Postcolonial States (Part One) — Coel Kirkby


Refugees from Uganda arrive at Heathrow Airport, 1972. (Charlie Phillips/Getty Images.)

[This is the first part of the fourth post in a symposium on the Marxist tradition of state theory and its contemporary lineages. Authored by Coel Kirkby, this post extends the symposium to processes of postcolonial state formation, discussing Mahmood Mamdani and the Dar es Salaam School. For the first post in the symposium, authored by Chris O’Kane, see here. For the second, authored by Rob Hunter, see here. For the third, authored by Stephen Maher and Rafael Khachaturian, see here.]

A history of the modern state cannot be a history from nowhere. This two-part post traces a single thread in one strand of the lineage of Marxist state theory: Mahmood Mamdani’s evolving analysis of the postcolonial state as part of the tradition of African socialism. I hope to add to the critical interventions in this symposium by showing how a Marxist analysis is strongest when it historicizes actually existing state forms. This approach does not dismiss theory, nor abstractions from particular cases. However, it does insist on beginning with a problematic that is rooted in the present and the particular.

The first part, published here, considers Mamdani’s critique of the African state, developed in Dar es Salaam in the 1970s. Firmly rooted in Marxist thought, Mamdani was always sensitive to the mutually constitutive relationship between law and civil society. This relationship is often taken for granted in the paradigmatic case of European states, but Mamdani argued that theorizing newly independent African states first demanded an historical account of how such states developed under colonial rule. In his view, the chief problem that such an historical account helped to identify concerned the politicization of ethnicity, and the economic underdevelopment with which it is associated.

The second part, to be published shortly after this one, will trace how Mamdani refined this central insight after encounters with peasants in Uganda and workers in South Africa, real people engaged in real struggles on their own terms. This led Mamdani to argue that the fundamental task of African social struggle is the construction of a democratic civil society, which he understood to be a necessary precursor to any attempt to address the real damage of ethnically articulated politics and the material poverty with which it is linked. I will argue that Mamdani challenges us to take the historical constitution and reproduction of the postcolonial legal order seriously.

Communal Origins

Mamdani had an appropriately imperial youth. He was born in Mumbai in 1946, the year of India’s independence. His parents were British subjects and were descended from Kathiawar in Gujarat; they were born in East Africa, and then living in Tanganyika. Mamdani returned to Dar es Salaam, and then moved to Kampala, Uganda. During these years he was defined in law as an “Asiatic”, and assigned to the “Asian” community. Mamdani was thus fixed within a racial firmament of hierarchical, segregated communities ruled by distinct legal regimes. His “Asiatic” community–then 350 000 strong in east Africa–was segregated from both the “white” and the “native” (that is, African) communities. The African community was further divided into distinct “tribes” governed by their own supposedly traditional authorities and customary laws. As a member of a small racialized community, Mamdani had an ambivalent and precarious status: “we are from here”, he recalled, “but at the same time not of this place”. [1]

In 1962 Mamdani was awarded one of the scholarships granted by the American government to celebrate Ugandan independence. After a decade studying in Pittsburg and Boston, he returned home “a Pan-Africanist–Marxist”. [2] Later, though, he was expelled from Uganda along with his fellow South Asian citizens by Idi Amin. In From Citizen to Refugee, Mamdani analyzed the precarious condition of Asians in post-independence Uganda and the ambivalent existence of those who found themselves transplanted to Britain. Written in a London resettlement camp, this book was part memoir and part polemic. Surprisingly, its main target was not Amin, but the British government. Mamdani called the resettlement camps his first experience of totalitarian rule. By contrast, he described Amin’s Uganda as a “semi-fascist state”, since it was not “sufficiently advanced” to achieve its goal of organizing “all of society’s resources” to serve “African capital”. [3]

Mamdani was painfully aware of the communal segregation produced by colonial rule, and he struggled with his own personal failings in bridging this communal divide. Mamdani also acknowledged that, while Amin’s economic scapegoats, the commercial class of South Asian subjects did undoubtedly benefit–relative to Africans, not whites–from a malign distribution of wealth on the basis of their membership in a racialized community. But Mamdani did not pursue the specific question of his South Asian community in east Africa. Instead, he analyzed the nature of the Ugandan state through an historical study of its development under British colonial rule until the independence period of the 1960s.

