Form-filling, letters and the state


How do you theorise the state? This question has been asked of all Politics and International Relations scholars at some point in their lives. If this hasn’t been asked of you then you were never taught by Stuart Shields, dodged political economy/African Politics/theories of the state 101, or need to start thinking about this, if only to dodge the question and get on to what you really want to say in your presentation/book/article or look smart in facebook discussions around an election (although I am inclined to stop doing that, apart from Osborne memes, elections and social media never end well). If you work on African politics and Africa and International Relations most questions or investigations often lead you back to the question of the African state, sovereignty, and statehood.

Whether you’re into Mamdani’s bifurcated power, Bayart’s extraversion, Harrison’s governance states, Mbembe’s banality of power, Cooper’s gatekeepers, Clapham’s letterbox diplomacy, Jackson’s positive and negative sovereignty, or Young’s neopatrimonalism it would seem you cannot even begin to think about politics and Africa or Africa’s international relations without engaging with these questions. It is prevalent in how articles on Africa are reviewed, how popular (mis)perceptions of Africa prevail, and also how Africa and IR is taught. Having taught Africa and IR to a great bunch of undergraduates for the last two years, engaging with these debates in my work on HIV/AIDS (if you’re asking Stuart, I’m a fan of Harrison’s governance states. This has nothing to do with the fact his Mum lives next to mine – small world!), and reviewed several articles in this area I think I’m pretty up to speed with debates on the African state.

However, being able to understand, explain and debate the post-colonial African state does not make me better prepared for navigating Tanzanian (and Sierra Leonean, Zambian, Kenyan and Ugandan for that matter) state practice. I write this blog after my fifth visit to the Tanzanian High Commission in London. The details of these five trips are boring (I don’t think so, but looking into the eyes of people I have explained this to I can see this is so) but the upshot is after two forms, two introductory letters, £100 cash, and a smile I now have a stamped form for the Ministry of Information, Culture and Sport from upstairs in the embassy, and a stamped business visa in my passport from downstairs in the embassy. As long as no-one in Tanzania customs reads this blog and takes offence, this means I am good to go for my trip in 10 days.

This is, of course, not the end of the forms. I have forwarded the forms on to the Tanzanian Film Board, who have very helpfully got back to me immediately confirming receipt. I already like the film board and am hopeful that the process of attaining a film permit will be straightforward. I am going to spend this afternoon prepping several letters of introduction in case I do not have the correct letter (this descended into a farce on two research trips to Zambia in 2012 and 2013 when letters of introduction were used as a diversionary tactic to the point I thought I would have to get a letter from a unicorn to talk to people in the health ministry) and make sure I have complete copies of every form imaginable. I understand the Tanzanian state and I am good at administration; I am only under-prepared when I fail to acknowledge the workings of African statehood and go to Tanzanian expecting people to bend to my will. The Tanzanian state has had plenty of people Brits do that before: I don’t think they need another one.


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