Postcolonial States (Part Two) — Coel Kirkby

[This is the second 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 part of this post, see here. 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.]

The last king of Scotland fled into exile on 11 April 1979. President Idi Amin escaped in a helicopter just as the Tanzanian army closed in on Kampala. He left Uganda brutalized and impoverished–and almost completely emptied of “Asian” citizens. It was to this ravaged home that Mahmood Mamdani chose to return from his own exile in Tanzania.

This second part traces how Mamdani revised his theory of the formation of the postcolonial African state after encounters with Ugandan peasants in the mid-1980s and South African workers in the early 1990s. Confronted with these struggles, Mamdani made a Gramscian turn to subjectivity as a critical space to preserve a radical vision for a future African state. In Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, Mamdani would historicize the “bifurcated” African state as a continental colonial formation characterized by a split between the “modern” civil sphere and “traditional” customary sphere. The political implication of this analysis was to encourage a shift in popular movements away from a revolution aiming to overthrow the state and toward the state’s reconstruction through democratic civil society. While Mamdani’s theory of the African state now focused on the immediate necessity of overcoming the colonial legacy of “tribal” politics, it never renounced the ultimate objective of undertaking radical social transformation in order to destroy the lasting legacies of colonial rule in a capitalist world-system.

Enter the Peasant

Mamdani left Dar es Salaam as the dream of African socialism seemed to unravel across the continent and the world. The fate of the Dar es Salaam School is exemplified in the tragic fate of its talisman. Walter Rodney had left the university to return home to Guyana in 1974. There he founded and led the Working People’s Alliance, an interracial party committed to social revolution. Six years later he was assassinated in a car bombing shortly after returning from Zimbabwe’s independence celebrations. In his elegy for Rodney, C. L. R. James, the octogenarian doyen of West Indian socialists, warned that the hoped-for Guyanese revolution had failed because he did not wait for the masses to come with him. James’ ominous lesson might be taken as the requiem for African socialism in the 1970s–a revolutionary tradition in a counter-revolutionary time. [1]

On his return home, Mamdani began to interview peasants around Kampala. He recalls how his questions were limited to gathering the imperial empirical data demanded of his positivistic political economy: How much land did they possess? What food did they consume? What goods did they sell? Each question was designed to produce empirical data for an analysis of the actual conditions of the Ugandan peasantry as a class. But Mamdani’s research, and the critical theorizing that rose from it, was cut short in 1984 when the new Obote government withdrew his citizenship and made him stateless for a second time.

Mamdani returned home two years later in the wake of the triumph of the National Resistance Army (“NRA”), led by Yoweri Museveni. The NRA governed the country through a network of revolutionary councils with a presence in each village. After its victory, the NRA had to reconcile these councils with the colonial-era state system of local government through municipal-style elected bodies and the office of the “chief”. As a first step it established the Commission of Inquiry into the Local Government System, and appointed Mamdani as chairman (because, he says, his Indian descent placed him outside “tribal” politics.)

This commission marked a rupture in Mamdani’s thought. For two years he travelled through most of the country to interview officials and peasants with his fellow commissioners. The final report strongly reflected his new appreciation of his fellow citizens as agents with their own subjectivity. After their experience with the NRA and its revolutionary councils, Mamdani observed that their “minds had opened, what they thought was possible had changed”. [2] The commission’s key recommendation was to foster “effective democratic institutions” by balancing the need to allow citizens to govern themselves while recognizing the limits on self-government after civil war. [3] The first step toward reconciling these competing realities would be to decolonize the institution of the “chief” and democratize the institution of local government. In short, the commission recommended institutionalizing the NRA revolution in order to preserve and achieve its radical aim of abolishing the vestigial structures of the colonial state.

