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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 .

The Politics of Memory: Truth, Healing and Social Justice
Ifi Amadiume and Abdullahi An-Na’im (eds.)

London and New York: Zed Books, 2000
210pp. Index. Pb.: ?15.95; ISBN 1-85649-843-3.

This is a strange patchwork of a book. The focus is on Biafra, Nigeria, but with snapshots of later conflicts in Africa and elsewhere; the title headlines the 'politics of memory' which becomes a catch-all for the keywords of conflict's aftermath; and the authors stress the need for Africa to solve its own problems and assert its presence in the global arena but provide few case studies to light the way.

The doomed Igbo-led secession of Nigeria's Eastern region, as Biafra, in June 1967, and the subsequent war, are seen as a metaphor for subsequent African conflicts, many of which have also been understood through an ethnic prism. The Biafra essays, largely contesting its image as a model of reconciliation, address intellectual responsibility (Amadiume), war literature (Ezeigbo), Igbo marginalisation in Nigeria (Ikpeze), and the social history of Biafra (Harneit-Sievers and Emezue).

I have two man criticisms of this book. Firstly, it fails to define the politics of memory. As a result it becomes a catch-phrase encompassing truth, healing, reconciliation, reconstruction, social justice, and more. Yet there are tantalising glimpses of a framework for the term: the concern raised by Wole Soyinka about memory's reach - in Africa, is it imperative that understandings of contemporary conflict and injustice draw on the memory of colonialism and even slavery?; the attachment of memories of narrow causes to broader alliances and concerns (51-2); the mobilisation and manipulation of memory to serve the needs of the present (123-4,192-5); and the nature of official, institutionalised memory, strictly circumscribed by politics and power (Mamdani).

Secondly, while there are many general references to the importance of the local - to "local concepts of justice" (5), to the need for societies to come up with their "own ethics of truth-telling as a way of prevention" (16), to different understandings of conflict and conflict resolution, the latter including "rituals" and "social mediators, healers and reclassifiers" (15,52), and to African institutional and political arrangements (199-200) - there are few specific examples. This is a notable omission given the argument of essays in the book that War Crime Tribunals are most likely to address the interests of the international community and least likely to satisfy survivors (Mertus) and that legal mechanisms are also problematic for rape survivors, specifically in the context of Rwanda (Nowrojee and Ralph). Furthermore, Mamdani claims convincingly that institutions such as truth commissions re-make conflicts in a single image (of individual victims and perpetrators, of civil and political rights violations?). The need to adapt and complement legal and global mechanisms is, therefore, established but little is provided by way of concrete studies or suggestions of the way forward.

While there is much of interest here, the overall impression, therefore, is of a whole that is less than the sum of its parts, of an interesting project that failed to fulfil its potential.

Paul Gready; Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University

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