Putting Northwest Africa in its place

Putting Northwest Africa in its place

Wendell Marsh, Rutgers University-Newark


Recent literatures in the history of Islam in Africa, the securitization of religion, and the anthropology of mobility and migration of the Sahara and Sahel have emphasized the necessity to think beyond the normative geography that separates the study of West and North Africa. The circulation of ideas, people, and goods through and across the Sahara, shared theological and legal traditions as well as Islamic religious forms juxtaposed against those of the Muslim East, connections among people and communities throughout history, common experience under regimes of colonial domination, and even anti-colonial solidarities are cited as examples of a trans-Saharan regional coherence.[1] The argument has had to be made because of racial logics and  geographic tropes that have been foundational to area studies, and indeed to modern knowledge. In the older configuration, the Maghrib belongs to either the study of the Arab Middle East or a White Mediterranean while the Sahel and the rest of West Africa belong to the study of Black Africa.

While this recent trend in academic writing is well-founded and often well-argued, a project critical of metageography (the spatial structures that order knowledge of the world) should not search for a more authentic, absolute region somehow uncontaminated by the raciality of modernity as a kind of pre-racial space of meaning. Rather, geo-social regions should be understood as being historical: they are made and unmade by the agencies implicated by human activity in an environment. If Northwest Africa should be thought now, it is not simply because of a transcendent origin story of circulation, connection, or commonality that makes the region coherent as these literatures seem to imply, but rather because of the structuring of geographic space in and by the conjuncture. In other words, regionalization is an ongoing historical process whose dynamics in the present inherits from the past and makes that history legible. The history of the present, then, becomes an effect of tool of critical inquiry.

This short paper describes Northwest Africa as a region through conjunctural comparison. In a longer version of this paper, I explore four disciplinary moments in which Northwest Africa has been available or not for critical thought. I use the phrase disciplinary moments here to describe not so much a phase or period that is easily demarcated one from another. Rather, disciplinary moments are characterized by dominant paradigms that render something more or less thinkable. They are neither flat, continuous nor instant, but constellations that coalesce around a set of ideas, approaches, or research practices — some of which may have come from other moments but that have been recomposed or have taken on new meaning in the changed context — that correspond to a certain conjuncture.

The first disciplinary moment is typified by the founding of disciplinarity at the turn of the century, when the Du Bosian color-line structured much of social thought. The second reflects the establishment of Area Studies in North America after the Second World War, when geo-strategic interests provided the financial support and institutional imperative to create new academic spaces to complement disciplinarity and to work out the applicability of modernization theory. Third, the end of the Cold War and the attendant critique of Area Studies reflect the border-crossing preoccupations of globalization. Finally, the fourth disciplinary moment, in which we find ourselves, is an emergent moment of regional containment, when the region – northwest Africa in general and the Sahara-Sahel in particular — becomes a unit of securitization. In all cases, we may track these various disciplinary moments and their effect on thinking northwest Africa above and below the Sahara by attending to how scholars have understood the place of the Sahara and its function in defining space. These framings might be summarized as follows: the Sahara as barrier, the Sahara as bridge, and the Sahara as a space of concern.

This essay focuses on the fourth disciplinary moment, of securitization that recomposes previous research and is currently emerging as the moment of regional containment. If previous moments were defined by conjunctures in which the Sahara appeared as either a barrier or a bridge, this disciplinary moment is defined by the appearance of the unit “Sahara-Sahel” as a space of concern.[2] The Sahara-Sahel appears as a space unto itself, that is, as its own space of economic production and social reproduction, not simply a thoroughfare or a barrier.[3] However, the Sahara-Sahel does not correspond to a single political claim to sovereignty, as a single territory. It features competing claims to sovereignty. Politics in the Sahara is seen from the hegemonic perspective as an insurgency which must be securitized through metrics of risk, warning, threat and, of course by military presence and state and civil society strategies of de-radicalization. The Sahara becomes a space of concern in this disciplinary moment because of the gathering of interests in making the space a matter of fact, a unit of urgent attention and analysis.[4] In this moment, the Sahara no longer just connects North and West Africa as a trans-region through which people, goods, and capital move; it is emerging itself as a discursive-cum-material object made through the gathering of forces, institutions, actors of various stripes that make it globally important.

