Does precolonial political centralization matter in Africa?

7-KumasiKumasi in the late 19th century, from Encyclopaedia Britannica

For a long time, Northern scholars of Africa used to write about the continent as though the colonial period was the beginning of history.  Jean-François Bayart famously argued against this, but even after his book appeared well-known authors like Mahmood Mamdani and Crawford Young made the case that colonization changed everything in Africa.

More recently, however, Northern researchers have started to take precolonial politics seriously again.  I was thinking about this recently when Tanu Kumar sent me a link to this working paper by Mark Dincecco, James Fenske, and Massimiliano Gaetano Onorato.  They argue that precolonial warfare in Africa led to greater levels of political centralization, but is also associated with higher rates of civil war today.  Since civil war is generally bad for state capacity and development outcomes, this suggests that more centralized states in the precolonial era should be less developed today.

How does this argument hold up?  Jacob Hariri suggests that stronger precolonial states outside Europe tended to resist the spread of European institutions which could promote democracy and economic growth, leading to lower income levels and higher rates of autocracy today.  However, a number of other authors find that precolonial centralization in Africa is actually good for development.  Nicola Gennaioli & Ilia Rainer and Stelios Michalopoulous & Elias Papaioannou all find higher rates of local public goods provision in places that had strong precolonial states.  The mechanism here is presumably that strong states are able to solve coordination problems and engage in more economic activity.  Philip Osafo-Kwaako & James Robinson also find that stronger precolonial states lead to better development outcomes today, although they argue that centralization wasn’t driven by warfare like Dincecco, Fenske and Onorato suggest.

It’s a really interesting literature, and I think it would be even stronger with more of a focus on mechanisms, and more explanatory case studies.  If you look at subnational examples within Ghana and Uganda, you do tend to see stronger economic growth in the southern parts of those countries where precolonial polities were strongest (the Asante and Buganda kingdoms, respectively).  But does this mean that the kingdoms were solving coordination problems somehow, or that centralized states simply arose where the economic prospects were better in the first place?  Similarly, the link between precolonial centralization and contemporary civil war isn’t very intuitive to me.  Civil war is badly overdetermined in Africa, in that most countries fit the criteria (poverty and weak institutions) that are thought to increase civil war risk.  Academics still don’t seem to have a good model of why war happens when and where it does, rather than looking at aggregate risk factors, and I think until we understand more about the specificity of civil war it’s hard to know how to add precolonial centralization into the equation.

Book recommendations: war and the state in Africa

I’m in the midst of preparing for my first comprehensive exam in African studies, which has been a wonderful opportunity to delve into all the unread Africana on my bookshelves.  Three books in particular have stood out to me as uniquely insightful.

  • Warfare in African History, by Richard Reid.  A concise (180 pages) and engrossing look at changes in the technology of warfare and patterns of African state formation from roughly 500 CE onwards.  Read it along with Jeffrey Herbst’s States and Power in Africa.  Herbst makes a series of good points about the way that exerting authority over clearly bounded territories was not generally the focus of precolonial African states, but Reid’s work is a valuable reminder that centralized polities with complex military organizations also arose when social and environmental conditions permitted.  Another good book in the same Cambridge series on “new approaches to African history” is Will Reno’s Warfare in Independent Africa.
  • Political Topographies of the African State, by Cathy Boone.  This has been out for more than a decade, and I have no idea why I haven’t seen it recommended more often, because it’s a fascinating piece of theorizing on the relationship between states and rural elites in west Africa.  I read this in the context of the debate about the nature of the colonial state, which (in a stylized way) ranges from Jean-François Bayart’s depiction of a state that was undermined and instrumentalized by traditional leaders, to Mahmood Mamdani’s description of states that captured and manipulated rural power brokers to their own ends.  Boone’s work cuts through this argument by pointing out that the nature of colonial states’ interactions with traditional leaders depended on the strength of those leaders as well as the overall governance strategies pursued by the state.  Even within a single country, colonial and post-colonial officials often dealt with rural elites in different ways.  Some were empowered by the state and granted substantial revenue streams from it, while others (particularly those with independent sources of funding) were undermined, and others were ignored entirely.  Boone’s major contribution is not just pointing out this variation, but establishing a compelling theoretical framework to explain why such variation is observed.  Between this book and Property and Political Order in Africa (which I wrote about here), she’s one of the most innovative American researchers in African politics today.
  • Violence and Social Orders, by Douglass North, John Wallis and Barry Weingast.  Also not a new recommendation, having come out in 2009, but I’ve read a number of books about statebuilding and was particularly impressed by this one.  I am often not convinced by simplification in the name of theory, but in this particular case the sweeping set of generalizations they make in dividing contemporary polities into “natural states” and “open access orders” really rang true for me.  It’s an analytical framework that seems to capture the fundamental growth challenges faced by states as otherwise disparate as medieval France, the Congo in 1965, and contemporary Cambodia (just to pick a few cases I’ve been mulling over recently).  It’s also refreshingly positive rather than normative, pointing out the sheer unlikelihood of establishing secure and equitable systems of property rights rather than faulting countries that haven’t been able to do so.  Probably my new recommendation when someone asks me why some countries are rich and others poor.

