workers, less public spending on key sectors like health, education, and agriculture, increased interest rates on bank loans, massive layoffs following the bankruptcies of private-sector companies and public-sector downsizing.”[67] Moreover, the freedom of capital movement in the CFA franc zone has facilitated the transfer abroad of financial resources—often unlawfully—acquired by neocolonial elites. As Sylla puts it, CFA franc countries are trapped in a situation of “enduring low domestic and export competitiveness,” that is characteristic of “economies producing and exporting primary goods and importing nearly everything else.”[68] And despite ongoing debates about alternative regional monetary integration in West Africa, it is unlikely that France will surrender the benefits it reaps from the current arrangement.

If we consider food sovereignty, the situation is equally dire. As Jihen Chandoul—co-founder of the Tunisian Observatory of Economy—has pointed out:

African countries do not produce enough processed agricultural products to sustain their populations, with the three highest agricultural products being wheat, rice, and vegetable oil; and local agriculture across the continent is dependent on imported inputs for production and therefore dependent on foreign exchange.[69]

This has forced these countries into the precarious situation of relying almost entirely on exporters of staple foods and inputs, meaning that they would be entirely unable to feed their own populations if production were to slow down beyond their borders. Moreover, reliance on the export of monoculture cash crops has meant the continuation of a colonial economic system, trapping many African countries in a vicious cycle of dependency. But what is the solution to this state of affairs? As Wilson argues in her discussion of food sovereignty in Zanzibar and Tanzania, even the “self-reliance” preached by Julius Nyerere was merely a euphemism for austerity, which ultimately led to a collapse in food production and the country being forced to import essential foods once gain.[70] So, while the project of Ujamaa socialism was able to somewhat mitigate ethnic conflict, its low levels of production turned out to be economically disastrous.

Nina Støttrup Larsen, The Cut, The Punch, The Press, 2021, video still detailing an image of a phosphate mine on a 1000 CFA franc banknote, 1977–1992.

Attempts to replicate the economic nationalism of Nyerere have been equally unsuccessful.[71] Let us take, for example, the resource nationalism of the late Tanzanian president John Magufuli. Magufuli was notorious in the mining sector for his settlement with Acacia Mining (subsidiary of the Canadian group Barrick Gold), a British company which “controls 12.5 million ounces of gold and is the leading gold producer in Tanzania, where it operates three mines.”[72] The settlement put in place a 50:50 sharing agreement between Magufuli’s government and Barrick, further requiring the mining company to provide an initial $300 million cash payment related to tax claims against Acacia. While this may seem like a significant break with the multinationals that dominate the mining sector in Africa, the results of resource nationalist policy are nonetheless discouraging. As Review of African Political Economy editor Elisa Greco has argued, this form of “neo-extractivism” is based on “a return of the developmental state in its functions of rent appropriation and redistribution.” It therefore “retains capital’s trend of exploitation of workers, dispossession of land and unmitigated environmental destruction” while centralizing power in the hands of the executive and curbing democratic politics.[73] Moreover, countries like Tanzania, where gold makes up a third of the country’s export revenues, are dependent on global commodity demand, which might decrease quickly in a recession and leave the government unable to implement its redistributive programs.

Even more worrying is the increasing military presence of France, the US, and other nations such as Japan and the United Arab Emirates on the continent. France currently has 7,500 troops stationed in Africa, the majority in the Sahel region. There are also over 28 African Union members cooperating and training with AFRICOM—the United States Africa Command, headquartered in Germany, but responsible for counterterrorism operations in the Sahel and off the Horn of Africa. African states often have no oversight of the military bases that are in their “sovereign” territory and can’t monitor the weapons that come in and out; consequently, they are subject to an informal kind of occupation. The presence of foreign troops on the continent is, of course, also tied to resource extraction. In the Cabo Delgado province of Northern Mozambique—the first region to be liberated by FRELIMO during the Mozambican War of Independence—private militias and paramilitary groups are fighting Islamic insurgents in the resource-rich region (mainly to protect the natural gas development of French energy company Total), in what has been described as a worrying “privatization of the conflict.”[74] Before the gas project in Cabo Delgado had even started, France “played a lead role in a corruption scandal related to oil and gas exploitation, which flung Mozambique into a deep economic and financial crisis.”[75] Through an intermediary French company, Mozambique illegally borrowed money to finance a defense program that would supposedly secure the sovereignty of its fossil fuel reserves. The debt that the country incurred now keeps Mozambique dependent on the French and other transnational corporations, who exploit these reserves and will surely appropriate the profits that come from them. The conflict also means that the country will be drawn “even further into the paranoid US networks which monitor and gather intelligence and regard ordinary citizens as potential terrorists.”[76]

Nina Støttrup Larsen, The Cut, The Punch, The Press, 2021, video still detailing an image of a cocoa farm on a 2500 CFA franc banknote, 1993–2001, and still legal tender today.

