20 November 2013 § Leave a Comment
29 July 2013 § 19 Comments
One of the questions I’m often asked by friends who haven’t studied African history is what might have happened to the continent if it hadn’t been colonized. It’s interesting to look at the following map of African politico-tribal units circa 1844 by Swedish artist Nikolaj Cyon in the light of this question:
I haven’t been able to find any firm documentation on the origin of the name Alkebu-lan, although a variety of questionably sourced websites suggest that it’s an Arabic phrase meaning “land of the blacks” – supposedly an original name for Africa. Cyon notes in a presentation that the map represents the culmination of an alternate history where the Black Plague killed significantly more Europeans than was actually the case, presumably reducing the amount of early colonization which would have occurred. Thus, while many of these territorial groupings appear feasible to me, it’s unclear if they represent the real extent of various ethnic groups in 1844.
What might have happened from 1845 onwards in this non-colonial world? The most densely populated areas in west and central Africa might have grown into something approaching Westphalian sovereignty, controlling clearly defined territories (as per Jeffrey Herbst’s thesis on state formation in States and Power in Africa). Coastal and riverine areas may have done well off of trade, encouraging the development of stronger local authorities. Places rich in natural resources would have had to fend off various external claimants to their territories, if not from Europe (or India) then perhaps from neighboring kingdoms, and might have developed into stronger states if successful or faced the imposition of external institutions if not. But what of places like the land alloted to the Herero in this map (modern Namibia), which is largely desert? Or the semi-arid plains of the Sahel? Perhaps they would have continued with smaller or more mobile sociopolitical groups, without a central state. Whether they would have been vulnerable to expansionary neighbors is unclear. And all of this doesn’t even touch on whether European economic development would have followed the same path, and whether colonization might have eventually occurred anyway, at least to the weaker or less populous states. A fascinating thought experiment, though.
24 April 2013 § Leave a Comment
Along the lines of Adam Elkus’ shared reading lists, here’s what I’ve picked up recently, along with their Amazon summaries:
- Catherine Boone, Political Topographies of the African State. “Examines political regionalism in Africa and how it affects forms of government, and prospects for democracy and development. Boone’s study is set within the context of larger theories of political development in agrarian societies. It features a series of compelling case studies that focus on regions within Senegal, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire and ranges from 1930 to the present.”
- Danny Hoffman, The War Machines: Young Men and Violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia. “Considers how young men are made available for violent labor both on the battlefields and in the diamond mines, rubber plantations, and other unregulated industries of West Africa. Based on his ethnographic research with militia groups in Sierra Leone and Liberia during those countries’ recent civil wars, Hoffman traces the path of young fighters who moved from grassroots community-defense organizations in Sierra Leone during the mid-1990s into a large pool of mercenary labor. Hoffman argues that in contemporary West Africa, space, sociality, and life itself are organized around making young men available for all manner of dangerous work. Drawing on his ethnographic research over the past nine years, as well as the anthropology of violence, interdisciplinary security studies, and contemporary critical theory, he maintains that the mobilization of West African men exemplifies a global trend in the outsourcing of warfare and security operations. A similar dynamic underlies the political economy of violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and a growing number of postcolonial spaces.”
- Peter Little, Somalia: Economy Without State. “In the wake of the collapse of the Somali government in 1991, a “second” or “informal” economy based on trans-border trade and smuggling is thriving. While focusing primarily on pastoral and agricultural markets, Peter D. Little demonstrates that the Somalis are resilient and opportunistic and that they use their limited resources effectively. While it is true that many Somalis live in the shadow of brutal warlords and lack access to basic health care and education, Little focuses on those who have managed to carve out a productive means of making ends meet under difficult conditions and emphasizes the role of civic culture even when government no longer exists. Exploring questions such as, Does statelessness necessarily mean anarchy and disorder? Do money, international trade, and investment survive without a state? Do pastoralists care about development and social improvement? This book describes the complexity of the Somali situation in the light of international terrorism.”
