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.

What explains peace?

In case you missed it, Jon Temin had a great article at Foreign Policy last month asking a critically important question: “Why don’t the policymakers and practitioners looking to end the world’s deadliest wars spend more time studying peace?”  This could mean peace at the country level (he compares Niger’s peaceful relationship with its Tuareg minority to the fraught relationship in neighboring Mali), or within a single country (as shown by the surprising stability of the state of Western Equatoria in South Sudan).  At an even more granular level of analysis, one could look at the case of Butembo – a Congolese city which has remained fairly insulated from conflict despite its location in restive North Kivu province.  But the question in any case is the same: why do some places fall into conflict, while others with similar characteristics manage to avoid it?

There’s a large body of literature in political science looking at cases where civil wars have occurred, but much less looking at war’s absence.  Based on my reading of the conflict literature, here are three factors that the study of peace might start exploring.  (Update, 14 July: read the comments, they’re quite good.  I’ve also added a fourth item here based on feedback from Digitaldjeli.)

  • Regional conflict complexes.  Peter Wallensteen (PDF), Idean Salehyan & Kristian Skrede Gleditsch (PDF), and many others have pointed out that many civil wars are not sui generis, but are linked to conflicts in neighboring countries, often through the mechanisms of refugee movements and state support for armed groups next door.  The canonical example is the way that conflicts in Rwanda have spilled over into and exacerbated conflicts in neighboring DRC.  The obvious question here is why some refugee host countries get drawn into the wars of their neighbors, while others (like Ghana, which hosts a number of refugees from Côte d’Ivoire) manage to avoid this.
  • Ideological collective action.  In The Order of Genocide, Scott Straus finds that Rwandan provinces with administrators who belonged to the ruling MRND party acted quickly to start carrying out genocidal killings after the order came down from Kigali, while administrators who belonged to the opposition were sometimes able to delay the start of violence in their area.  The tactics they employed to do this included organizing self-defense militias for vulnerable communities, threatening to punish people who carried out genocidal attacks, and dispersing groups of men who gathered to start hunting victims.  This, of course, touches on the age-old question: why do some groups of people espouse violent ideologies, while others in the same society do not?  And to what degree are peaceful places peaceful because citizens actively worked for peace, as opposed to simply not having the right preconditions for war?
  • Land tenure policies.  Cathy Boone’s recent book Property and Political Order in Africa argues that places where land tenure rights are assigned by the state are more likely to see both violent and non-violent conflicts scale up to become quarrels with the central government.  By comparison, in places where land tenure is administered by tribal leaders or other local groups, conflicts over land tend to stay “bottled up” at the local level, and are less likely to become national political issues.  Boone stops well short of making the claim that systems of land tenure can explain the prevalence of civil war, but I think there are some ideas here that are worth digging into more deeply.  For example, the highly politicized process by which the state granted land use rights in the Kenyan highlands has created lasting and sometimes violent grievances there, while the politicized process of agricultural collectivization in neighboring Tanzania hasn’t led to large-scale violence (as far as I know).  What mitigated against the violent resolution of land access disputes in Tanzania?  And more generally, are places with tribal or other local systems of land allocation less likely to have civil wars?  This would be an interesting counterpoint to the idea that “tribalism” lies behind many conflicts.
  • Stationary bandits.  Digitaldjeli’s point was that “peace” in Butembo looks more like a protection racket, but the idea that protection rackets can grow into (peaceful, Westphalian) states is actually a classic in the American political science literature.  Mancur Olson (PDF) builds on work by people like Charles Tilly (PDF) to argue that the type of mafioso running the racket matters – “stationary bandits” will protect the people and territory under their control so they can continue to tax them in the long run, while “roving bandits” will steal everything they can from people in the short run, and offer no protection.  Put differently, decisions by political elites can matter a lot for the types of violence that occur within a state.  The million dollar question is why some elites are able to look past the short term gains of roving banditry and decide to make longer term investments in protecting their territory.

At this point I’m actually coming up against the precise problem that Temin highlights: the region I’ve studied most thoroughly, central Africa, is comprised exclusively of countries that have had civil wars, and I’m running out of non-war cases to use for comparison.  What other hypotheses or case studies can you think of that might explain instances of peace in regions seemingly predisposed to war?