These military and economic interventions work to maintain a system of economic dependency, which relies on the transfer of surplus value from the global south to the global north. As Marxist economists Michael Roberts and Guglielmo Carchedi have shown, there are several ways of appropriating surplus value, including capital flows (FDI inflows and portfolio investment flows); factor income flows (primary income from debt equity and property); seigniorage (the exorbitant privilege of the dollar); global value chain flows within multinationals and outsourcing; and, most importantly, unequal exchange in international trade. In his calculations, Roberts estimates that surplus value transfers through unequal exchange today amount up to $450 billion per annum.[77] Moreover, political economist John Smith estimates that net transfers from Sub-Saharan Africa to imperialist countries—or tax havens licensed by them—between 1980 and 2012 totaled $792 billion dollars and that “illicit transfers from Africa to imperialist countries as a proportion of GDP are higher than any region” in the world.[78] As neoliberal capitalism “has accelerated the expansion of a vast pool of super-exploitable labor” there has also been a “dramatic widening of international wage differentials between industrialized and developing nations.”[79] This, in turn, enables global labor arbitrage i.e., the substitution of relatively high wage workers in imperialist countries with super-exploited low-wage workers in the global south—a process which is today one of the driving forces of imperialism.

The crisis of the neocolonial state, then, is not only the result of the survival of indirect rule or the reification of the tribe, ethnicity, or nationalities, but also of imperialism. It is for this reason, political and economic historian Alden Hall argues, that we “must return to the study of political economy to see the ways in which capitalism inherently governs through systems of difference and hierarchy” and to find ways of not only escaping the legacies of colonialism, but of transcending “peripheral inclusion into the capitalist world-economy.”[80] If we intend to better understand the contemporary global configuration, we must pay close attention to colonial and imperialist histories which “open up original angles for an analysis of the ways in which capital entered multifarious relations with territorial powers in the process of its expansion at the world scale.”[81] The history of the modern state in Europe and the international order of “sovereign” nation-states is inextricably tied to a history of the colonial and imperialist extraction of resources, and the exploitation of labor in the global south.[82] While ethnic conflict in Africa is, of course, a pressing issue, the class conflict between the imperialist bourgeoisie in the global north (and their local agents) and the working class and peasantry in the global south is still of great importance. If so, we might have to look beyond Mamdani’s reconfigured citizenship as an exit strategy from the neocolonial state, and reconsider radically democratic—and indeed communist—alternatives that existed at the height of decolonization.[83]

All images are video stills from Nina Støttrup Larsen, The Cut, The Punch, The Press (2021), as part of Mercurial Relations (2016–ongoing), a research project revolving around the CFA franc monetary construction. What does it mean when the currency of 14 African states is being printed, designed, and produced in the heart of the territory of their former colonial ruler? What do we find when we look closely at these pieces of paper, that perform simultaneously as agent and evidence in a neocolonial monetary union that has been connected to the Euro since 2002?  The Cut, The Punch, The Press (2021) is featured as part of Prospections: ExitStateCraft and can be viewed here.


[1] Walter Rodney, The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World, eds. Robin D. G. Kelley and Jesse Benjamin (New York: Verso, 2018). 

[2] Mahmood Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020), p. 9.

[3] Mahmood Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native, pp. 3–4.

[4] Mahmood Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native, p. 328.

[5] Mahmood Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native, p. 328.

[6] Mahmood Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native, p. 329.

[7] Mahmood Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native, p. 3.

[8] For examples of the emergence of a practical pan-Africanism “from below” in South African townships see Sanya Osha, “African Unity from Below: a view from South Africa,” ROAPE, May 2021,

[9] Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native, p. 144.

[10] Mahmood Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native, p. 148.

[11] Mahmood Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native, p. 176.

[12] Mahmood Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native, p. 149.

[13] Mahmood Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native, p. 178.

[14] Mahmood Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native, p. 177.

[15] Mahmood Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native, p. 192.

[16] Mahmood Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native, p. 190.

[17] Mahmood Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native, p. 190.

[18] Mahmood Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native, p. 32.

[19] Mahmood Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native, p. 160.

[20] During a recent incident in Durban in March 2021, attackers stabbed a street vendor from Burkina Faso several times while insisting that “immigrants must leave South Africa.” For more on the attack see Nokulunga Majola, “Durban xenophobic violence witness: ‘It is a sin that South Africans can do this to their fellow Africans,’” Daily Maverick, March 2021,

[21] Michael Neocosmos, Thinking Freedom in Africa: Toward a Theory of Emancipatory Politics (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2016), p. 161.

[22] Neocosmos, Thinking Freedom in Africa, p. 177.

[23] Neocosmos, Thinking Freedom in Africa, p. 123.                                                              

[24] James Barnett, “The Inescapable Nation,” Los Angeles Review of Books, May 2021,

[25] Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native, p. 36.