Mamdani’s time among the peasantry opened his eyes to the question of subjectivity that subsisted in the space between “false consciousness” and class consciousness. The very term “peasant” was troubling. In the 1960 and 1970s, Mamdani and his academic interlocutors had arguably reduced the complex subjectivity of rural life to a single class with uniform characteristics that developed (or “underdeveloped”) along a pre-given arc of historical progress. In this analysis a Bugandan woman or an Acholi man, say, could each be abstracted into a “peasant”, since their material condition fit certain empirical criteria derived ultimately from a particular European arc into modernity. As Mamdani later recalled,

Marxism opened up the world for me. But in a contradictory way. It opened up the world but it also obscured many things in a comfortable way because it closed the question of subjectivity. Because it allowed one to understand everything in relationship to an objective process. That was the problematic side of Marxism, I think. [4]

It was his experience with the commission that provoked this insight. Afterwards Mamdani began exploring the relationship between the state and civil society–which he described as an antagonistic one of triumphant state nationalism and repressed popular movements–through the question of “peasant” subjectivity. [5]

It may seem as though Mamdani came late to the subjective turn that could be traced back to the Subaltern Studies Collective, the work of E. P. Thompson, and even further to Gramsci. This tradition insisted on taking (what the Subaltern Studies theorists and others termed) the “subaltern” as the starting point for an analysis of capital and the state. It also refused (in different degrees) to reduce the subaltern to an over-determined creature of historical rules. While Mamdani certainly fits within this tradition, it is important to appreciate how and why his subjective turn came about independently. It was in part due to his intellectual formation in American political economy and Marxist (especially Maoist) social thought. But even more important was his African heritage.

Mamdani began to take peasants seriously at a specific historical moment. By the 1980s the revolutionary dreams of African socialism had been crushed by coups and civil wars, and supplanted by the new economic strictures of structural adjustment imposed by international organizations and donors. But the NRA and similar popular movements across the continent had succeeded in fracturing the circumscribed horizons of rural life–a horizon imposed by “indirect rule” during the colonial era. For all their horrors the civil wars wracking the continent opened up new possibilities for common futures that transcended “tribal” boundaries. Mamdani also seemed to learn independently the lesson James drew from Rodney’s death that education preceded revolution.

The hopes and failures of African revolutions were also theorized within a different intellectual tradition than those of either Thompson or Ranajit Guha. Mamdani situated himself with the pan-Africanist Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (“CODESRIA”), a network of African scholars with its headquarters in Dakar and funded primarily by Scandinavian governments. As he later recalled:

We never stopped at state boundaries in pursuit of knowledge: when it came to the agrarian question, we studied the Chinese, Russian, Korean, Indian, English yeoman, German Junker, Latin American, any and every experience, without fear that we would be trespassing. At the same time, we never lost a sense of location. We were always clear that we were looking at the world from a particular place, and that place was within Africa. [6]

For Mamdani the subjectivity of the peasant thus opened up a liminal space between false and class consciousness, a verdant crack in which it might be possible to nurture future political possibilities through a civil society growing in and out of a particular African history of state-driven development.

Citizen and Subject–and the Postcolonial State

In 1996 Mamdani published Citizen and Subject. This book ranges across a continent, two centuries, and several academic disciplines. [7] It expands his original analysis of the postcolonial Ugandan state to African states generally. Yet there is a sea-change in method here, one that prioritizes subjectivity, which, as always, is grounded in a careful historicization of the material development of African states. Mamdani did not reject his earlier framework of underdevelopment theory in order to analyze postcolonial African states as ultimately extractive enterprises that relegated the mass of “tribal peasants” to subsistence agriculture. But now he historicized the key institution of colonial governance: “indirect rule”.

In this new problematic, Mamdani asked how it came to be that most African subjects were governed by “indirect rule”, a distinct form of colonial governance through “chiefs” administering “customary” laws specific to each “tribe”. Indirect rule was decentralized, in that each “tribe” had its own form of custom, and despotic, in that it denied even the most basic protections of the rule of law. Mamdani focused on how colonial rulers had confined African subjects to the “traditional” sphere after first removing or denying access to the white-only “civil” sphere. While he cites Habermas, Mamdani is careful not to frame his work against the European experience as the universal norm. [8] His question is not why this seemingly natural European development failed to materialize in Africa, but rather how the “traditional” sphere was a modern invention constituted in the late nineteenth century as the necessary antithesis of the civil sphere reserved for white settlers. As Mamdani later put it, “the real crime of colonialism was [not] to expropriate the indigenous”, but rather “to politicize indigeneity, first as a settler libel against the native, and then as a native self-assertion”. [9]

