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African non-state ethnic networks: Social capital or social liability?

Monday 25 August 2014, by siawi3

2014-08-13, Issue 691


Patience Kabamba

In the midst of an abundant anti-ethnic bias in much of the critical literature in African studies, there may be a renewed necessity to theorize the salience and continuing production of “ethnic” difference in a manner that could problematize and challenge the notion that ethnicity was merely a devious and divisive invention of colonialism, pure and simple, and must be overcome. The current study is questionning non-state formations based on ethnic networks in Africa to see if and how these networks mobilize social capital or social liability for economic and political development within the different contexts of their respective “weak” states. This study revives in a distinctly new way an older tradition in anthropology to use the study of “stateless societies” to pose critical questions about the constitution of modern society and the institutions on which political economy presumably rests.

In political science theory, the state is a basic and largely unquestioned category. Other categories such as authority, rights, and sovereignty retain a certain amount of fluidity and are deemed worthy topics of discussion and debate, but the state, as a category, is simply assumed. Max Weber defined the state as a “ruling organization [which] will be called ‘political’ insofar as its existence and order is continuously safeguarded within a given territorial area by the threat and application of physical force on the part of the administrative staff” (1978:54). Weber defines a state as a rationalized administrative form of political organization and identifies legibility as the process par excellence for its creation and retention. Compounded by capitalism and globalization, this Eurocentric conception of statehood has become a fixed and rigid fact and the gauge by which all other “normative” states are judged.

In the dominate political science literature, state “collapse” refers to the crumbling of institutions while state failure is defined as the non-performance of key state functions (Zartman 1995). State collapse occurs when the structure, authority, law, and political order of a state has disintegrated while state failure begs the question of what the core functions of the state actually are, from concern about basic security to respect for the rights of its citizens. In the advanced capitalist world, what some call the first world, where globalization is about the deepening of commodity relations, the privatization of public services, and the search for cheaper and more productive labor, (Moore 2001, Harvey 2000) African states are often interpreted not only in terms of their failure to adhere to a Weberian model of the rational-legal state, but also in terms of their limited capitalist possibilities; their inability to insert themselves in the world market with regard to resource extraction, social control, and policy implementation. However, this “failure” of the state does not necessitate anarchy because “there can be a governance without government" (Rosenau and Czempiel 1992, Rodhes 1996, Vlassenroot and Raeymaekers 2008). The former can be provided by non-state social networks that involve loyalties beyond national ones. Many African states are experiencing just this kind of political and economic organization through a deepening of social relations.


Due to ongoing war, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has seen the demise of conventional state control and the growth of privatized exercises of power at the local level. From a humanitarian point of view, the Congolese conflict has caused levels of suffering unparalleled in any recent war. As of 2006, out of a population of 58 million Congolese, as many as 4 million had died, 7 million suffered from malnutrition, 3 million were HIV positive, at least 40,000 had been victims of sexual violence, 2.4 million were internally displaced, 880,000 had become refugees, and 3 million children were orphans (Coleman S., 2005). In 1998 the country’s territory was controlled by three main Congolese rebel groups, a dozen Congolese militias, rebel groups from Uganda, Burundi and Sudan, the Interhamwe—the Rwandan militia responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda— and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Few traditional functions of the state are in evidence within the country and extensive zones are still controlled by internal and external rebel groups; however, political order and economic development—even development involving transnational trade—have arisen in the DRC.

In the absence of an effective national government and in the presence of many competitors for power, the Nande, an ethnic group in and around Butembu, a city of 600,000 in the northeastern province of North Kivu, have prospered for more than three decades, managing to build and protect self-sustaining transnational economic enterprises. In the 1950s and 1960s, they produced and traded beans, carrots, and other vegetables. Today, the city is essentially a warehouse for merchandise. The Nande import containers of goods ranging from textiles, motorbikes, and automobiles to spare engines, medicine and other merchandise from East Africa, the Persian Gulf, Southeast Asia and China export agricultural products ranging from coffee, potatoes and beans to papaya, latex and other vegetables as well as minerals such as gold, coltan, wolfram and cassiterites. The elite of Butembo, the most successful import-export traders, are millionaires in US Dollar amounts and have gradually captured the social and economic surplus within the Nande society. There is a critical mass of what economists might call “middle-class” Nande who also benefit from this thriving economy.

In addition to a booming import-export trade, the Nande have significantly contributed to the infrastructure of Butembo, taking over multiple functions previously assigned to the state. Each Nande trader is responsible for 50 kilometers of road. A tollgate is generally organized and the money collected is used to repair and mend the roads. When part of a road is not mended, a sort of internal control and accountability is used; traders will not hesitate to question the colleague in charge of that section. As a result, the Nande region is one of the only places in the country, apart from Katanga— a central site of mineral exploitation and extraction—that has good road networks. Butembo also sports a new airport, a hydroelectric dam and an impressive, three-story mayoral office. The Nande distribute food, clothes and medicine to refugees and contribute significant sums to the construction and maintenance of the local universities. The local federation of traders even has a court that is often used in lieu of the state court for litigations concerning succession and land ownership.