[26] Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native, p. 477.

[27] Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the Origins of Anti-Colonial Nationalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 40.

[28] Manela writes: “While Lenin saw self-determination as a revolutionary principle and sought to use it as a wrecking ball against the reactionary multiethnic empires of Europe, Wilson hoped that self-determination would serve precisely in the opposite role, as a bulwark against radical revolutionary challenges to existing orders, such as those he saw in the Russian and Mexican revolutions,” Manela, The Wilsonian Moment, p. 43.

[29] Adom Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019).

[30] For more on how the US did not accept minority rights for its own internal minorities (i.e., its Indigenous nations) see Nick Estes, Our History is the Future (New York: Verso, 2019).

[31] Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire, p. 10.

[32] Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire, p. 11.

[33] Samir Amin, Modern Imperialism, Monopoly Finance Capitalism and Marx’s Law of Value (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018), p. 128.

[34] Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, “Author”s Note,” in Homecoming (London: Heinemann, 1972), pp. xi–xix.

[35] Neocosmos, Thinking Freedom in Africa, p. 378.

[36] Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native, p. 327.

[37] W. O. Maloba, The Anatomy of Neo-Colonialism in Kenya: British Imperialism and Kenyatta, 1963–1978 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), p. 21.

[38] The Mau Mau were a movement of landless squatters who had been forcefully removed from the “white highlands” in the Rift Valley in the early stages of colonialism and made to either work as wage labourers on the land or settle elsewhere.

[39] Maloba, The Anatomy of Neo-Colonialism in Kenya, p. 36.

[40] Shiraz Durrani, Pio Gama Pinto: Kenya’s Unsung Martyr, 1927–1965 (Nairobi: Vita Books, 2018), p. 57.

[41] Maloba, The Anatomy of Neo-Colonialism in Kenya, pp. 82–83.

[42] Maloba, The Anatomy of Neo-Colonialism in Kenya, p. 79.

[43] Regarding independence, Pinto argued that: “Kenya’s Uhuru [freedom] must not be transformed into freedom to exploit, or freedom to be hungry, and live in ignorance. Uhuru must be Uhuru for the masses—Uhuru from exploitation, from ignorance, disease and poverty. The fighters must be honoured by the effective implementation of KANU’s policy—a democratic, African, socialist state in which the people have the rights, in the words of the KANU election manifesto ‘to be free from economic exploitation and social inequality.’” Pio Gama Pinto, “Glimpses of Kenya’s Nationalist Struggle,” cited in Durrani, Pio Gama Pinto, pp. 208–246.

[44] Durrani, Pio Gama Pinto, p. 102.

[45] Walter Rodney, “Class Contradictions in Tanzania” in The State in Tanzania: A Selection of Articles, ed. Haroub Othman (Dar es Salaam: Dar es Salaam University Press, 1980), pp. 18–41.

[46] Walter Rodney, “Tanzanian Ujamaa and Scientific Socialism,” African Review 1, no. 4 (1972), pp. 61–76.

 [47] Amrit Wilson, The Threat of Liberation: Imperialism and Revolution in Zanzibar (London: Pluto Press, 2013), p. 73.

[48] Rodney, “Tanzanian Ujamaa and Scientific Socialism.”

[49] FRELIMO’s current use of symbols from the anti-colonial struggle to gain votes and push neoliberal reforms is entirely at odds with the party’s founding principles. Under the Guebuza administration (2005–2015), for example, the party began the rehabilitation of Samora Machel, who had died when his presidential aircraft crashed in 1986. The administration erected monuments of Machel to imply a continuity with the revolutionary nationalist party that had fought for independence. But the image of Machel that was presented was conveniently detached from his political thought, since any engagement with his socialist outlook could reduce support for FRELIMO’s privatization policies.

[50] John S. Saul, “The African hero in Mozambican history: on assassinations and executions – Part I,” Review of African Political Economy 47, no. 163 (2020), pp. 153–165.

[51] As Neocosmos puts it: “In general the [national liberation] mode was predominantly a mode conceived, to use Lazarus’s term, ‘in exteriority’ in Africa, and was hegemonic in thought probably between 1958 (the date of the All-African People’s Conference in Accra) and the mid 1970s. . . . Following Lazarus, its main external social invariants were the ‘state’ and the ‘nation’ (which was equated with the ‘people’). At the same time, mass struggle against the colonial state and its racist politics contained elements of antagonism to the state as such, particularly the subjective fusion of the nation with the people in practice through an emphasis on equality. We therefore have in this mode a fusion in thought between people, nation and state, with the first two names dominating during periods of mass struggle and the latter two dominating most obviously after independence.” Neocosmos, Thinking Freedom in Africa, p. 126.