Here the literature on the politics of the securitization of northwest Africa generally and of Islam in the region in particular, brings us to the defining features of the conjuncture which composes the space. The militarization of the Sahara-Sahel began with the season of Arab Revolt, continued with the fall of the Qadhafi government in Libya, and peaked with the ongoing Mali crisis which began in 2012. This literature tries to make sense of the new equation by either assessing the level and possibility of insurgency or more critically by questioning the conflicting interests and forces implied under the discourse of the “War on Terror.”[5]


Forces, Features, and Processes of the Conjuncture of Containment

Clearly, this literature closely follows conjunctural developments. How might we define the emergent conjuncture of northwest Africa more explicitly? Speaking in more global terms, Nina Glick Schiller paints a vivid picture of our planetary conjuncture by citing “the increasing denial to migrant and racialized populations of the right to have rights, the global securitization and prison-industrial and detention center industry, the corporate financialization of loans to the poor and the debt-collection industry, the ongoing seizure of rural lands and the housing of the urban poor, and the multiple additional forms of accumulation through dispossession that lead to economic and social displacements.”[6] Responding to the call for decolonizing Anthropological theory, Glick Schiller makes a case for situated theory, as “these global processes have their own particular local configurations as multiscalar networks of differential power reconstitute local histories, confront particular struggles, and are narrated within specific religious, cultural, and national traditions.” Putting northwest Africa in its place in the current conjuncture, then, requires making an account of the emergence of Morocco as a player in the Sahara-Sahel, the extent of dispossession throughout the space, climate change, and what is sometimes referred to as the migrant crisis.

First, Morocco appears committed to replacing Libya’s role in African Affairs, particularly by its diplomatic, security, financial, and educational activities in West Africa. Qadhaffi was an idiosyncratic, inconsistent leader who tried to develop an African base as a counter-power to Western hegemony after Soviet dissolution by flooding money into African institutions, making strategic investments around the continent in energy, infrastructure, and hospitality, and supporting insurgent politics beyond his country’s borders and brutally repressing a democratic one within. In contrast, Muhammad VI has successfully presented himself as a promising partner for global order committed to security and economic growth. Moroccan banks and real estate companies have made themselves a necessary part of the West African business landscape. Meanwhile, the state has made the case for its entry into the African Union and the regional political-economic and military body the Economic Community of West African States despite the long-standing respect African governments have held for the Western Sahara’s claim to autonomy.

Also of vital importance is Morocco’s spiritual security doctrine and the related discourse of heritage preservation.[7] As the leader of all Sufi orders in Morocco, Mohammad VI claims to be a steward of a moderate mystical tradition that can serve as a bulwark against violent extremism. Local Moroccan culture is packaged as a moderate tradition of toleration to be preserved and encouraged in face of alien, radicalizing influences such as Salafism. Similar discourses of the national character of Islam that must be defended against Islamist violence and treated as a partner for global capital are also abundant in francophone West Africa, in particular in Senegal which shares a partial Tijani Sufi identity. This shared discourse is evidence of the circulation of religious symbolism in the conjuncture.[8] But it also conditions the possibility for Morocco’s emergence. Assuming a leadership role in mobilizing state religion, a controlled, defined take on what Islam is and what it should be for the social engineering of governance projects, Morocco has committed itself to the training of African Imams, particularly in West Africa. At the same time, its potential role in ECOWAS if eventually accepted could signal a more muscular presence. Taken all together, these developments have made Morocco a central player in West Africa, even if other regional players, notably Nigeria, has pushed back against such a shift.

