African Studies Quarterly

THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF ANGER: CIVIL SOCIETY AND DEMOCRACY IN AFRICA. Celestin Monga. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998. pp. 218, paper $19.95.

Celestin Monga's The Anthropology of Anger articulates an alternative to the study of democratization in Africa. He finds the paradigmatic approaches to African politics inadequate and often demeaning to Africans. Since, according to Monga, Western academics and governments alike do not take Africa seriously, he intends to elevate the discourse on Africa in order to repair the damage done by cavalier and ethnocentric studies of Africa. He proposes to accomplish this task through "a political anthropology of anger," which incorporates what he variously calls the "grassroots perspective," "everyday-life approach," and "everyday-language approach". The anthropology of anger -- a putatively intellectual response to situations that produce anger -- is intended to supplement a more conventional approach to understanding politics as involving "political markets."

One fails to see what is fresh and original about such an approach. The concept of political markets, like that of laissez-faire capitalism, is based on a view of society as consisting of egoistic individuals pursuing purely selfish interests. Although there is no lack of egoism among Africans, the concept of political markets scarcely fits societies still characterized by mutual aid, still under the sway of tradition (by Monga's own admission), and whose solidary relations remain largely intact (p. 153). It therefore seems odd that Monga, who blames some of Africa's most intractable problems on the reluctance of Africans to modernize and enter history (Chapter 3), would promote the concept of political markets as part of a methodology for understanding African politics.

The Anthropology of Anger also suffers from a glaring lack of complete and systematic argumentation, and some of Monga's critical terms are poorly defined. At various points, it seems as if he is finally going to demonstrate how his "everyday-life" approach works, but he falters, moving on to once more merely argue the merits of the approach (p. 110). Similarly, he continually refers to the concept of "indiscipline" without explicating it, let alone demonstrating its practical relevance. He defines civil society to mean society as a whole. Moreover, we are not sure whether democracy is merely a system of government that disperses power and maximizes governmental accountability, or "a quest for greater public welfare" (p. 70). Equally, we are not sure whether he believes Africa is modern when he declares "… those in charge of what passed for cultural politics in Africa missed the arrival of modernity" or questions whether outmoded ways are hampering modernization (p. 90). Monga does not explicate "modernity" and "modernization" in ways that would strengthen his argument.

This work also relies too heavily on secondary sources. The only evidence of primary research consists of a small number of interviews with musicians. The connection between the aims of the book and the views of the artistshowever, is nebulous. The few examples of interpretations of everyday language also have no discernible connection to the author's proposed aim. He discusses the plight of youth in Africa and their supposed proclivity to violence. Yet apart from general statements about youth joblessness, he offers no concrete instances of the plight of youth in even one country to enable us to properly assess his claim. Throughout the book one notices Monga's overwhelming tendency to generalize about Africa. We have the inexcusable statement, "In an Africa where cable stations like CNN are watched in every home…" (p. 28). We also come across the claim, "… only a tiny minority of Africans can read the language they speak fluently" (p. 74), a claim Southern Africans in particular will find hard to accept.

Monga's book is engaging for its brilliant prose. It fails, however, to provide a satisfactory alternative to understanding political development in Africa. Monga dulls discourse by treating arguments outside his philosophical frame as motivated by a posture of cultural superiority. Carol Lancaster, for instance, is supposedly contemptuous of African voters because she does not think they behave like citizens in modern democracies. Instead, she argues that African democracy is bound to be different from Western democracy (p. 36). Rather than the Western intellectuals whom he cites as culprits of African denigration, it is seemingly Monga who disparages African society in a most regrettable manner. Taking a stance outside the narrative of the multitudes and ensconcing himself among "those who do not feel any allegiance to the habits and customs of their ancestors," Monga calls African peoples "social misfits" and "marginalized players in the construction of history" (p. 90). Although a central theme of the book seems to be the liberation of Africans (defined as the ending of the dictatorship of the group and the promotion of individualism), Monga displays an unusually intense interest in canvassing foreign intervention in African affairs.

Monga's version of dialectical materialism has much to do with his misdirection. This approach declares that the dialectic outcomes must come to pass, regardless of what the people actually think. The concept of progress, a process that he identifies with thorough-going modernization, governs Monga's enterprise as a dialectician. His method leads to apoplectic generalizations of African political scenes as consisting of villains (the rulers) and victims (the people).

Monga's anger is directed mostly at what he perceives as African injustice, and at outsiders who refuse to acknowledge that Africa's peoples are capable of embracing modernity. Although we may understand and even share Monga's anger at the injustice perpetrated by some of Africa's rulers, we should insist that anger is a poor substitute for proper research and argumentation.

Chisanga Siame
Department of Political Science
Northwestern University