The Nande have constructed, in effect, a shadow state, the question is how. How in the absence of state sovereignty and in the presence of numerous armed contenders for power, have traders managed to build and protect self-sustaining, prosperous, transnational economic enterprises in eastern Congo?

A combination of factors stemming from pre-colonial trade practices and the colonial impact on these practices influenced the creation and retention of Nande networks, the first being Butembo’s central role in the pre- colonial salt trade in DRC. The village called Lusambo, which is now part of Butembo, was a stopover for caravans coming from Katwe on expeditions for salt (Kambalume 1972). From the salt trade, Nande people learned the benefits and dangers of long-distance commercial activities including confrontation with dangerous animals and the creation of friendships through salt distribution. Colonialism then brought Christianity, and with it, the Protestant work ethic. Even today Nande traders attribute their success partly to the lessons learned in the Protestant mission. Kamungele, one of the most prominent traders in Butembo today, summarized the legacy of the Katwa missionary: “first, a dedication to hard, honest work (e.g., working hard even when the boss was absent); second, a demand not to waste earnings on alcohol and prostitutes; and finally, the importance of learning to delay gratification” (from the authors interview with traders). Catholic missionaries also affected trade practices and left lasting institutions in their wake. The Catholic University of Butembo with its three schools of Law, Civil Engineering and Medicine has continued to function since its establishment ten years ago by the Roman Catholic bishop of Butembo, Monsignor Kataliko, as has the Hospital Matanda.

Seen economically, militia forces near the region make up part of the Nande network in that they play a junior partner role in Nande trade. The Nande pay, feed and house militias that protect their products and operations. As long as the traders don’t insert themselves too forcefully into the militias’ spheres of brutal extraction in the peripheries of the Nande centre and as long as the militias steer clear of that centre and do not disrupt the Nande capitalists’ sphere of control and stability, then a sort of understanding and equilibrium is met based on the Nande’s social and economic power and the militia’s various reigns of terror, creating a multiplicity of semi-overlapping and intersecting spaces.

These factors do not stand alone in their impact on trade practices, but intertwine in complex and sometimes conflicting ways. For example, the bishop of Butembo holds a well-respected position among militiamen. In turn, many militiamen are former altar boys and choir members. There also seems to be a very clear social and political hegemony of the Nande “bourgeoisie,” legitimated through the Church officialdom and premised by formations of violence that supply a certain sense social order.

The Nande example is just one of many non-state networks operating as a source of cohesion and organization in lieu of formal, Western defined governing in Africa. This social structure is mirrored in Nigeria where three major ethnic groups are known for their commercial vitality: the Igbo, the Yoruba, and the Hausa traders. In the city of Nnewi in southeastern Nigeria, the Igbo have factories manufacturing spare car parts. (Brautigan 1997) In Lagos, Igbo own factories, which assemble and repair computers. (Oyelaran Oyeyinka-2007) These networks prove that there is always some degree of political and economic organization in apparently anarchic situations.


This is not to say that social networks, like those of the Nande, Igbo, Yoruba or Hausa have entirely positive effects. Social relations resist binary labels of “good” and “bad.” As evidence of this, Nande traders have also been the financiers of the wars around them. Though smuggling gold became a means of raising preliminary capital for more legitimate businesses that same gold is often used to fuel and sustain the war in the eastern DRC through money, material, and weapon exchange. Consequently, the negative effects do not negate the positive impact of Nande trade; rather, it shows that social relations, whether within the formal, Western frame of statehood, or within the sphere of non-state networks, carries an inherent complexity.

When looking at the relationship dynamics of Nande traders, two spaces emerge, that of dependence and engagement. Traders try to balance dependence—local space used to produce and invest which involves intra-ethnic relations that are often very competitive—with engagement—transnational space where transactions are made using inter-ethnic relations. The Nande, as an example, have participated in transnational trade through the construction of an intricate matrix of social relations by developing “quasi-kin” relationships with their Arab counterparts in Dubai and with Chinese merchants in Hong Kong and mainland China. These non-state networks serve as sources of non-state order.

Those who view non-state networks as social capital tend to analyze the emergence of social networks in African states as endogenous non-state solutions to the problems of state “failure.” Through the construction of social relations based on trust, solidarity and local institutions of credibility, (Hansan & Vaa 2004, Lourenco-Lindell 2002; MacGaffey ) these social networks have managed to replace the state, and the laws have changed to challenge the incapacity of the state and its corruption (MacGaffey 1991).

Those who deem non-state social networks as social liability tend to view them through a logic of poverty, predation, and provincialism. As Bayart asserts: “Pioneers of modern Africa, fraudsters, diamond diggers, the currency exchangers and immigrants, all find ways to escape from the law, boundaries and official exchanges...It is through these social practices of fraud, illegal immigration, drug trade that Africa is inserted in the international system.” (Bayart 2000:260)

Students of political science and political anthropology see in non-State social networks a danger to the formation of a Weberian state (Bayart 2000, Collier 2007, Duffield 2001, Keen 2008, Reno 2000, Roitman 2004) and view even economic progress as blocks to the real development of the country.

