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The Politics of Nations and Nationalism in Lusophone Africa Conference Abstracts


Thinking about Nations and Nationalisms in Lusophone Africa

Eric Morier-Genoud

Background to the workshop

The idea for this workshop emerged from the realisation that there is today a renewed interest in “nations”
and “nationalisms” in Lusophone Africa in both society and academia. Yet at the same time, there is still
much to be researched and written on the subject in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde
and São Tomé and, just as importantly, there is a need to revisit old themes with a new theoretical lens.

The renewed interest in nations and nationalism in Lusophone Africa can be traced, in my view, to three
main factors. First, time has passed since the “liberation struggles” of the 1960s and 1970s and a younger
generation has emerged with no direct experience of the period while the generation who lived through it
is gradually disappearing. This results in the old generation (in particular war veterans), wishing to leave a
testimony of its experience, while the new generation wishes to know more about a period which they
have not known.

Second, the increased interest in nationalism has to do with the demise of authoritarian regimes in the late
1980s-1990s and the emergence of democracy in Lusophone Africa. The new pluralist political systems
which were put in place permitted new testimonies about the war of liberation and African nationalism to
come to the surface in the public realm. Dissonant voices were heard for the first time in public, in
newspapers in particular, and fissures started to appear in the official version of history promoted by the
state. Needless to say, this triggered much curiosity. As Christine Messiant noted for Angola, as founding
myths were shattered, a demand for “the truth” to be established emerged.1

A third factor explaining the increased interest in the subject of nations and nationalism is a renewal of
state nationalism today. If democracy fractured national myths and generated curiosity, democracy and
neo-liberalism also led most states and their elite to develop new forms of “patriotism” – and donors to
accept it to prevent what they saw as possible “state collapse” across Africa. It is not the nationalism of
the independence movements or the post-colonial states anymore. It is a nationalism for democratic and
neo-liberal times, trying to redefine the relation between the local and the global, between protectionism
and free-trade, between insiders and outsiders. This new “patriotism” generates discussion of what the
nations was, is and should be.

As a result of these three developments (and possibly others), various actors at the crossroad of society,
politics and academia have begun research projects to revisit the “liberation struggle” and to discuss
nationalism in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and the Lusophone islands. Some of these projects,
most of which commenced in the past 5 years, are international while others are regional or national. They
are of interest to u because they are the context within which we are working and will provide the
framework of much of the research on nations and nationalism that is to come. They are also important
because some of them are official historical projects – see table.

1 Christine Messiant, “'Chez nous, meme le passe est imprevisible. L'experience d'une recherche sur le nationalisme
angolais, et particulierement le MPLA: sources, critique, besoins actuels de la recherche” Lusotopie 1998, p.186
Institution Project name Begun in
SADC Hashim Mbita Project (“to document the 2004
history of the liberation struggles”)
CPLP Joint Historical Archive of the National 2005
Liberation Struggles
ALUKA/Mellon Foundation Struggles for Freedom in Southern Africa 2003
Nordic Africa Institute Nordic Documentation on the Liberation 2003
Struggle in Southern Africa

Country Project name Begun in

Arquivo Historico de Angola
MPLA party 2004
Ministry for the affairs of former combatants ?
Frelimo party ?


This flurry of new research projects on nations and nationalism in Lusophone Africa is good news for
societies and states asking questions about their past. From an academic standpoint they are problematic,
however. On the one hand, these projects are positive for academia in that new archives will be opened
(e.g. FRELIMO's in Mozambique); new salaries will be allocated to researchers for such work; and novel
areas of investigation will be productively pursued. Interesting debates should logically also ensue. It is true
that such research and debates will be infused with politics since most of these projects have been
launched by states, government ministries and parties in power. But it will be difficult for these entities to
exert absolute control on the research process, and much new material and findings should emerge,
enriching our understanding of liberation struggles.

On the other hand, these projects have a major flaw. More than political manipulation, what is of concern
to me is the meta-narrative built in and promoted with the projects – a renewed and resurgent nationalist
historiography. The bulk of these projects seem to be framed in a teleological perspective which reads the
past from the standpoint of the present. For one, most are about “national liberation struggles” which
means “nations” setting themselves free (as if these nations existed before colonial rule and merely needed
to be set free – the problem is not whether these nations existed or not, but the teleology implicated in this
view.2 For another, these projects do not discuss the politics of nationalism today (when in most cases the
same parties are still in power...) nor do they seek to understand the context within which research is being
conducted today. Put simply, there is no reflexive dimension to these projects.

2 Even if one drops the word “national” from liberation struggle, the word remains implicitly. Indeed who is being
liberated? The answer is the people, the nation...
Agenda of the workshop

Coming back to our workshop, I must now admit that part of the reason for this workshop is a reaction to
the research projects I have just mentioned and, more precisely, an anticipated reaction against the
possible renewal of a certain nationalist historiography. Speaking as an academic, I am worried that we
might soon be flooded by a renewed teleological and nationalist historiography in Lusophone Africa.
There is a risk of a nationalist perspective being entrenched further or, better, being re-entrenched.

