P082 – (Re)Claiming Big-Man: Affirming and Contesting Big-Man Power in African Contexts
9 July, 16:00 – 17:30

Nyangulu Deborah / University of Muenster


Pioneer research on the big-man concept is traced to Melanesia with the publication of Sahlins’ 1963 essay firmly grounding big-man as a category to identify personalized leaders who gain legitimacy through well-calculated endeavours as opposed to being installed to office. In Africa, big-men have been observed by various researchers who either extrapolate Melanesian research to African societies or treat big-men as a given in Africa’s socio-political spaces. Despite the adoption of formal democratic institutions in Africa, there has been a recent surge of Africanist scholars elucidating big-man practices in spaces as varied as electoral zones (Smedt, 2009), the Pentecostal church (McCauley, 2012) and war conflict zones (Utas, 2012). References to big-men can also be traced in the media and in African literature. In light of the current ubiquity of the big-man concept, this panel seeks submissions which revisit existing research on the big man and/or case studies which analyze big-man manifestations in contemporary African settings. This panel is also interested in inter-disciplinary papers which engage how big-man is used and produces meaning in local contexts and/or cultural products. While early research concentrated on enumerating features of big-men for the sake of creating typologies; this panel places focus on big-man power, analyzing both ways in which it is affirmed and contested, including the effects of this power on the larger society.

(Ré) introduire le Big-Man : affirmation et contestation du pouvoir du Big-Man dans les contextes africains
La recherche pionnière sur le concept de big-man s’inscrit dans la veine de la publication de l’essai de Sahlins, en 1963, sur la Mélanésie. Il y élève le big-man en tant que catégorie pour identifier des leaders charismatiques qui gagnèrent en légitimité à travers des efforts savamment calculés plutôt que comme ayant été installés en poste. Dans le contexte africain, divers chercheurs ont noté la présence des Big-men, mais soit ils appliquent la recherche mélanésienne aux sociétés africaines par extrapolation ou ils tiennent les Big-men pour acquis dans les espaces socio-politiques africains. Malgré l’adoption d’institutions démocratiques formelles par la plupart des pays africains, on observe une augmentation de chercheurs africains en quête d’élucider les pratiques du Big-man, dans des endroits aussi variés que les zones électorales (Smedt, 2009), l’église pentecôtiste (McCauley, 2012) et les zones de conflits de guerre (Utas, 2012). Les références aux Big-men peuvent également se trouver dans les médias et dans le domaine de la littérature africaine. À la lumière de l’omniprésence actuelle de la notion de Big-man, ce panel présente des thèmes qui revisitent les recherches existantes sur le Big-man et/ou des études de cas qui analysent les manifestations du Big-man dans le paysage africain contemporain. Ce panel s’intéresse également aux documents interdisciplinaires qui expliquent comment le Big-man est utilisé et le sens qu’il donne aux contextes locaux et / ou produits culturels. Alors que les premières recherches se sont bornées à faire l’énumération des caractéristiques des Big-man au nom de la création de typologies; ce panel se concentre sur le pouvoir du Big-man, en faisant l’analyse de son affirmation et de sa mise en cause, y compris les effets de ce pouvoir sur la société dans son ensemble.

Paper 1

Brettle Alison / King’s College London

Reintegration and the Role of “Small” Big Men in Rwanda

This paper examines the role Big Men play in the reintegration of ex-combatants in Rwanda. It focuses on the reintegration trajectories of ex-combatants from the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) and explores how former mid-level commanders (ex-MiLCs) act as brokers between rank and file ex-combatants and the Rwandan state. Research on ‘bigmanity’ has tended to focus on areas where the state is ‘weak’; little has been written on how the Big Man concept manifests itself in an environment where the state is pervasive and ‘strong’. Based on surveys with over 50 ex-FDLR combatants, this paper attempts to shed light on this under-researched aspect of the Big Man.
It explores how ex-MiLCs negotiate the economic and social landscape of Rwanda by becoming ‘small’ Big Men. Firstly, it argues that ex-MiLCs utilise their conflict-based networks to negotiate new economic positions, particularly with regards to ex-combatant cooperatives where residual patronage structures endure and are employed to economic effect. Secondly, it posits that ex-MiLCs are important social intermediaries during the liminal process of demobilisation, providing ex-combatants with a link between their ‘combatant’ pasts and their ‘civilian’ futures. Finally, it argues that far from being de-stabilisers, ex-MiLCs provide a vital role in the reintegration of their former soldiers, a role that is affirmed by the state.