For what it’s worth, all three of these books were published by Cambridge.  I’ll be keeping a closer eye on their publication catalogue from now on.

Highlights from APSA

I had a fantastic time at APSA last week.  Early-stage PhD students, it’s definitely worth attending even if you’re not presenting.  Here are some of the papers that really stood out to me:

The international roots of civil war

Dropping briefly by to point to a few recent articles which offer up variations on this theme.  At Dart-Throwing Chimp, the essential Jay Ufelder has a very good post reviewing the academic literature on international involvement in civil wars in light of recent events in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere.  Key points:

Strong foreign hands are a common and often decisive feature of the fights we call civil wars.  In Syria, for example, numerous foreign governments and other external agents are funding, training, equipping, and arming various factions in the armed conflict that’s raged for nearly three years now. … In the Central African Republic, it’s Chad that’s played “an ambiguous and powerful role” in the conflict that has precipitated state collapse and ethnic cleansing there.

Ludicovic Lado’s post on arms trafficking in sub-Saharan Africa at Africa Up Close has an interesting example of how foreign involvement can also be (to some degree) unintentional:

The proliferation of arms in Africa has been a longstanding threat to the security and the stability of states and the situation has worsened since the fall of Kaddafi, former Libyan president, prompting an ongoing heated debate in African circles as to whether this widely supported move by western powers was strategically beneficial for Africa. … Most analysts agreed today that the dismantling of Kaddafi regime has benefited a good number of militia in the Sahel region, thereby boosting both arms trafficking and the rebellion business.

Stephen Weissman’s Foreign Affairs article on the true extent of the CIA’s involvement in Congolese politics over the first decade of independence is also worth a read.  He draws on a number of recently-declassified documents to reevaluate the CIA’s role in propping up Mobutu, concluding:

We now know that even though the threat of communism in Congo was quite weak at the time of Congo’s independence, the CIA engaged in pervasive political meddling and paramilitary action between 1960 and 1968 to ensure that the country retained a pro-Western government and to help its pathetic military on the battlefield. So extensive were these efforts that at the time, they ranked as the largest covert operation in the agency’s history, costing an estimated $90–$150 million in current dollars, not counting the aircraft, weapons, and transportation and maintenance services provided by the Defense Department.

Not only was U.S. involvement extensive; it was also malignant. The CIA’s use of bribery and paramilitary force succeeded in keeping a narrow, politically weak clique in power for most of Congo’s first decade of independence. And the very nature of the CIA’s aid discouraged Congolese politicians from building genuine bases of support and adopting responsible policies. The agency’s legacy of clients and techniques contributed to a long-running spiral of decline, which was characterized by corruption, political turmoil, and dependence on Western military intervention. So dysfunctional was the state that in 1997 it outright collapsed — leaving behind instability that continues to this day.

One must wonder what would have happened to Mobutu, Lumumba, Mulele and the rest if they’d been allowed to carry out their fight for political dominance on their own, rather than having the field tipped towards Mobutu by the US and later France.

Sentences about Congolese transport

From Theodore Trefon’s book Congo Masquerade:

The colonial system of cantonnage, whereby each village was responsible for maintaining its own roads, was relatively efficient in keeping the roads open, but it was at the price of forced labour and the colonial whip.  Europeans during the late colonial period could travel from Stanleyville (Kisangani) to Leopoldville (Kinshasa) in a Volkswagen Beetle in three days.  This is absolutely inconceivable today and will remain so for many years to come.  (p. 52)

Here’s Wikipedia‘s map of Congolese surface transport.  The data on road conditions is nearly 15 years out of date at this time, but my strong suspicion is that it hasn’t improved much, especially in the interior.  The trip from Kisangani (northeast) to Kinshasa (southwest) would be more than 1100 miles almost entirely on dirt or gravel roads, or by river.


