A comparative and social history of decolonisation in Africa

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The National Latsis Prize 2016 has been awarded to Alexander Keese for his research into ethnicity, forced labour and political transitions in west and central Africa.

The National Latsis Prize 2016 rewards German historian Alexander Keese, one of the leading experts on decolonisation in Africa and SNSF Professor in the Department of History at the University of Geneva. The prize is conferred annually by the SNSF on behalf of the International Latsis Foundation.

Highly original and eschewing a euro-centric perspective, Alexander Keese’s research focuses mainly on the comparative history of the decolonisation in West and Central Africa, forced labour and ethnic mobilisation in conflicts. "What interests me are the social situations of people in these regions," he explains. His work, which has already had a significant impact, aims to challenge established ideas.

A lack of integration in the colonies

In his doctoral thesis - for which he won the 2006 Martin Behaim Prize awarded by the Gesellschaft für Überseegeschichte - Keese examined the integration of African elites into the decolonisation process in French and Portuguese colonies.

"I was able to show that although Africans hardly ever held positions of authority in the colonial administration, they were integrated in an informal manner, typically as advisors," he says. "My work shows that their growing influence led to demands for autonomy, which eventually resulted in decolonisation."

Alexander Keese then turned his attention to ethnicity, a concept that was used by colonisers to "organise the exploitation of conquered territories" and "give sense" to these spaces. "Even today, it is very common to think of Africa in terms of ethnicities or tribes, above all during conflicts, and especially in the media," he says.

The historian undertook a comparative study of three regions of West Africa: Senegal, Sierra Leone and the Ghana-Togo border. "In reality, the importance of ethnic affiliation varies. In Senegal, for example, the Wolofs are the dominant ethnic group, but during the colonial period, nobody emphasised their Wolof identity. Simply put, you could say that the more stable the situation, the less this factor comes into play."

Forced labour and distrust

Alexander Keese has also highlighted a return to the use of forced labour by colonisers between the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, a period generally perceived as one of free labour following the abolition of slavery. Keese conducted in-depth research in little-studied Portuguese-speaking countries, including Angola, Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe.

"The abolition of slavery was one of the arguments advanced by Europeans for intervening in Africa, only for Europeans to force the local population to work on colonial projects. Often, this work was extremely hard and led to mass escapes. Forced labour increased again during the Second World War as part of the war effort," says Keese.

The repercussions are still being felt today. "In several post-colonial states, we know of labour services that closely resemble past practices. What’s more, as a direct result of past experiences of forced labour, particularly under colonial rule, there is complete mistrust of development and infrastructure projects in a number of former colonies." This issue of continuities has been little explored hitherto. "We know that these practices existed, but little research has been conducted into them."

Alexander Keese

Born in Hannover, Germany, on 17 August 1977, Alexander Keese has been SNSF Professor at the University of Geneva since 2015. Previously, he was research group director (with an ERC Starting Grant) of ForcedLabourAfrica, initially at the Centro de Estudos Africanos da Universidade do Porto in Portugal (2010-2011), then at the Humboldt University in Berlin (2011-2015). He received his PhD from the University of Freiburg, Germany, in 2004, and obtained his habilitation in 2010 at the University of Berne, Switzerland. He has received numerous prizes, scholarships and grants.

Keese is a seasoned traveller, speaks six languages (including Wolof) and loves literature. He is married to a Spaniard and fellow historian.

Latsis Prize

Since 1983, the National Latsis Prize has been conferred annually by the SNSF on behalf of the International Latsis Foundation, a non-profit organisation founded in 1975 and based in Geneva. It is awarded for outstanding scientific work by a Switzerland-based researcher under 40.

With CHF 100,000 in prize money, the National Latsis Prize is one of Switzerland’s most prestigious scientific awards. There are also four University Latsis Prizes, each worth CHF 25,000, awarded by the universities of Geneva and St. Gallen, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) and Lausanne (EPFL).

The award ceremony for the 33rd National Latsis Prize will be held at Berne Town Hall on 12 January 2017. Journalists can register by sending an email to: com [at] snf (p) ch.

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