Where I believe our workshop can make a useful contribution is by trying not just to deconstruct
nationalist mythologies or deconstruct the nationalist paradigm (there has been much of that already in
Lusophone Africa)3, but to displace this nationalist paradigm and offer new directions for research. Said
differently, I am hoping that we can open up the study of nations and nationalism in Angola, Mozambique,
Guinea-Bissau and the islands (as opposed to narrowing the framework into some form of “patriotic
history”)4. This might be an ambitious programme. But my understanding is that all of you have been
engaged for quite a while in such enterprise. Besides, we have the insights of the historiography of
neighbouring countries.

To try to displace the nationalist paradigm, Gavin Williams and I have set up the workshop in a way which
cuts across and hopefully prevents any teleology. Rather than discussing nationalist myths, “liberation
struggles” or a new history of MPLA, PAIGC or Frelimo, we have four panels looking at the topic at hand
from the margins, from the perspective of today, from the perspective of culture and the global. I am not
going to say more about these panels as you are the specialists of these topics and you know more than I
do about them. What I'd like to do to conclude my introduction is to lay out some essential conceptual
and theoretical issues about nations and nationalism in general. I make five points in this regard.

First, it might be useful to recall that the concepts of nations and nationalism are polysemic, hence in need
to be used with much precision. Indeed, if there are different theoretical perspectives on these topics
(primordialist, constructivist, post-structuralist), there is equally importantly great differences in the way
one can use these concepts. That is: these concepts can be understood to mean different things.
“Nationalism” for example can be seen as, and used to refer to: (1) a discourse, (2) an ideology, (3) an
identity, and (4) a political project. Yet these are different things which raise different questions and will
eventually bring different answers to any question asked. Precision is thereafter of capital importance.

Second, if we want to avoid teleology and any reading back into the past, we need to restore diversity,
historicity and (in)evitability. As to diversity, I feel that one of our duties is to restore the different currents
of nationalism and all the different organisations of nationalism, both dominant and marginal (including
marginal ideas and currents within each organisation or current). Better yet, we should use the word
nationalism only in its plural form to talk of nationalismS. As to historicity and (in)evitability, we need not
only to accept but to restore in our narrative the fact that nothing is ever due to happen, that various roads
are always possible at each moment, and we need to investigate and explain choices made and the
bifurcations taken. It is true that there are marginal and dominant organisations, some issues and
organisation being more important than others. But these hierarchies are historical and they need to be
explained and historicised. Besides, we now know that “fragment” are actually crucial to understanding
properly the mainstream and the dominant.

Third, I believe we need to unpack nationalismS and investigate the ideas and building blocks of these
discourses, ideologies, identities or political projects. What is the influence of capitalism, of modernity,
Socialism, religion, sorcery or ideas of race? What are the moral themes developed, what are the

3 The journal Lusotopie has done much in that sense. For Angola, see also the work of Christine Messiant and Jean-
Michel Mabeko Tali; for Mozambique, the work of Yussuf Adam and for Guinea-Bissau, the work of Mustapha Dhada
among others.
4 The reference is of course to Terence Ranger, “Nationalist historiography, patriotic history and the history of the nation:
the struggle over the past in Zimbabwe”, Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 30, No.2, June 2004 , pp.215-234
repertoires used? And how do these evolve and change over time? We need to unpack nationalisms and
look at their parts. We need to look at the articulation between each and all ideas and repertoire (e.g. the
articulation of the ideas of race, gender, wealth, social hierarchy, moral rights, etc.) and we need to look
into the question of the evolution and change of such ideas and articulations.

Fourth, as we gain access to new archives (of political parties, of the former political police PIDE, etc.), we
need to be careful not to fall back into an elite view nationalism, something which happens all too often
already and which the paper trail entices one to do as it is usually dominated by elites' narratives. Susan
Geiger has brilliantly demonstrated for Tanzania that ordinary women (and the same could probably be
said of peasant, workers, etc.) developed their own brand of nationalisms, sometime before any political
party emerged, and that political parties often adapted their programme and policies if not nationalisms to
keep these women's support.5 There are two issues here: one is that one clearly cannot conflate
nationalisms with nationalist movements; the other is that there are different social levels and classes and
that there existed and probably still exists today different nationalisms in each of them.

To conclude, let me bring together the two sections of my introduction to note that if moving away from
the times of the liberation struggle and early post-independence gives us a critical distance and permits us
to deconstruct the nationalist paradigm, such distance does not exist in relation to today's politics. And
today's politics offer new challenges for our understanding – possibly even generating its own paradigm
with its own blind spots and politics of forgetting. To give but one example, we think today of nations and
nationalisms in more plural a way than in the past and we tend to think that this is better and possibly
more democratic. But what does such a more plural or “democratic” understanding of nations and
nationalisms entail and what consequences does it have for the shaping of our thinking, our analysis and
our explicit or implicit politics? We should not fall into the illusion that our times are less ideologically
loaded than those of the past. Reflexivity and self-criticism is our only safeguard which needs to be
exercised constantly.

5 Susan Geiger, TANU women. Gender and culture in the making of Tanganyikan nationalism, 1955-1965 (Oxford:
James Currey)