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Postcolonial and critical of power

HOLBERG PRIZE WINNER / Achille Mbembe's books all revolve around how the people in post-colonial states are kept down and marginalized. But also about how democracy today does not work because threats, violence and murder keep people away from the public sphere, from debates, from being able to say what you think for fear of losing your job, being put in prison or killed.


When Achilles Mbembe June 6 came to Bergen to receive the Holberg Prize, he received six million kroner and some honor. Strictly speaking, he needs neither. Mbembe is Africa's best-selling non-fiction author and the closest we can get to an academic world star. He always writes his books in French, but they are quickly translated into English, Italian, Spanish, German, Portuguese ... some also come out in Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and Catalan.

Perhaps he does not need honor either, honored as he is by academics and politicians all over the world. The 66-year-old Cameroonian with a doctorate in history from the Sorbonne (1989) is honorary doctorate at universities in France, Belgium and Norway (Bergen). He has been visiting professor at Yale, Columbia, Duke and Harvard. Already 10 years ago, the monthly magazine appointed Young Africa Achille Mbembe as one of the 50 most influential people from Africa. Most others on the list were politicians or businessmen.

Dialogue meetings and syllabus

In 2021, he was engaged by French President Emanuel Macron to organize dialogue meetings where young entrepreneurs, cultural actors, youth politicians and leaders of civil society organizations in different cities across Africa and the African Diasporaone in France discussed current topics such as climatechanges, equality, social mobility and food security.

The ideas were summarized in one 150 page report which Mbembe personally handed over to Macron at the Elysée Palace in Paris. The following year, Macron invited Mbembe to Cameroon as his official travel companion. Mbembe was then accused of being too close to France's political elite, to help carry it on himself Francafrique, the distinctive French mix of personal connections that informally and amicably govern political and economic relations between France and its former colonies in Africa. Mbembe had been very critical of this in his article "Provisional notes on the Postcolony" (1992), which was written in English three years after he received his doctorate.

Mbembe always uses a striking vocabulary, inspired by zoology, psychology, architecture, and religion, to write about postcolonial power, violence, and oppression.

The article in its time triggered a very heated debate and put Mbembe on the academic world map. Eight years later, the ideas from the article had been further developed into a whole book, From the postcolony (2000). When it came out in English the following year, Mbembe became workload across large parts of the world – whether the subject was African philosophy, political science, history or post-colonial studies. This shows that Mbembe is not easy to place in one subject, in one booth.

Schengen-like solution

Like French moderns intellectuale – from de Beauvoir and Sartre to Bourdieu and Foucault – Mbembe participates in the public debate with a range of different topics. He writes chronicles and debate posts on everything from artificial intelligence and algorithms to migration policy and "a world without borders". He also spoke about the last two topics to packed halls Litteraturhuset in Oslo in autumn 2019. I traveled to the capital to hear him, but was disappointed; were such simple thoughts that he conveyed so difficult in his books? Read the short version of «The notion of a world without borders» in Samtiden (1/2021) and judge for yourself. There he talks about the state's desire to control the citizens by securing the borders and by requiring passports and visas to reduce the possibilities for people to move freely between different countries, and concludes thus: "If we want to complete decolonizationone, we must tear down the colonial borders of our continent and make Africa a large space with the possibility of circulation for its own inhabitants, for African descendants and for all who want to link their destiny to it.

But that Mbembe proposes one Schengen-similar solution for Africa, is not particularly innovative; African heads of state have been talking about this ever since the creation of the African Union in 2002.

Seminars and courses

Mbembe also actively participates in a more closed public. Together with his much younger Senegalese colleague Felwin Sarr (also academically ambiguous with his PhD in economics, musical career as well as fiction writing before he has now become a professor of francophone studies at Yale) Mbembe was behind the thought workshops of Dakar, where one week a year, until 2019, doctoral students could discuss scientific methods and issues with top African researchers from various fields. Everyone who took part in these weeks tells of impressive academic wit and ditto openness.

Inspired by dialogue meetingne Mbembe organized for President Macron, he established in 2022 a foundation, Foundation for Innovation for Democracy, which, in the manner of think tanks, should think about new forms of democracy adapted to Africa. Here he invites young people, especially women, who have traditionally been excluded from political processes in their respective African homelands. He will take the ideas from the discussions in the seminars further in national and international forums that can influence the exercise of democracy in African countries. A long-term job, in other words. But he is aware of that and that is what he is interested in: long term. But as he says: It is an initiative that can turn things around democratic deficit, reverse the waning faith that democracy can work well, reverse the skepticism towards democracy all the coup d'états in West Africa in recent years bear witness to. The aim is to adapt democracy to something positive, fruitful and functioning for Africa. After the start in Ivory Coast in July last year, a number of seminars and courses have been held in South Africa, Cameroon, Togo and France where young adults discuss democracy and co-determination, but also learn how to exercise political influence and activism.

For packed halls at Litteraturhuset in Oslo in autumn 2019.

When Mbembe speaks, he reasons uncomplicated, almost banal. When he writes, however, it requires a lot from the reader to understand the text. His texts are difficult to access even if the basic ideas are not that complicated.

The people of post-colonial states

After the release of From the postcolony in 2000 Mbembe has published a number of books which Coming out of the big night (2010) Criticism of Negro reason (2013) Politics of enmity (2016) Brutalism (2020) og The earthly community (2023). All revolve around how the people in postcolonial states3 are kept down and marginalized. Not only how Africa and Africans are marginalized in relation to the Western world, but also how African state leaders (and other elites) use threats, violence and punishment to silence their own people.

Mbembe always uses a striking vocabulary, inspired by zoology, psychology, architecture, and religion, to write about postcolonial power, violence, and oppression.

Politics of enmity came in English as Necropolitics (2019). Here he uses Hannah Arendt's totalitarianism, Giorgio Agamben's State of Emergency and Michel Foucault's biomakt as a starting point for his own concept of necropolitics. Mbembe claims that control over the death of people is more important for the so-called democratic states today than having control over the lives of the citizens – having control over the citizens while they are alive. The heads of state can exclude anyone they do not like, any troublesome individuals or groups of individuals.

Already in 2016, Mbembe used Israels behavior towards Palestinians as an example of necropolitics. Today, the examples from Israel would be significantly more glaring and clearer to everyone. He uses examples from colonial liberation wars in Africa, from the Crimean War and the American struggle for independence. But there are a number of other examples, of both individual and collective extermination of people the "democratic" state does not like. Had the book been more recent, Mbembe could have used the murder of the Russian opposition politician Aleksej Navalny on 14 February this year as an example of necropolitics. Or he could use the murder of the leader of Socialists without Borders in Chad, Yalla Dillo, the following week. When Chadian President Mahamat Déby realized that Dillo was indeed a strong contender in the May 6 presidential election, he had him killed.

Already in 2016, Mbembe used Israel's behavior towards Palestinians as an example of necropolitics.

The examples of Mbembe are older, but just as clear of the necropolitics that daily keep challengers of democracy at bay in many countries, not only African. Democracy does not work because threats, violence and murder keep people away from the public sphere, from the debates, from being able to say what you think for fear of losing your job, being put in prison or killed.

Mbembe's starting point for everything he writes is post-colonial and critical of power. To the monthly magazine Jeune Afrique, Mbembe happily stated that , the lberg prize showed that "you can live and work in Africa and develop a discourse that is heard in the rest of the world". Then Mbembe has come a little way with his vision of to see the world from the home continent.

Ketil Fred Hansen
Ketil Fred Hansen
Hansen is a professor of social sciences at UiS and a regular reviewer at Ny Tid.

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