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Jean Godefroy Bidima, Law and the Public Sphere in Africa: La Palabre and other writings.

JEAN GODEFROY BIDIMA, Law and the Public Sphere in Africa: La Palabre and other writings. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press (hb $40-978 0 253 01124 4). 2013, xl + 198 pp.

Almost half of this book--which is edited by Laura Hengehold of Case Western Reserve University, who also adds a helpful introduction--is comprised of the title paper, which was originally published in French as La Palabre: une juridiction de la parole (Paris: Michalon, 1997). In this paper, the full title of which in this translation by Hengehold is 'La Palabre: the legal authority of speech', Bidima, who holds a chair at Tulane University, New Orleans, considers the African process of conflict reduction through palabre, a form of public discussion mediated by one or more third parties. Emphasis is placed on the power of words, the term palabre being derived from the Spanish palabra and the Portuguese palavra, or 'word'. While palabre can refer to many types of speech, this work is concerned with agonistic palabre, aimed at conflict resolution, rather than irenic palabre, used on occasions such as marriage when there is no dispute or conflict. As Bidima states, palabre is 'not just an exchange of words, but also a social drama, a procedure, and a series of human interactions'.

As palabre brings justice closer to disputing individuals and groups, it exists in powerful contrast to the prosecution or civil lawsuit. These end with an authoritative decision, in accordance with pre-established rules, for victory, punishment, compensation, or dismissal of the case. La palabre aims not to 'discipline and punish' but to 'discuss and redeem', to restore peace rather than to select a winner, so punishment is unlikely and compensation may be symbolic. In the field of political conflict, palabre may produce results very different from those of postcolonial democracy. Palabre encourages an active form of tolerance, in which each individual experiences a 'little death' of selfhood, and in which social institutions agree to a 'loss of sovereignty'. The possibility exists that either party will accept that they have been in error and change their opinion, whereas the 'passive tolerance' of the West means that each party merely 'leaves alone' the other, prejudices intact.

Bidima's argument is scathing when considering the extent to which African colonial and postcolonial elites have adopted Western legal and religious ways of dealing with conflict. He criticizes postcolonial programmes that have been held up by some as solutions to Africa's social and political problems. The 'reduction of politics to the state,' he argues, 'stifles current African political thought since it prevents us from thinking about the problem of collective life.' But, equally, we cannot rely on religion or ethnicity, traditional powers, practices introduced through colonization, the ideals of one-party systems, nor the ideals followed in the constituent assemblies that introduced multi-party democracy. The same holds true for pan-Africanism, ujamaa, negritude and what Bidima refers to as the 'inculturation' of religious doctrines. While palabre cannot solve all the problems that these theories have mistakenly claimed to solve, it can contribute significantly to this process.

This is a rich argument, wide-ranging in its scope, and with many nuances and implications. It challenges modern notions of law and government, principally in Africa but also everywhere else. Inevitably the paper raises the question, which it does not consider in detail, of how to devise a programme of action that introduces palabre in individual and political disputes to diverse African societies. The examples and discussion give the impression that the French-speaking African countries have moved even further from palabre than the anglophone countries. But, for example, although the anglophone judicial systems recognize customary laws, it seems to be impossible for them to adopt the pn/aflre-imbricated practices that continue, to limited degrees, outside the purview of the courts. It appears equally impossible to envisage political debate switching to palabre procedures, given current and possible future distributions of power and wealth. More fundamentally, it is difficult to envisage a system of palabre that avoids all adherence to a normative order. It may be valuable to hold up the ideal of an agonistic palabre, but it appears unlikely that African societies and polities might be able to make extensive use of a process in which every possible belief or assumption about the ordering of society and proper individual conduct is open to rejection. Dispute and conflict cannot be discussed between parties without some shared principles.

Of the five other essays, one is entitled 'Strategies for "constructing belief' in the African public sphere: "the colonization of the lifeworld'". This is a translation by Hengehold of a section of Bidima's Theorie Critique et Modernite Negro-Africaine: de I'ecole de Franckfort a la 'Docta Spes Africana' (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1993). The remaining four papers have all been published in English translation subsequent to the title essay, three in the journal Diogenes and one in a publication from UNESCO (The Book: a world transformed, edited by Eduardo Portella, 2001). All refer to much relevant literature, and add new and different insights to the title paper, although without any explicit reference to palabre and with just one reference to the title paper. It would have been helpful if this volume had indicated the dates and places of first publication of these five papers.

These essays cast an invigorating light on law, politics, public language and social practice in modern Africa, raising searching questions not only about the heritage of colonialism but about the various postcolonial policies and theories that have aimed to overcome the problems of that heritage.


University of Birmingham, UK

doi: 10.1017/S0001972015000145
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Author:Woodman, Gordon R.
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2015
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