The second conjunctural feature is large-scale land-grabs, natural resource extraction, and other forms of accumulation by dispossession, also known as the new scramble for Africa.[9] This is part of a global phenomenon in which capital seeks increasingly expansive paths and mechanisms to extract value through an integrated process of privatization, financialization, and militarization. The expropriation of land — the necessary means of sustaining life for over half of the population — represents the related production of a surplus population that cannot be integrated into the economy in any meaningful way and the expansion of the real and virtual spaces of capitalist accumulation, even as the new terrains are subordinated and marginalized within that space.[10]

The attack on the developmental state by global financial institutions during the period of structural adjustment in the early 1990s involved the abandonment of a nationalist development project by many African elites in return for their own enrichment. The discourse celebrating African entrepreneurship and a rising Africa has since given way to an insatiable liberated capital determined to maximize profit margins through theft. One glaring example of this is the Senehuile case in Senegal. The food shortages and sky-rocketing prices during the global food crisis of 2008 made apparent both the value of cultivatable land and the international competition for it. Senegal, once nominally socialist, changed the land regime during President Abdoulaye Wade’s push for liberalization with a 2012 law. The result was that agricultural land that had once belonged to collectives of peasants in villages was claimed by the state and quickly leased to multinational enterprises. In the Senehuile case, some 20,000 hectares of wetland reserves were leased to an Italian multi-national for growing biofuel crops. Resistance by the local population, which had not previously been using the land, as it was a nature reserve, forced the government to scale down the sell-off and revealed the multinational chronic illegality in the form of fraud, embezzlement, and corruption. Two people were killed in protests associated with the case. This dispossession, and resistance to it, is but one example of a large-scale process occurring throughout northwest Africa. One salient feature of this process is an increasing income inequality, which has wreaked havoc on social relations of all kinds. Furthermore, the competition for access to land by local and multi-national actors is exacerbated by the further desertification of the region and increasing vulnerability to climate change.[11]

Third, the so-called migrant crisis is a another defining process of the conjuncture that makes northwest Africa necessary to think. Global in scale, the migrant crisis might be understood generally as a conflict between the free movement of people across borders as a political expression versus the desire of states and supranational coalitions to contain and manage populations of risk (of political violence, economic and demographic instability in the global north, of epidemics).[12] [13] In northwest Africa, the migrant question is an important axis of regional integration as Fortress Europe has contracted the policing of its projected borders farther and farther south to Morocco and Mauritania. Increasing numbers of migrants from West Africa who have been pushed off the land without being integrated into urban economies find themselves stuck in North African countries as they seek to migrate to Europe, exacerbating racial tension and forcing the question of the historical and contemporary political-economic relationships between the two zones.

In sum, in addition to the literatures the history of Islam in Africa, the anthropology of mobility, and the politics of securitization, putting northwest Africa in its place calls for thinking trans-locally across a geographical, intellectual, and racial divide long assumed to exist in the real material world. Where these literatures have established connection, circulation, mobility, what is needed is a simultaneous comparative and connective view. The basis of this comparison is multiple and complex but can be summarized as the conjuncture that has brought northwest Africa together. Such conjunctural comparison highlights the role of Morocco in regional and continental politics and business, large-scale dispossession particularly land-grabs, climate change and the migrant crisis.



[1] Ralph A. Austen, Trans-Saharan Africa in World History, The New Oxford World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Ghislaine Lydon, On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks, and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Nineteenth-Century Western Africa (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Judith Scheele, Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara: Regional Connectivity in the Twentieth Century, African Studies Series 120 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); James McDougall and Judith Scheele, eds., Saharan Frontiers: Space and Mobility in Northwest Africa, Public Cultures of the Middle East and North Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012); Abdourahmane Seck, Cécile Canut, and Mouhamed Abdallah Ly, eds., Figures et discours de migrants en Afrique: mémoires de routes et de corps (Paris: Riveneuve, 2015); Graziano Krätli and Ghislaine Lydon, eds., The Trans-Saharan Book Trade: Manuscript Culture, Arabic Literacy and Intellectual History in Muslim Africa, Library of the Written Word, The Manuscript World, v. 8. v. 3 (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2011).