After independence new African governments pursued different strategies to overcome or exploit this common legacy. Take the case of Uganda. After independence, the first government was an alliance between Milton Obote’s Uganda National Congress, with support from the aspiring African bourgeoisie (in Mamdani’s original analysis), and the Bugandan-dominated Kabaka Yekka, which represented the “traditional” authority of the Kabaka (king or head “chief”). But the alliance had little common interest and four years later Obote tried to consolidate power through a two-pronged coup: sending in the army under Idi Amin to oust the Kabaka, and dissolving parliament under emergency powers. Amin, in turn, capitalized on Obote’s failure to extend his support in the populous south in a coup of his own, which he consolidated with the popular act of expelling “Asian” citizens. It was the successive failures of Obote, Amin, and Obote to address the structures of colonial state power that eventually enabled the NRA to sweep to power as a peasant revolution proclaiming a radical reconstitution of the postcolonial state.

Mamdani concluded his study by arguing that “tribalism is both the form of power and the form of revolt against it”. [10] He illustrated this with a close examination of the NRA as the product of a rural peasant revolt, and of migrant labour in South Africa as a destabilizing connection between the the civil and “traditional” spheres. While indirect rule and its postcolonial successors imposed a decentralized despotism on each “tribe”, revolts against it were a form of intra-“tribal civil wars. Yet each internal revolt was always within the larger context of decentralized despotism that pitted “tribe” against “tribe”. To break that logic required the democratization of the rural sphere and the making of class consciousness in the civil sphere. Mamdani demonstrated the former’s potential with the NRA’s revolutionary councils (including his own work in the local government commission of 1986). He demonstrated the latter’s potential with the South African migrant labour system, and the civil war in the early 1990s between those who would organize politics on the basis of class or those who would do so on the basis of “tribe”.

In Citizen and Subject Mamdani also intervened in a long-standing historiographical debate between South African liberal and Marxist historians on the formation of their state. [11] He rejected their shared (and myopic) assumption that the South African state was an exception among African states. In his view, South Africa was also bifurcated into a small civil sphere reserved for white citizens and a “traditional” sphere for African subjects. Mamdani’s intervention came in the immediate aftermath of apartheid’s end, and so offered a fresh challenge to how scholars should understand the transition and its political priorities. He was invited to put his vision into practice after his appointment as professor and director of African studies at the University of Cape Town (“UCT”) in 1996. But his proposed introductory course in African studies was rejected by the faculty, and he left Cape Town a few years later to take up two positions at Columbia in New York and Makerere in Uganda. [12]

Must the State Fall?

In 2017 Mamdani returned to UCT to deliver the TB Davie Memorial Lecture on “Decolonising the Postcolonial University”. [13] His talk took up the unfinished business of how to produce distinctly African forms of knowledge grounded in the continent’s shared histories and remarkable diversity. In a dialectical apotheosis of the CODESRIA tradition, he juxtaposed its two great figures, Walter Rodney and Ali Mazrui, his liberal foil, to propose a practice of knowledge production that dramatically reduces the fees for students (a structural move) and “theorise[s] our own reality, [so as] to strike the right balance between the local and the global as we do so”.

Mamdani gave his lecture in the aftermath of the “#RhodesMustFall” and “#FeesMustFall” student movements to “decolonize” the South African university. Before he could begin his talk, students, workers, and lecturers led a rousing rendition of the “decolonized” national anthem and old anti-apartheid struggles songs that tied his lecture to the larger question of South Africa’s future. This heartfelt reception reflected Mamdani’s recent interventions on the old question of the African postcolony and its future. In a critique of the human rights movement and its response to mass violence, he had argued (following Samuel Moyn’s historicizing move) that this movement took Nuremberg as its model, which “tends to narrow the meaning of justice to criminal justice, thereby individualizing the notion of justice in neoliberal fashion”. [14] Thus should we prioritize the political over the judicial, and the communal over the individual.

