Theses Doctoral

The "Particular Situation" in the Futa Jallon: Ethnicity, Region, and Nation in Twentieth-Century Guinea

Straussberger, John Fredrick

The dissertation begins with a seeming paradox in twentieth-century Guinean history: how did ethnic Fulbe, constituting some 40% of Guinea’s population, come to be labeled “neo-colonial traitors” in a country that was supposedly founded upon a broad-based, multi-ethnic nationalism? Less than two decades after Guineans’ 1958 rejection of membership in a reformed French community, Guinea’s first president, Sékou Touré, argued that there existed a “particular situation” in the Futa Jallon, the historic homeland of the Fulbe, that had caused the Fulbe to diverge from the rest of the country. Using Touré’s speech announcing the “particular situation” as a point of entry, the dissertation argues that the legacy of hierarchies rooted in the pre-colonial Islamic Futa Jallon state, contestation between African political parties during decolonization, and the partial failure of the post-colonial state’s attempt to create a “modern” Guinean society combined to produce a Fulbe fragment of the Guinean nation.
The dissertation’s first two chapters examine how the presentation and practice of chiefly authority in the Futa Jallon following the imposition of French rule resulted from the entanglement of local and colonial discourses, and how the opening of colonial spaces – markets, cities, and cash crop fields, for example – allowed room for marginalized groups such as former slaves and women to renegotiate Fulbe social hierarchies. The dissertation then examines how the practical work of building political coalitions as well as ideological debates about the meaning of modernity during decolonization led to the marginalization of Fulbe elites and the conceptual “othering” of the Fulbe. The dissertation then shifts to Fulbe (self-)positioning within an emerging post-colonial order. One chapter argues that political, economic, and social reforms enacted by the Touré-led government marked the Fulbe as resistant to attempts at modernization, leading to the elimination of Fulbe elites and the designation of the Fulbe as “anti-citizens.” Another follows the pathways of Fulbe exiles, migrants, and merchants took after independence, arguing that the Fulbe diaspora created by repression shaped ideas about citizenship, political community, and belonging in post-colonial Guinea. The histories examined by the dissertation demonstrate that the current welding of political community and ethnicity is the result of Guinea’s status as a post-slavery, post-colonial, and post-socialist society, rather than the deterministic result of “natural” regional differences or the structure of the colonial state.
The dissertation is based upon two years of research in Guinea, Senegal, and France. Using previously neglected oral and archival sources in French and Pular, it makes several significant interventions in Africanist historiography. Countering temporal and conceptual frameworks based solely upon colonial intervention, I argue that ideas about ethnicity were formed and reformed throughout the twentieth century and that ethnic identities were shaped as much by local ideas as they were by the colonial state. I also argue that, contradicting portrayals of post-colonial balkanization, debates about the nation and citizenship after independence took place in both local and trans-national contexts. Lastly, while previous studies have often cast ethnicity and nationalism in Africa as inherently different forms of political thought, I argue that both arise from similar processes. The failure of the post-colonial African nation-state is often attributed to the supposed immutability of ethnic identity. The political history of Guinea, on the other hand, demonstrates that African politicians and parties used ethnicities as an “other” in opposition to which they articulated their own visions of the nation. Thus, Fulbe identification and Guinean nationalism were in fact mutually formed and their histories closely intertwined over the course of the twentieth century.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Mann, Gregory
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 7, 2015