Paper 2

Pietilä Tuulikki / Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Helsinki

Big-manship in South African recording industry

Since the country’s democratic transition in 1994, the South African recording industry has undergone significant changes, among them an expansion in the independent label scene. Many of the independent labels are owned by whites and an increasing number by blacks as well. Even while the structure of the industry is changing, certain historical continuities can be found, in particular in the role of what can be called patrons or big men in certain nodes of the industry. This presentation investigates past and present manifestations and repercussions of big-manship in South African recording industry. Theoretically the presentation draws from and contributes to the literature on both patronage and big men (in Africa and Melanesia). The work is based on interviews and other research material collected by the author among the recording industry participants in South Africa over a number of years.

Paper 3

Nyangulu Deborah / University of Muenster

Mapping a Big-man Aesthetics in Contemporary African Fiction

The figure of the big-man is ubiquitous in contemporary African narrative fiction published from the early post-independence period to the present. This paper combines political theory and methods of literary criticism to highlight the often-complex and varied ways through which literary representations assert and subvert identities of big-men. This paper demonstrates that central to the portrayal of big-men in fiction is the narrative technique of characterization which is deployed to negotiate big-manship. Ultimately, the paper argues that approaching the concept of big-man through the lens of narrative fiction opens up new ways of rethinking big-manship as a social construct which is shaped and reshaped by particular socio-political conditions, class structures, gender formations and power relations that alter with the passage of time.

Paper 4

Hoffmann Leena / Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research, CEPS/INSTEAD

Big-Man Politics and Legitimacy Production in Africa

Through an examination of big man politics in Africa, this paper interrogates the frequently imprecise and contentious process of legitimacy production in the political sphere. In her 1998 study of big men in northern Ghana, Carola Lentz, demonstrated how the meaning of political legitimacy varies between social settings, cultures and time periods and is constantly being renegotiated and re-established. She argued that political legitimacy cannot be seen as merely the result of electoral outcomes or as a construct of formal politico-administrative structures. It is rather a complex process that involves a range of relations and resources as well as a multiplicity of actors who intervene by constituting a regulating or facilitating mechanism for political ambitions. Africa’s big men are important actors in this process and have attracted the analytical interest of contemporary African studies because of their central role in shaping political outcomes within otherwise democratic contexts. Utilising Lentz’s argument of convertibility and complementarity, this paper will discuss the different strategies of legitimating political power and influence in Nigeria and how big men adopt and combine a range of social, cultural and historical repertoires to convey specific political meanings and achieve political status.

Paper 5

Hess-Nielsen Ane Cecilie / Independent Researcher

Diversity, Unity and Renaissance: visual politics and the cult of Meles Zenawi

This paper explores personalised rule and elite self-representation in Ethiopia. In the authoritarian developmental state propaganda, political images and visual culture play a significant role in the construction of collective norms and in the production of ‘past, present and future’. My research was conducted in 2012, three months after the death of Ethiopia’s long-time Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. On major billboards throughout the country the late Prime Minister was hailed as Ethiopia’s ‘great and visionary leader’ and as the “Architect of the Renaissance” and during 2012 national days and festivals all commemorated his memory. In efforts of mobilization his leadership and large scale infrastructure projects were linked to narratives about ‘African Renaissance’ and ‘Africa Rising’. But what is the function of a leader cult and how does it work in a state where the production of counter narratives can be considered a criminal act against the ruling elite? My paper contributes to a better understanding of authoritarianism and big man power exploring how a leader cult has a strategic political function and how it works as a mechanism of control. In doing so, the presentation also relates to mobilisation techniques of previous regimes; the socialist Derg and Emperor Haile Selassie. This political analysis is a mix of propaganda, culture and history. It is a visual presentation that will focus on selected political posters, banners and billboards.

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