New dictionary provides nuanced insights into the language of African politics

Every country has its own political language. These terms and phrases that have developed over time give distinctive meanings that may not be fully understood by outsiders. Unless we learn them, we may miss critical information about how politics really works.

Our new dictionary of African politics reveals the witty and insightful political terminology that people in different African countries use to speak truth to power and discuss everyday developments. It shows the importance of language for understanding politics and the varied experience of different nations.

The dictionary serves three key purposes. First, it provides clear and concise overviews of hundreds of key personalities, events and institutions from the colonial period to the present day. These range from Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to former South African leader Jacob Zuma, through the late Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Laureate Wangari Mathaai, and Aja Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajang, a leading gender activist and the vice president of Gambia.

Second, it explains a rich set of theoretical terms that emerged out of the research on Africa over the last 70 years. These include neo-patrimonialism and extraversion, which have become important for global debates about power and the way it’s exercised.

Third – and much more significantly – it allows for a better understanding of the contributions that the continent has made to the practice and understanding of everyday politics. It also makes it possible to share the perceptive and shrewd ways that people speak truth to power in various countries: this is the real reason that the world needs a new dictionary of African politics.


To access this wealth of “kona” knowledge (street corner wisdom in Kiswahili), we crowd sourced suggestions for the most relevant and insightful terms using social media. The hundreds of responses we received mean that the dictionary is packed full of fascinating terms from across the continent. These come from a variety of languages including Kiswahili, Chibemba, Kikuyu, Wolof, isiZulu and isiXhosa. There are also Africanised versions of English, French and Portuguese words.

An illustrative example is the wealth of English vocabulary that has emerged from the interaction between local political norms and democratic institutions. This includes the Kenyan model of “negotiated democracy” – the sharing of political positions between different communities in advance of an election to avoid conflict.

Another is the Nigerian practice of “zoning”, which was set up to try and ensure that the presidency of Africa’s most populous country alternates between northerners and southerners. That way, no community is permanently excluded from power.

Clothing-related expressions have also emerged in countries like Kenya and Ghana to show voting behaviours. “Three-piece suit voting” refers to supporting the same party for all elected positions. On the contrary, “skirt-and-blouse voting” means to vote for different parties for presidential and legislative elections.

A series of evocative expressions describe a politician’s move from one party to another – usually from the opposition to the governing party following an inducement. Terms such as floor-crossing or cross-carpeting are inspired by the parliament’s settings, or nomadic traditions – examples are transhumance and “nomadisme politique”.

Read more on The Conversation

Media narratives about Fulani-terrorists

From Monday to Wednesday (7-10 January 2019)* a region referred to as the forest of Serma situated in South of Boni (Douentza) in Central Mali was the stage of a military action of the French part of the military forces in Mali, Barkhane. Amadou, who is an inhabitant of Serma, and reporting to one of us, states that there were around 50 vehicles with air support around his village/camp during these days. There were shootings from the planes and people were arrested in Fulani camps. For as far as Amadou understood this happened randomly. We still need to hear the number of victims of this assault. The French attacked an imagined Katiba Serma, who according to them were implicated in attacks in Burkina Faso. They arrested and killed around 20so called ‘jihadists’.

Katiba Serma: an invention?
Katiba Serma is not an existing entity. We read first about it in an article of RFI on 9 January 2019. The RFI journalist questions who are they? In the article she also makes the remark that there are no leaders of Katiba Serma, and that it is a mystical organization. The sources for this article are not made explicit, simply des sources sur place. The only ‘real’ source, Aurélien Tobie is presented in a short audio file (57 sécondes), where it is clear that the cuts are made in a way that we do not hear his whole story and that he is misinterpreted.**

This is bad and dangerous journalism. Aurélien worked in Mali during the first years of the conflict in Mali. He and us were in regular contact and discussed what was happening in Central Mali. We were aware of the overflow of the Touareg ‘problem’ to the centre of Mali. We described what happened in our blogs and discussed at Embassies, MINUSMA and European Union. What happened? And why do we not believe that Katiba Serma existed already in 2012, and neither after, as is told in the RFI article of 9 January?

Why do we feel the urge to denounce this type of journalism? It leads to the attacks on innocent people who have been asking to be heard over the past few years, but who have been ignored. Instead of being heard they have been stigmatized as jihadists and terrorists and have become real victims in an asymmetric conflict.

The danger to create
We should not make a same mistake as was being made when the existence of the organization of the Front de Libération du Maasina was declared. We dare to say that this organization never existed, but is a creation arising out of the interaction between international actors, jihadist actors in the North of Mali and finally dispersed groups of young rebels with weapons in the bush. They, finally, have become included in a network where the preaching of the so-called leader of MLF, Hamadou Koufa, circulated. The preaching became jihadist and increasingly contained a message of ‘Fulani-united’, a development that went parallel with the association of Koufa with the jihadist organizations in Northern Mali who were instrumentalizing these armed groups. Hamadou Koufa was killed by French forces on 26 November 2018. His death is contested.

fulani men and foto

Young Fulani men in Serma 2009 @ Mirjam

Yimbe ladde
In Serma a similar scenario is now taking place. Fulbe youth are gathered in cells in the bush (yimbe ladde), they bought weapons, motorbikes, and are determined to defend their people and their region. These Markaz are in different parts of the region: i.e. around Dialloube, Boulikessi, and indeed Serma. They may or may not sympathize with the ideas of Hamadou Kouffa. They are especially there because the absence of the state has created a situation of deep insecurity. Hence the population is organizing itself to secure the region. This is now also the case in the region Seeno-Bankass where the Fulani are organizing in self-defense groups to be able to counter attacks of the Dana Ambassagou (the hunters who are dedicated to God), which is also a self-defense group but now of multiple sedentary ethnic groups and have become associated with the Dogon. These Dogon militias have become a factor of insecurity for the Fulani and are, as some say, supported by the Malian government and army.

These Fulani groups ‘Yimbe Ladde’ or Markaz, are not organized in an umbrella organization. They have no central leaders. However they seem to share the conviction that they need to do something about the difficult situation in which they and their families find themselves. Moreover, it cannot be denied that their actions can be interpreted as criminal and anti-state.

Read more on Counter Voices in Africa

Author’s note: This blog is a reaction on the publication in RFI online news about the presumed existence of Katiba Serma. In this article we denounce journalism that is not based on facts, because it can have devastating effects on the ground in highly polarised situations.
Mirjam de Bruijn, Boukary Sangare, Han van Dijk