African Socialism in Dar es Salaam

Something remarkable emerged from the radical crucible of the University of Dar es Salaam around 1970. Scholars who had been pushed and pulled from a variety of places forged searing visions for the futures of Africa while based in the city. Their ideas were born out of a critique of the past and present. Liberals like Ali Mazrui decried the authoritarian rule that denied democracy to Africans, while socialists like Walter Rodney damned the underdevelopment that condemned them to poverty. These critiques fostered new possibilities for remaking African political economy on democratic and egalitarian grounds. However, the intellectual flowering in Dar es Salaam was cut off in full bloom as the violent legacies of colonial rule rose up to suppress this precious space for free thought and scatter its brightest stars across the world.

In 1966 Julius Nyerere’s government expelled students for resisting the new system of compulsory national service. The next year the Arusha Declaration called for the construction of a socialist and African state driven by the idea of ujamaa–the Kiswahili word for “familyhood” that Nyerere refashioned into a kind of African socialism. [4] Second, the government imposed its central policy of ujamaa, or villagization, with greater coercion. “To live in villages”, declared Nyerere in late 1973, “is an order”. Third, frustrated in part by the failure of ujamaa, Nyerere turned outward, shifting from national self-sufficiency to international economic structures. In 1970 he told non-aligned representatives that

[t]he real and urgent threat to [their] independence … comes not from the military but from the economic power of the big states. It is poverty which constitutes our greatest danger, and to a greater or lesser extent we are all poor. [5]

This meeting signalled the beginning of Nyerere’s commitment to a “new international economic order” to break free of the neocolonial bondage that had frustrated his ujamaa dreams of economic autarky.

All these changes heightened the revolutionary fervour at the University of Dar es Salaam. At the same time a flood of radical young scholars from across Africa and the broader British Commonwealth sought sanctuary in Dar es Salaam. A hard core of students, surprisingly dominated by law students, rejected black-letter law courses and forced their professors to teach them law’s social, economic, and historical context in order to pursue the Arusha Declaration’s socialist goals. They organized themselves into the University Students African Revolutionary Front and published Cheche (inspired by Lenin’s newspaper Iskra, or “The Spark”). Issa Shivji, one of those students and later a law professor at the university, recalls these years as one of “big intellectual ferment”. [6]  The Jamaican scholar Horace Campbell once recalled how in the 1960s expatriate social scientists had been teaching the “rights of men”, the importance of the “market”, and the building of “modern political institutions” at the university. [7]

Mamdani joined the University of Dar es Salaam from his London exile in 1973. Mamdani remembers it now as a “hotbed of radical intellectual activity”, noting that he “took it in along with the ocean air and the ocean breeze”. [8] He started teaching there while completing his doctoral dissertation at Harvard. He completed the dissertation in 1974 and published it two years later, as Politics and Class Formation in Uganda. In his preface he thanks his supervisor, Karl Deutsch, as well as his newfound university “comrades”–Henry Mapolu, Harku Bhagat, and the irrepressible Shivji, by then a law professor in Dar es Salaam. [9]


President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania installed as Chancellor of the University of Dar es Salaam, 29 August 1970. (Popperfoto/Getty Images.)

Historicizing Postcolonial Theory

Mamdani’s book is framed by a great silence. It makes no mention of Walter Rodney, a key figure at the university, nor of his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, which was published in 1972. [10] “Development was universal”, Rodney wrote, “because the conditions leading to economic expansion were universal”. [11] But Europe had colonized Africa, and as a result, Rodney insisted, it had distorted its natural development into unnatural underdevelopment.

In Politics and Class Formation in Uganda, Mamdani began by questioning the discourse of “underdevelopment”. Mamdani argued that this discourse was framed by the dualism “of the traditional and the modern”. [12] Since the traditional was retrogressive and the modern progressive, the former needed to be modernized by accelerating its development toward an ideal final state. But Mamdani claimed that this dualism denied a history for tradition–or, in its particular African form, tribalism. For Mamdani,

tribalism is not an explanation but an ideology, one which itself needs to be explained. An ideology is produced under concrete historical circumstances and by a particular social group. [13]

Mamdani applied his critique of the “traditional”/”modern” dualism to development economists who framed their studies of Africa as a contrast between “traditional” subsistence sectors and more “modern” economic sectors. On this account, the answer to African economic underdevelopment consisted of technical solutions to modernize subsistence sectors, not political solutions that would alter the historically constructed exploitation of these sectors by more “modern” sectors.