Google seems to know what it’s doing in this case, because it won’t propose any overland route from Kisangani to Kinshasa.

congo by air

The political evolution of Congolese currency

The last time I was in Kinshasa, I bought a handful of old bills from a street vendor.  Evolving currency design turns out to be a pretty good indicator of the country’s political fortunes.  Start with these notes from the Belgian Congo in 1947:

Congo '47

It’s not exactly clear what’s going on in this image – I think the child is reaching down to a beehive – but of course both the figures appear to be white Europeans.

The bills from 1960 are notable for their lovely graphic design.  These are the only bills in my collection until the late 1990s that don’t feature a politician, depicting a young woman instead.

Congo '60

Congo '60

In 1967, the currency switched from the franc to the zaire, which was subdivided into makuta instead of centimes.  By the early 1970s, Patrice Lumumba graced the makuta note, while Mobutu showed up on the zaires.  I didn’t recognize him at first without his later-habitual leopard print hat and abacost.  (Thanks to commenter Eloko ya Masaki for identifying him!)

Congo '70Congo '71

By the mid-1970s, Lumumba’s portrait had been replaced by that of Mobutu.  The Marshal stayed front and center on the currency for the next 20 years.  These 1977 zaires are hopeful about hydroelectricity.

Congo '77

Congo '77

By 1991, high inflation rates had pushed the largest banknote up to 50,000 zaires (which were followed by the 5,000,000 zaire note the next year).  Perhaps no longer feeling so enthusiastic about industrialization, these notes focused on wildlife.

Congo '91

Congo '91

In 1993, the central bank redenominated the currency in a (doomed) attempt to rein in inflation.  The back of the note features the Palais de la Nation, where the president’s office is located today.  (Thanks again to Eloko ya Makasi for this information!)

Congo '93

Congo '93

After Mobutu’s fall, the currency switched back to the franc.  This 500 franc note from 2002 was worth about US$1 when I got it.   In a reflection of the country’s deindustrialization, it features artisanal miners panning for diamonds in a river.  The contrast between the promise of mineral wealth and the obvious poverty of the miners says a great deal about where the DRC is today.

Congo '02

Five essential facts about Africa

My husband put an interesting question to me the other day: what are the five essential facts about Africa that the average American ought to know?  To keep it simple, he asked that each fact be limited to one or two sentences.  I tried to come up with responses that were concise but also acknowledged the great diversity of people and practices on the continent.

  1. Precolonial diversity: People have, of course, lived in Africa for thousands of years.  Before European colonization started around 1890, people lived in many different types of political units, from tribal groups to city-states to empires, and had active trade and cultural relations with the rest of the world.
  2. Problems of colonization: Most places in Africa were colonized by Europeans from about 1890 to 1960. Colonizers often used violent means to try to control Africans, disrupting existing social and political structures in the process.  While some colonizers did build transportation infrastructure and promote basic social services like education, relatively few African citizens ever benefitted from them.
  3. Independence and its discontents: Many countries won their independence around 1960.  Because the colonizers had put lots of different political units together into modern countries, most places didn’t have well-established national political institutions, and it was common for dictatorships to arise (generally supported by the US and USSR, which directed a lot of aid to their ideological allies during the Cold War).
  4. Transitions & crises of the 1990s: By the 1990s, many countries were facing economic and political crises after years of bad economic management, and the end of Cold War-era aid from the US and USSR.  There was a lot of pressure from both citizens and aid donors (like the World Bank) for countries to implement economic reforms and transition to democracy.  Some countries managed this successfully, while others couldn’t navigate this political crisis and fell into civil war.
  5. Recovery & growth: By the mid-2000s, most civil wars had ended, and the majority of countries were enjoying higher rates of economic growth and better governance.  Although citizens and aid donors are still pushing many governments to provide better social services, things are generally looking better for most countries than they have in a while, and several African countries have GDP growth rates that are among the highest in the world.

I have to say that part of the value I found in this exercise was precisely that I didn’t initially want to do it.  One could write a book – many books – on the thousands of years of history encapsulated here, or at the very least shrug off a request for such a stark summary with the stock phrase “it’s complicated.”  But I did end up finding it an interesting experiment in trying to think about some of the main political trends on the continent over the last 100 years in fairly general terms, and (hopefully) in a way that would be accessible to people who didn’t already know much about the region.

What would your responses be?