Mamdani asks us to take the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (“CODESA”) as our model for justice, rather than the more famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission (“TRC”). CODESA involved structured negotiations between the apartheid government, the African National Congress, and several smaller parties to end white rule. It laid out the processes and principles to guide the political transition and constitutional drafting. Mamdani argues that it was the political space of CODESA and not the judicial space of the TRC that opened up a nascent, non-racial civil sphere. Only this political space could make the necessary compromises to ensure a relatively peaceful transition and begin to address the structure (rather than individual incidents) of state violence.

By keeping his focus on political over judicial justice, Mamdani positions the South African Constitution of 1996 in a different light than its liberal defenders. The constitution’s “transformative” potential stems not from its famed judicialization of socio-economic rights. Instead, it is found in the provisional bargain made in CODESA and codified in the constitution, whose ambiguous text seems to keep alive the possibility of fundamental state transformation through democratic politics. [15] In this reading the constitution is not a sacred and unalterable text, but rather a contingent compromise akin to a peace treaty or truce. Mamdani asks us not to forget the liberation movements’ ultimate aim of constructing a new socialist order beyond the “bifurcated” state–and then perhaps even beyond the “monopoly of power” and “terrible consequences” of the nation-state itself. [16]

[1] James praised Walter as “a very advanced Marxist”, but called for his survivors to learn the lessons of when and how to seize power by insurrection. “We in the English-speaking Caribbean”, James observed, “are dominated by the Westminster model”. By contrast, “the French islands they are different, because they have the great tradition of the French Revolution”. James pointed out that the people of British Guyana had no experience or tradition of revolution–and Rodney’s tactical failing was to rush revolution before educating the Guyanese people through class consciousness: C. L. R. James, Walter Rodney and the Question of Power (London: Race Today Publications, 1983); also available at

[2] 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.

[3] Mahmood Mamdani and others, Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Local Government System (Kampala, 1987), 142; also available at;view=1up;seq=1.

[4] Chen, Gao, and Tang, “Formation”, 463.

[5] Mahmood Mamdani, “State and Civil Society in Contemporary Africa: Reconceptualizing the Birth of State Nationalism and the Defeat of Popular Movements”, 15 (199) Africa Development / Afrique et Développement 47. Mamdani also began to excavate a distinctly African tradition of human rights, which he argued came out of the failures of these popular movements at independence: Mahmood Mamdani, “The Social Basis of Constitutionalism in Africa”, 28 (1990) Journal of Modern African Studies 359.

[6] Chen, Gao, and Tang, “Formation”, 474.

[7] Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

[8] Mamdani, Citizen and Subject, 15.

[9] Mahmood Mamdani, “Beyond Settler and Native as Political Identities: Overcoming the Political Legacy of Colonialism”, 43 (2001) Comparative Studies in Society and History 664.

[10] Mamdani, Citizen and Subject, 218.

[11] There is a vast Marxist literature on the formation of the South African state. Compare these two classic texts: Martin Legassick, “The Rise of Modern South African Liberalism: Its Assumptions and Its Social Base”, paper presented at the “Ideology and Social Structure in Twentieth Century South Africa” seminar, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London (1972); Colin Bundy, The Rise and Fall of the South African Peasantry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).

[12] Mamdani later applied his theoretical framework of the bifurcated state to contemporary conflicts in Rwanda and Sudan. As always, he showed how the fusion of class and race into volatile ethnic political identities were the primary causes of post-independence violence–rather than the dominant explanations of some kind of primordial tribal animosity favoured by prominent Western humanitarian campaigns like the Save Darfur Coalition and Kony 2012: Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror (London: Pantheon, 2009).

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

[14] Mahmood Mamdani, “Beyond Nuremberg: The Historical Significance of the Post-Apartheid Transition in South Africa”, 43 (2015) Politics & Society 62.

[15] See the debate instigated by Joel Modiri, Tshepo Madlingozi, and others on the radical potential of the Constitution to transform the state through democratic politics in a special issue on “Conquest, Constitutionalism and Democratic Contestations” in 34 (2018) South African Journal on Human Rights 295–529.

[16] Chen, Gao, and Tang, “Formation”, 479.

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.