- Richard Reid, Warfare in African History. “Examines the role of war in shaping the African state, society, and economy. Richard J. Reid helps students understand different patterns of military organization through Africa’s history; the evolution of weaponry, tactics, and strategy; and the increasing prevalence of warfare and militarism in African political and economic systems. He traces shifts in the culture and practice of war from the first millennium into the era of the external slave trades, and then into the nineteenth century, when a military revolution unfolded across much of Africa. The repercussions of that revolution, as well as the impact of colonial rule, continue to this day. The frequency of coups d’états and civil war in Africa’s recent past is interpreted in terms of the continent’s deeper past.”
- Thomas Risse (ed.), Governance Without a State? “For readers who think the world is steadily moving toward the Westphalian ideal of a universal system of sovereign states, this book will be a revelation. For readers who despair at the chronic problem of weak and failing states, this book contains intriguing ideas about alternative forms of stable governance.”
28 October 2012 § Leave a Comment
From Rysazrd Kapuscinski in The Shadow of the Sun, a collection of his travel writing on Africa:
Even if you are far from the capital and, moreover, have not been listening to the radio…the behavior of the policemen and soldiers on guard [at a roadblock] will tell you a lot about the situation within the country. If, the minute you have come to a stop, and without so much as asking you a single question, they begin shouting and punching, it means that the country is under a dictatorship, or that there is war, but if they walk up to you, smile, extend their hands, and politely say ‘You probably know that we earn very little,’ it means that you are driving through a stable, democratic country, in which elections are free and human rights are observed (p. 156).
Kapuscinski has an eye for official intrigue, and the political articles in Shadow retain their interest, from portraits of Ghana’s post-independence leaders in 1958 to a blow-by-blow account of Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi’s 1966 coup in Nigeria to the Liberian civil war in the early 1990s. He does less well at social commentary, producing some cringe-worthy statements like “Everything [about the African environment] appears in an inflated, unbridled, hysterically exaggerated form… From birth till death, the African is on the front line, sparring with his continent’s exceptionally hostile nature, and the mere fact that he is alive…is his greatest triumph” (p. 317). Skip the sweeping generalizations and it’s worth a read.
20 March 2012 § 4 Comments
Here’s an idea I’ve been brainstorming recently, and which I’m tossing in a rather raw form out into the world: has anyone written the definitive typology of different types of political disputes? Not that I plan to write it; I’d just like to know if it’s out there!
Consider the ways in which citizens may express opposition to government policy. This could run the spectrum from peaceful protest to violent rebellion on the civilian disputant side, and from active accommodation to a violent military campaign on the state side. Naturally, such disputes are relational and contingent – the actions taken by either party provoke a reaction of some type by the other party, which itself will condition future actions by the first party.
I was thinking of this because most of the work I’ve seen on African politics in the 1990s seems to focus rather narrowly on either pro-democratic protest or civil war, without considering them as examples of political dispute on different ends of the same spectrum. Some of this literature is discussed in my recent post on Robert Bates’ latest book. As I noted in that post, the same combination of factors (economic stagnation + political unrest) led to fairly peaceful democratic change in some countries and civil war in others.
I’m not asking here about why some countries consolidated democracy and others reverted to authoritarianism or fell into conflict; the income hypothesis seems to predict democratic consolidation pretty well. And I’m not asking about why some countries had civil wars at all and others didn’t; there’s a lot of work out there on the structural determinants of civil war, notably Collier & Hoeffler. But I do think it’s interesting that, facing similar sets of political disputes around the same time (the 1980s and early 1990s), some countries followed contingent paths that led to relatively peaceful political change, whilst others drifted towards the use of violence.
As a first take at an organizing structure for this thought, here’s a graph representing the spectrum of citizen & government positions during a political dispute. (Click to enlarge it.) It clearly still needs some work. Does anyone find this useful? Am I just replicating someone else’s work without knowing it? (It looks like Gina Bateson at Yale has a working paper addressing a similar topic, and there’s definitely Rebel Rulers, but I haven’t seen much else about the relational, contingent nature of political conflict.) Would love to hear your thoughts, oh readers!