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


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