Archive for July, 2015

Ask a physicist how distant Edinburgh is from Glasgow and he/she will confidently produce a figure in kilometers. Ask a political geographer and you may be confronted with a disheartening reply: what is distance? The New Political Topographies conference last May, hosted by the Centre of African Studies in Edinburgh, convened not a few scholars of the what-is-distance breed. It was hardly surprising therefore that intricate questions surfaced every so often. As eager fellows of the what-is-distance brotherhood, Jana Hönke and I also contributed our little grain of sand to the mess conference. Thus our paper asked: which analytical road to go down to apprehend how African ports are governed? Topographies or topologies?

Queried about how ports are governed, many political geographers would cheer up with relief and provide a confident answer: ports are operated as territorial spaces and, as such, enforcing the rule over goods and people within their premises involves a twofold mechanism: exclusive jurisdiction by a handful of public agencies, and securitization of access. Only under that premise can cargo be inspected, appraised and taxed – the ultimate goal of state authority in African ports, as well as in ports anywhere. For many a political geographer, hence, scrutinizing the ways in which power is exerted locally – that is, a topographical approach – is the obvious analytical choice. Political topography tends to imagine ports as enclaves – like, say, mines – in order to disclose how intensively and extensively port authorities wield power.

Inspecting second-hand cars in the port of Dar es Salaam. Source: TICTS.

Inspecting second-hand cars in the port of Dar es Salaam. Source: TICTS.

The archetypical ‘what-is-distance political geographer’, though, might feel unimpressed by the hasty reply of his/her colleague. He/she would probably point instead to the fact that African port authorities have seen their arms twisted by, when not enthusiastically embraced themselves, a transnational utopia of unhindered logistical flows. Over the last decade the volumes of minerals and raw agricultural produce shipped eastwards from Durban, Dar es Salaam or Mombasa have multiplied. At the same time, mammoth vessels have become a common sight in African harbors. They carry cheap plastic homeware from China for the Mama Biasharas of East Africa as well as fancy smartphones for the rising upper class. Ports around the continent, since long the interface of extensively internationalized economies, have felt compelled to accommodate to a new paradigm of logistical expansion. According to a globalized logistics mantra, African customs and port authorities must now conceive of performance as a blend of revenue targets and expeditious cargo clearing. Accordingly, speed, dwell times and mobility have become the words of the day in the administrative jargon. Likewise, that jargon has also been colonized by fresh representations; bureaucratic imaginaries of ports as checkpoints have given way to representations of the latter as maritime gateways. Consequently, territorial strategies of taxation and securitization have muted in parallel. They have done so as a response to ideals – still to be accomplished – of seamless connections between ports, their hinterlands and nodes of consumption that remain distant in space yet not in time anymore. Unsurprisingly, for transport geographers, mobility as well as topological accounts of authority unrelated to physical closeness, have gained prominence vis-à-vis topographical perspectives centered upon authority over enclosed spaces. What-is-distance political geographers have felt vindicated.

Undeniably what-is-distance political geographers have much to say about how ports are governed. However, we also esteem conventional notions that claim, for instance, that taxation in ports remains to a large extent a territorial affair. Why not exploring then a métissage of geographical sensibilities? Our paper tries to do so, thereby advocating for a ‘topolographist’ approach cutting across topographies and topologies. The paper explores the fertile intersection of two processes: the production of territoriality and the topologies of proximity/distance in and around ports. Such an intersection lies at the core of a relentless respacing of Africa in which ports as well as cognate large-scale infrastructures play a chief role.

Future posts in this blog will explore how infrastructures are reshaping the political geographies of the African continent. In particular, we will share specific insights obtained from a ‘topolographist’ exploratory analysis of the port of Dar es Salaam, its vicinities and the broader East African region. In so doing we expect to contribute to the chorus of narratives accounting for how global and local economic forces are attempting to redraw African geographies according to their own convenience.

By Ivan Cuesta-Fernandez

Originally posted here

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As Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues, people hugely underestimate the impact of the improbable. I find myself very comfortable pretending my personal interests are “objectively relevant”, that my chosen topic is intrinsically “interesting”. But I have to acknowledge that my discovery of Chad and its capital N’Djamena as a subject of study is accidental. I owe it to seasoned Chad specialists, such as Karine Bennafla and Géraud Magrin. They tickled my curiosity towards this fascinating country.

