Statehood and pan-Africanism

Looking at the idea of the state through Western eyes, we have a clear idea of what it should be, even if we find it difficult to pin down in words.  Theories of statehood, from Weber onwards, tend to take their definitions from a Western starting point. Criticisms of African states tend to accuse them of weakness if they don’t meet these ideals.  However, Weber sets a standard that few states conform to all of the time, and a more flexible definition, like Brownlie’s, focusing on a stable territory and a functioning government, is vague and flexible enough to fit reality more comfortably.

Jackson and Rosberg’s emphasis on external recognition from other states is interesting in light of pan-African movements and organisations.  Does membership of the African Union confer legitimacy on weak states?  This is interesting in the face of general arguments attempting to explain the apparent lack of success of any pan-African enterprise by focusing on the lack of enthusiasm to cede sovereignty in the wake of long independence struggles.  This suggests the idea and commitment to statehood is alive and well and that the level of integration conferred by regional and continental bodies may well be at just the right level, balancing all interests.

The profusion of regional bodies as well as the AU suggests that actually the idea of the state is stronger than expected.  The fact that for example SADC was founded within a year of the AU, and then in 1999 Angola, the DRC, Namibia and Tanzania signed a separate defence treaty within that makes me wonder if these organisations are not being used to counter-balance each other and in totality achieve the initial goal – peace and security on the continent for individual states.  It is a way of pooling risk without diluting sovereignty.

In the same vein, a state can appear weak if its institutions do not function to Western eyes, if there is widespread evasion of taxation, if bribery and corruption is rife, if rule by decree is the norm, but if the overall effect of this is to keep rival power-centres under control, that may be enough.  Ultimately a state has to benefit society, from peasants to elites.  Various groups may evade engagement at times, but if it works …


Jackson, Robert H., & Rosberg, Carl G. (1982). Why Africa’s Weak States Persist: The  Empirical and the Juridical in Statehood. World Politics, 35(1), 1-24.

Nathan, Laurie. “Synopsis of Community of insecurity: SADC’s struggle for peace and security in southern Africa.” African Security Review 22:3 (2013): 181-189.

Welz, Martin (2012), Integrating Africa: Decolonization’s Legacies, Sovereignty and the African Union. London and New York: Routledge, Introduction.

Weiss, T. and M. Welz, “The UN and the African Union in Mali and beyond: a shotgun wedding?”, International Affairs, 90, 2014, 889–905.

Colonialism in Africa

How did the colonial experience differ in different countries in Africa? To what extent does colonialism still exercise an enduring effect?

Colonialism in Africa was mainly structured through three systems: white settler-run states, indirect rule and direct rule. Even within these categories the experience differed, as Crowder has emphasised in his discussion of the differences between French and British indirect rule. Each of these systems has had a lasting effect on the societies that were colonised. For example the confiscation of land to farm by white settlers still creates dilemmas for modern day Zimbabwe. Favouring one ethnic group to rule indirectly, such as in Uganda or Rwanda, creates a division in society that cannot be easily reversed and that is going to make peaceful governance more difficult. In many cases the unfavoured class during colonial rule still suffers to this day; in some cases it appears to the sceptic that liberation fighters were actually fighting not against colonialism, not to change the system, but to seize control of it to exploit for their own benefit.

I thought Mazrui’s discussion of Africa’s apparent receptivity to foreign culture and religion was interesting, especially when considered in light of Amilcar Cabral’s argument for the importance of indigenous culture for liberation struggles. Attempts to replace local culture and with foreign language and religion seem a pretty enduring legacy of colonialism. However, Mazrui’s point that France now needs francophone Africa to justify its place as a global power, is thought-provoking. France clearly still benefits economically from its colonies but could French Africa gain the advantage from the colonial experience in the future?

Lastly, discussion around the nature of China’s role in Africa touches on Mazrui’s concerns over the potential for recolonisation. An article in the Financial Times this week stated that the greatest amount of foreign investment in Africa comes from the West – China ranked seventh in the list for greenfield capital expenditure in 2014. France was the highest foreign direct investor, followed by Greece, the US, China and Belgium. Is the criticism focused on China therefore a little neo-colonial in itself, serving to protect these countries’ investments and influence against uspurption by another power?


Ali Mazrui, Africa and other civilisations: conquest and counter conquest, in J. Harbeson, D. Rothschild, Africa in World Politics, Boulder: Westview Press, 110-35

M. Crowder, 1964, Indirect Rule: French and British-style, Africa, 34: 197-205

A. Cabral, 1970, History is a weapon: national liberation and culture

Courtney Fingar, West leads direct investment into Africa, Financial Times, 6 October 2015

Can we generalise about African politics?

How can we study African politics? Are there any unifying themes or is the continent just too diverse? Several writers, such as Owomoyela, have argued that it is possible to make generalising statements about African politics, cultures, “relational habits”, etc, without implying a “monothlithic uniformity”. I’m not convinced there are any statements that can truely be appIied to the entire continent to distinguish it from, say, European politics.

It is possible to consider the continent as a whole, but one must take care to remain open to different perspectives, whilst allowing the evidence to dictate the theory. Using theory as a prop could lead to the imposition or projection of an idea of Africa that does not exist. We don’t want to fall into a varient of Edward Said’s Orientalism, “a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient”. This for me is the result of studying Africa from a modernisation or development perspective for example. Modernisation here means Westernising, and assumes a rightful progression to being like “us”, as Western proponents would see it.

Similarly, a school of thought such as Pan-Africanism obviously aims to unite the people of the continent and identified a common bond amongst Africans. I can’t help wondering though whether the overwhelming and all-encompassing experience of colonialism was here creating an illusion of unity when actually this one factor was just so massive that other differences were overlooked temporarily.

Viewing the subject through broad schools of thought may help (or hinder) study and should be used with caution. Looking at things from a realist/liberal/constructivist perspective can help to organise thoughts, organise subject matter into themes and begin to formulate questions and theories to lead to new knowledge. However, using a starting point such as realism for example, can lead to selective seeing – we just ignore what we don’t want to acknowledge because it doesn’t fit. This feels like it could lead back to Said’s Orientalism or the blind hope of pan-Africanism.

A good methodology could be to take single case studies, analyse them in terms of the structure-agency debate, and extrapolate from there. Durkheim’s “social facts” that constrain individuals will always play a role in politics and should be borne in mind alongside Weber’s emphasis on individual agency. A lot of political events can appear unpredictable or unexplainable and the combination of structure/agency examined with the unique impact of timing can be a good starting point to begin understanding one situation and from there perhaps finding a more general understanding of politics, in Africa or elsewhere. The question should always be why has this happened here and not elsewhere and now and not before?

Even trying to find a common thread in different situations like this has dangers though – needing to organise polities into groups could lead to tidying-up exercises, as argued by Allen. Perhaps we should just acknowledge the inherent diversity of politics in Africa and stop trying to fit geography to political theory.


Chris Allen, 1995, Understanding African Politics, Review of African Political Economy, 22(65): 301-320

Naomi Chazan et al., 1999, Politics and Society in Contemporary Africa, chapter 1, The Diversity of African Politics: Trends and Approaches, Lynne Reinner Publishers

Phil Clark, Bringing the Peasants Back In, Again: State Power and Local Agency in Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 8,2, 2014 pp.191-213

Phil Clark, Lecture 30 September 2015 at SOAS, Theorising Politics, Diversity and Disorder in Africa

Oyekan Owomoyela, 1994, With Friends Like These … A Critique of Pervasive Anti-Africanisms in Current African Studies Epistemology and Methodology, African Studies Review, 37(3): 77-101