[2] Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (January 1, 2004): 225–48, https://doi.org/10.1086/421123.

[3] E. Ann McDougall, “Saharan Peoples and Societies,” in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History, February 25, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190277734.013.285.

[4] Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?”

[5] Andrew Hernann, “Discourse in Crisis: Situating Slavery, Jihad and Military Intervention in Northern Mali,” Dialectical Anthropology 40, no. 3 (September 1, 2016): 267–86, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10624-016-9437-2; Oliver Kearns, “State Secrecy, Public Assent, and Representational Practices of U.S. Covert Action,” Critical Studies on Security 4, no. 3 (September 1, 2016): 276–90, https://doi.org/10.1080/21624887.2016.1246305; E. Ann Mcdougall, “In the Eye of the Beholder: Provocation, Promise and Prayer in the Sahara-Sahel,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 25, no. 1 (January 1, 2007): 1–15, https://doi.org/10.1080/02589000601157014.

[6] Nina Glick Schiller, “Conjectures about Conjunctures, Decolonization, and the Ontological Turn: Comment on Jafari Sinclaire Allen and Ryan Cecil Johnson ‘The Decolonizing Generation: (Race and) Theory in Anthropology since the Eighties,’” Current Anthropology 57, no. 2 (April 1, 2016): 140–41, https://doi.org/doi:10.1086/685502.

[7] Salim Hmimnat, “‘Spiritual Security’ as a (Meta-)Political Strategy to Compete over Regional Leadership: Formation of Morocco’s Transnational Religious Policy towards Africa,” The Journal of North African Studies 25, no. 2 (March 3, 2020): 189–227, https://doi.org/10.1080/13629387.2018.1544073.

[8] A. Seck, “Sénégal-Maroc: Usages et Mésusages de La Circulation Des Ressources Symboliques et Religieuses Entre Deux Pays « Frères »,” Africa Development 40, no. 1 (September 8, 2015): 159–81, https://doi.org/10.4314/ad.v40i1.

[9] Sam Moyo, Praveen Jha, and Paris Yeros, “The Scramble for Land and Natural Resources in Africa,” in Reclaiming Africa: Scramble and Resistance in the 21st Century, ed. Sam Moyo, Praveen Jha, and Paris Yeros, Advances in African Economic, Social and Political Development (Singapore: Springer, 2019), 3–30, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-5840-0_1.

[10] Derek Hall, “Primitive Accumulation, Accumulation by Dispossession and the Global Land Grab,” Third World Quarterly 34, no. 9 (October 1, 2013): 1582–1604, https://doi.org/10.1080/01436597.2013.843854.

[11] As the Sahara-Sahel is constituted by arid and semi-arid zones the effects of climate change are acutely felt and warrant further analysis for understanding the present conjuncture. See the forthcoming dissertation Brittany Meché. See also, Brittany Meché, “Bad Things Happen in the Desert: Mapping Security Regimes in the West African Sahel and the ‘Problem’ of Arid Spaces,” A Research Agenda for Military Geographies, September 27, 2019, https://www.elgaronline.com/view/edcoll/9781786438867/9781786438867.00012.xml.

[12] Aminata Dramane Traoré and Boubacar Boris Diop, La Gloire Des Imposteurs: Lettres Sur Le Mali et l’Afrique (Paris: Philippe Rey, 2014); Joseph Achille Mbembe, Politiques de l’inimitié (Paris: La Découverte, 2016); Sandro Mezzandra, “The Gaze of Autonomy: Capitalism, Migration and Social Struggles,” in The Contested Politics of Mobility, trans. Rodrigo Nunes (Routledge, 2010).