[52] Aquino de Bragança and Jacques Depelchin, “From the Idealization of FRELIMO to the Understanding of the Recent History of Mozambique,” African Journal of Political Economy 1, no. 1 (1986), pp. 162–180.

[53] Eduardo Mondlane, The Struggle for Mozambique (London: Penguin Books, 1969), p. 183.

[54] Mondlane, The Struggle for Mozambique, p. 183.

[55] Mondlane, The Struggle for Mozambique, p. 185.

[56] Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native, p. 34.

[57] Allen Isaacman and Barbara Isaacman, “The Role of Women in the Liberation of Mozambique,” Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies 13, nos. 2–3 (1984), pp. 128–185.

[58] Signe Arnfred, “Women in Mozambique: Gender Struggle and Gender Politics,” Review of African Political Economy 15, no. 41 (1988), pp. 5–16.

[59] Arnfred, “Women in Mozambique,” p. 6.

[60] Sonia Kruks and Ben Wisner, “The State, the Party and the Female Peasantry in Mozambique,” Journal of Southern African Studies 11, no. 1 (2007), pp. 106–126.

[61] Mondlane’s murder is just one example of this. Other prominent assassinations in the post-independence period in Africa also include Samora Machel in Mozambique, Pio Pinto in Kenya, Mehdi Ben Barka in Algeria, Patrice Lumumba in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Steve Biko in South Africa, and Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso.

[62] Saul, “The African hero in Mozambican history,” p. 155.

[63] Andy Higginbottom, “A Self-Enriching Pact: Imperialism and the Global South,” ROAPE, June 2018,

[64] A. M. Babu, “Postscript” in Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (New York: Verso, 2018), pp. 347–354.

[65] There are two regional currencies that make up the CFA franc: the franc issued by La Banque Centrale des États de l’Afrique de l’Ouest for the West African Economic and Monetary Union states Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Togo, and the former Portuguese colony Guinea-Bissau; and the franc issued by the Banque des États de l’Afrique Centrale for Cameroon, Chad, the Central African Republic, Gabon, Congo, and former Spanish colony Equatorial Guinea. The two currencies are not directly convertible.

[66] Ndongo Samba Sylla, “Colonialism without colonies: France, Africa and the CFA franc,” ROAPE, February 2020,

[67] Ndongo Samba Sylla, “The Franc Zone: A Tool of French Neocolonialism in Africa,” Jacobin, January 2020,

[68] Sylla, “The Franc Zone.”

[69] Jihen Chandoul, “Food and the struggle for Africa’s sovereignty,” Africa Is a Country, March 2021,

[70] Wilson, The Threat of Liberation, p. 73.

[71] For a refutation of the claim that the national liberation mode of politics relied on extractivism, see Kevin Ochieng Okoth, “Decolonisation and its Discontents: Rethinking the Cycle of National Liberation,” forthcoming in Salvage 10 (Spring/Summer 2021).

[72] Mark Curtis, The New Colonialism: Britain’s Scramble for Africa’s Energy and Mineral Resources (London: War on Want, 2016),

[73] Elisa Greco, “Africa, extractivism and the crisis this time,” ROAPE, February 2021,

[74] Joseph Cotterill, “Mozambique looks to private sector in war against Islamists,” Financial Times, March 2021,

[75] Cécile Marchand, Gas in Mozambique: A Windfall for the Industry, a Curse for the Country (Paris: Les Amis de la Terre, 2020),

[76] Wilson, The Threat of Liberation, p. 109.

[77] Michael Roberts and Guglielmo Carchedi, “The economic foundations of imperialism,” thenextrecession, November 2019,

[78] John Smith, “Imperialist Realities vs. the Myths of David Harvey,” ROAPE, March 2018,

[79] John Smith, Imperialism in the Twenty-first Century: Globalization, Super-exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016), p. 188.

[80] Alden Young, “How to think about Ethiopian politics today,” Africa is a Country, November 2020,

[81] Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilsen, The Politics of Operation: Excavating Contemporary Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), p. 99.

[82] Mezzadra and Nielson write: “As integral parts of what Marx analyzes as so-called primitive accumulation, these histories . . . allow us to grasp the constitutive relevance of global entanglements—which also means violence of conquest and the extraction of raw materials and forced labor—for the history of the modern state in Europe, as well as for the formation of a ‘law of nations’ that came to encapsulate the whole world within its international order,” Mezzadra and Neilsen, The Politics of Operation, p. 99.

[83]  In referring to these alternatives as “communist” this essay hopes to contribute to the project that Mezzadra and Neilson envision in “The Materiality of Communism,” i.e., of grounding the term in material struggles, thereby giving it an “affirmative and constitutive content.” For more on this, see Mezzadra and Neilson, “The Materiality of Communism: Politics Beyond Representation and the State,” South Atlantic Quarterly 113, no. 4 (Spring 2014), pp. 777–790.

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