Mamdani concluded his theoretical argument by taking aim at the “neo-Weberians”: welfare economists. In Mamdani’s view, these development “experts” sought to redistribute wealth through taxation and other means, but did not address the racialized class structure created by colonial rule to facilitate economic exploitation. Mamdani cited Lenin’s call for “a concrete analysis of concrete conditions” to argue for a study not of circulation but of production, a class analysis that would also be “a political analysis that incorporates a historical analysis of economic structures”. [14]

Mamdani thus situated himself in a critical space set against liberal welfare economists, but not quite aligned with socialists like Rodney. He insisted upon an analysis of underdevelopment, one that would explain how colonizers controlled the forces of production and largely retained such control after independence through an international legal and financial order that helped to reproduce capitalist social relations. As he has put it recently, Rodney’s book “broke colonialism down to a raw exercise of power relations and envisaged Africa’s renewal within a socialist framework”. [15]

But Mamdani did not take the existence of a uniform (and presumably African) proletariat for granted. His analysis of Ugandan class formation made it clear that African nationalists who sought to achieve redistribution by targeting circulation and not production would reproduce–and even intensify–the racialized hierarchies of the colonial era. It was no coincidence, after all, that Amin targeted not “capitalists” but “Asian capitalists”. All radical visions of a democratic and egalitarian Africa, warned Mamdani, would end in political violence against particular communities unless they confronted the political economies of nominally independent African states, with their racialized class structures.

Citizen and State

Mamdani’s work was always grounded in an acute awareness of his own precarious status as a “citizen” in an African territory until recently subject to colonial rule. Amin expelled all “Asian” citizens in the hopes of securing the support of the African bourgeois class. Even Nyerere, a committed anti-racist, did not always resist calls to target this same “Asian” class in Tanzania. In 1971 the Tanzanian government targeted the urban rentier class by nationalizing all houses above a certain value that were not an owner’s primary home. Nyerere had long resisted this popular redistributive act, since it effectively discriminated against “Asian” citizens–the predominant members of this rentier class. It accomplished by stealth what Amin would achieve by force the following year.

Mamdani’s analysis proved prescient, foreseeing the political violence that swept across Africa during the years of economic and financial crisis that followed. At the very least it confirmed his own precarious status: in 1984, a few years after returning home to Uganda, the new government withdrew Mamdani’s citizenship and so left him stateless in Africa.

[1] Kuan-Hsing Chen, Shiming Gao, and Xiaolin Tang, “The Formation of an African Intellectual: An Interview with Mahmood Mamdani”, 17 (2016) Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 458.

[2] Chen, Gao, and Tang, “Formation”, 462.

[3] Mahmood Mamdani, From Citizen to Refugee: Uganda Asians Come to Britain (London: Frances Pinter, 1973), 61.

[4] The Tanzanian government published its Mwongozo (“Guidelines”) policy in 1971, which intensified the socialist goals of the Arusha Declaration. Its authors also drew the lesson from recent coups in Guinea and Uganda that there was now an existential “threat to African regimes which were committed to equality and supportive of liberation movements”. Quoted in George M. Roberts, “Politics, Decolonisation, and the Cold War in Dar es Salaam c. 1965–72”, Ph.D dissertation, University of Warwick (2016), 180. See further Priya Lal, African Socialism in Postcolonial Tanzania: Between the Village and the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[5] Quoted in Leo Mates, “The Non-Aligned as a Pressure Group”, 2 (1971) Pacific Community 512.

[6] Issa G. Shivji, “Reflections: An Interview with Issa G Shivji”, Pambazuka News, 22 January 2009, available at

[7] Horace Campbell, “The Impact of Walter Rodney and Progressive Scholars on the Dar es Salaam School”, 40 (1991) Social and Economic Studies 105.

[8] Mahmood Mamdani, “‘She Interviewed Me, We Fell in Love Almost Instantly'”, The Telegraph, 25 January 2009, available at

[9] Mahmood Mamdani, Politics and Class Formation in Uganda (London: Heinemann, 1976).

[10] Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Washington: Howard University Press, 1972).

[11] Rodney, Europe Underdeveloped Africa, 4.

[12] Mamdani, Politics and Class Formation, 1.

[13] Mamdani, Politics and Class Formation, 3.

[14] Mamdani, Politics and Class Formation, 11.

[15] Mahmood Mamdani, “The African University”, 40 (2018) London Review of Books 29; also available at“-african-university”-london-review-books-july-19-2018.

Coel Kirkby is Lecturer in Law at the University of Sydney. He is currently writing a book on law, decolonization, and Indigenous peoples, provisionally entitled The Birth of the Native and the Ends of the British Empire.