Thanks to a Global Development Academy (GDA) scholarship, I was lucky enough to conduct fieldwork in N’Djamena over the month of June 2015. A friend of mine, Mathilde, working for the CILONG, a centre of liaison connecting together NGOs, kindly hosted me and helped me gear myself up for my research. I was rapidly embedded in a crew of Chadian and French residents who made my stay amazingly human.

So many variables factor in the final topic one decides to research. I came to Chad with the idea of investigating the Chad-Cameroon oil development project, and more specifically the part of civil society in monitoring extractive activities since 2003. Well… a strikingly ambitious task for an overly-researched topic, I soon realised! Especially since the pioneering contributions brought by Chadian scholars such as Gilbert Maoundonodji or Remadji Hoinathy. Inch by inch, I modified my angle and paid more attention to the work of the oil watchdogs in observing the increased militarisation of the state, relying on substantial contributions made by Roland Marchal, Andrea Behrends, Marielle Debos and others.

Chad (Mazaaz)

I was especially impressed by the diversity of N’Djamena’s settlement; the particular location of Chad at the crossroad of Africa explains the motley crowds one observes in the streets. N’Djamena is not only an internationalised city due to the presence of NGOs, multinationals or U.N agencies on the ground. It is also because of various waves of migrations gathering nationals from all Africa’s corners. Having lunch with a Guinean medic narrating his staggering experience of humanitarian work in Central African Republic, jabbering about politics with the Sudanese manager of a café in classical Arabic, which this man masterfully commanded, or discoursing on Chadian military history with a Cameroon-born officer who went through the murky troubles of rebellions: here are a few of the situations one could be brought into, by keeping one’s ears and mind open. The variety of religious faiths, and manners of living them, also strikes the foreigner used to more monolithic expressions of beliefs.

I was warmly welcomed by 17 interviewees who openly shared their views with me on a wide range of topics relating to my research. I rarely felt I should avoid any sensitive aspect, and their replies would often go beyond my questions, sometimes turning interviews into lively debates on the future of Chad. I agreeably found a great deal of my Chadian interlocutors passionate about politics and history.

Obviously, Chad has its stains of dark, especially now. Boko Haram carried out its first deadly attacks in the capital city when I was there and the security context is deteriorating. I could witness increased restrictions being imposed by the military and the police; foreign nationals limited their movement to “imperative professional duties” and various NGOs went a step further, barring their employees from leaving their residence.

Foreigners take security issues seriously indeed. Prior to the attacks, the French embassy and other foreign and international institutions based in N’Djamena issued very strict recommendations with regard to behaviour. So the events brought everyone to the brink of paranoia, which is perfectly understandable.  Foreign officials advised against all public outdoor spaces such as markets (where several attacks then took place). Once, when my driver announced to me that we would make a detour since “Passing by the presidency is not a good idea” given the recent events, I understood some aspects of the fear instilled in peoples’ minds in a country historically marked by violence.

 Yet, as long as one follows the rules prescribed by common sense and N’Djamena’s residents, things are likely to be fine. Well, there is not much individuals can do anyway. “Be cautious” is not a really meaningful word of advice, my friend Mathilde remarked. One of the sentences I would hear on a frequent basis was: “We’re not gonna stop living because of this”. Indeed, what else can one do, than simply continue his or her life in spite of tragic events?

My main regret is tied to the brevity of my journey. I indeed cannot pretend I “know” Chad after three weeks in the capital, even if I did spend a reasonable time moving from one place to another. N’Djamena is special, and not representative of the country as a whole. Obviously, I wish I could have stayed a few more weeks and explored Abéché, Sahr or even Faya-Largeau in the North. I also wish I could have gone to the producing region of Doba in order to observe oil extraction and channelling. It would help me see the uneven geographical and cultural balances of Chad as a complementarity rather than a fault line, as it is usually portrayed. Indeed, Chad is depicted as a country profoundly divided between North and South. This narrative is historically constructed and, as such, questionable. There is no “naturalness” of the North/South divisions. The proof is that it is a quite recent one.

To wrap it up, Chad leaves me with the bittersweet and contradictory taste of a place filled with individually fantastic people embroiled in a turbulent context, which oversteps all of us. If Chad’s future is riddled with uncertainties, I am convinced that more researchers should pay attention to it, since it may be geopolitically decisive for the larger Africa.

Ismaël Maazaz

(MSc African Studies and International Development)

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