Both perspectives, non-state social networks as social capital or social liability, feed into essentialist ideologies. Rather than look at each individual non-state network, they clump and label as a whole, but every network has its own complexity, fluidity and diversities. The effort should be to understand the history and emergence of each non-state network in an attempt to re-conceptualize informality. Meagher (2010) and Hart (2006) have a more productive way of understanding informality beyond a sterile dualism: “the issue is not one of regulation per se but of the form of regulation based on personal relation such as those of kinship, friendship or co-ethnicity” (Meagher 2010: 16). These non-state networks focus on the organizational role of social ties that shape economic behavior outside the state through embedded relations of solidarity and trust.

Contrary to the viewpoint that only warlords can emerge in the event of a state collapse, the Nande example represents a complex re-definition of the relations between a state and its citizenry in which the state has had to reorient where it asserts its limited power, but is, nonetheless, still present. The Nande anthropological site is one where law, economy, politics and other state practices are guided by additional forms of regulations and loyalties. The Nande region is one of the many places where the state is continually both experienced and undone through the illegibility of its own practices. Though an example of a group that has emerged partly because of state absence, the Nande are better understood as intricately intertwined with the state.

The notion that African states have failed or collapsed is a way in which the colonially imposed Weberian model of statehood is solidified. Institutional breakdown and society collapse are conflated. Zartman (1995) draws an equation between the collapse of the state and the collapse of society and asserts that in a “weak” society, there exists a general inability to refill the institutional gaps left by withering government structures, in effect, compounding government and governance; however, as we have seen, a lack of government does not necessitate a lack of governance.


The idea of state failure is, in itself, misleading. It gives the false impression that if a state is now falling apart, it may be assumed that it was once well-integrated, fully functional, stable, and efficacious, but statehood is a relative concept. There is no general formula for the success of state projects; they always have to respond to local historical specificities (i.e. the conditions and relations of struggle). It is important to remember that African states were colonially imposed and institutionalized. The DRC state, for example, remains profoundly contingent; it was born in a colonial carve-up, and threatened from independence by secessionist movements at the provincial level (Jackson 2004). Viewed through this lens, the breakup or “failure” of African states can be interpreted as a push from the populous to abolish colonially imposed ghost structures from within.

This is an Africa that is slowly divesting itself of neo-colonial links. The Nande, and other social networks, appear to determine the direction in which Africa is moving. The horrors of war in the eastern Congo may block what we considered development, but it might also be aiding the process of relinquishing colonial, post-colonial, and neo-colonial ties. Rather than assuming it is necessary to “fix” what is considered “broken,” this study advocates recognizing both the utility and the successes of new social formations—ones that result in alternative ways of governing.

The belief that power usually flows top-down from a state monopoly is increasingly questioned in an era of networks fuelled by interactive decision-making processes that include non-state actors, like the Nande. Power theoretically understood as potentia – the elementary power through which human beings deploy their productive capacities and creative possibilities—precedes power that is often expressed as an obsession with rational-order, potestas. The concept of power inherent in the Weberian notion of the state is one defined as potestas—the unchallenged authority of a despotic ruler, whereas power as potentia, as Foucault writes “is something that is acquired, seized or shared, something that one holds on to or allows to slip away;.[ . . .] Relations of power [. . .] have a directly productive role, wherever they come into play. Power comes from below.” (Foucault, 1996[1980]: 94) This sort of power, potentia, is ontologically prior to and ultimately autonomous from the reified power of the sovereign state that captures it. Granting precedence to potentia over potestas challenges the conceptual centrality of the state because it suggests that sovereignty is a fundamental and inalienable attribute in every human being, and as such, is never a monopoly of the state.


This study departs from the ubiquitously expanded and reified notion of the state as a greater or lesser monopoly of “legitimate” coercive power exercised spatially over a limited territory. Instead it asserts that the state is fundamentally a form of social relation codified at a certain point in history. It, therefore, begs for a reconceptualization of the state and its power. Dissolving the state as a category and understanding it not as an entity in and of itself, but as a form of social relations, recognizes the utility and success of new social formations. (Holloway, 1994)

Unlike in the rationalized world of Weberian abstractions, the DRC state, though inscrutable, incoherent, unpredictable, and unreliable, is not “failed.” At the heart of the current picture of the DRC stands a flawed understanding of the state itself, its functions, its power, and its performance. As the Nande case shows, the DRC state is failed only for those who require no further ethnographic analysis beyond a topical and Eurocentric view of state power. It is imperative that the state as a fixed category be dissolved in order for the study of new social formations and non-state networks to occur. Considering how people negotiate the boundaries between state and non-state power in contemporary DRC can be used to pose large, critical questions about the institutions upon which modern societies rest.


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Patience Kabamba is a Congolese lecturer and author of ‘Business of civil War: New Form of Life from the Debris of the Congolese State’, He was a UNDP consultant in Kinshasa on issues of proliferation of small arms and light weapons and worked as a counselor of prisoners and single mothers in Cameroon, DRC, Chad, Burkina Faso, and France.