Property and political order in Africa

I recently finished Cathy Boone’s excellent new book, Property and Political Order in Africa: Land Rights and the Structure of Politics. She’s motivated by the observation that, while disagremeents over access to land are endemic in Africa, some areas see the issue become highly politicized or spill over into violent conflict, while others end up with low-level disagreements that never escalate.  In seeking to answer this, she looks at the way that different types of land tenure systems created by the colonial and post-colonial state tend to “bottle up” land conflict at the local level, or encourage it to escalate to the national political realm.

A very brief rendering of her argument is that land tenure systems in which chiefs or lineage heads are given the right to allocate land (often along ethnic lines) tend to keep conflict local, because no one above this level of regional governance has the right to challenge the chief’s allocation of land.  Thus, people who are unhappy with their access to land can’t make claims about it within the national political system.  Examples of this type of system include western and central Ghana, northern Cameroon, and western Kenya.

A chiefly or lineage-based land tenure regime contrasts with statist systems of land allocation, where the government directly assigns land to farmers, often for the purpose of raising cash crops (and frequently involving the importation of labor from elsewhere in the country).  Because access to land isn’t mediated by any type of local government, people with complaints about their allocation take the issue directly to the national government.  Examples of this type of system include southwestern Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya’s Rift Valley, eastern DRC, and southeastern Rwanda.

I found this analysis very useful in understanding some of the persistent conflict dynamics of the Great Lakes.  In both the DRC and Rwanda, government policies led directly to the displacement of thousands of people from the colonial period onwards.  This seems to have created lasting grievances in both countries that have played off each other in very harmful ways, from cycles of ethnic violence in Rwanda to the way that persistent insecurity of land tenure in eastern Congo has led to the creation of an endless array of militias.  In Ghana, by comparison, chiefly land tenure systems prevailed, relatively few people were forced off their land, and land allocation does not seem to be a highly salient national political issue today.  To be clear, Boone is not claiming that land tenure regimes are the only or even the primary explanatory variable for violent conflict, but her analysis of the ways that land tenure arrangements can mute or amplify tensions within a political system is insightful in ways that simple claims about ethnic rivalries are not.

Coercion and violence in Rwanda

Danny Hirschel-Burns had a great post earlier this month on whether people are violent by nature over at The Widening Lens.  He reviews a number of seminal works on this issue (Stanley Milgram, Christoper Browning, Dave Grossman and Randall Collins) and concludes that while most people are “inherently adverse” to killing others, violent coercion and social sanctioning can lead people to kill.  Notably, he estimates that intergroup coercion is probably more effective in this regard than either authority or ideology.

This fits very well with Scott Straus’ findings about adult men’s participation in the Rwandan genocide.  In his 2006 book The Order of Genocide, he interviews convicted genocidaires* about their actions, and found that the two most common reasons for killing others were “intra-Hutu coercion” and “wartime fear and combativeness” (p. 136). In his telling, the invasion of the Tutsi-led RPF rebels from Uganda in 1990 deeply unsettled ethnic relations, made violence less unthinkable in daily life, and made people more receptive to genocidal political propaganda.  When the genocide began in 1994, however, ideology and fear alone were not enough to convince most men to kill.  Genocidaires were provided with material incentives, like claiming the houses and cattle of their victims, but were also violently threatened by other Hutus if they didn’t participate.

*Straus notes that because his respondents had already been convicted, they should not have felt it necessary to downplay any anti-Tutsi ideology which motivated them, since they presumably couldn’t be punished again.  I think this misses the possibility that prisoners who continued to be openly anti-Tutsi might be socially sanctioned in other ways within the prison system.  However, in general I don’t think this detracts from the plausibility of his overall argument.

What interests you about development?

If you’re feeling confused about how to navigate the thicket of development organizations I mentioned in my last post, don’t worry overmuch.  The first step is to begin identifying the topics and regions that really interest you.  While life in general is richer if you’re broadly interested in the world, saying that you’re “willing to work anywhere” or “interested in everything” doesn’t provide an employer with much information about what you’ll be good at doing.

Most importantly, you should start reading, extensively, long before you ever apply for a job or even do an informational interview.  If you’re very broadly interested in development, I would recommend the four books which caused huge debate in the US-based development community in the mid-2000s.  The End of Poverty, by Jeff Sachs, essentially argues that aid can eliminate poverty.  The White Man’s Burden is Bill Easterly’s response to Sachs, critiquing donations and advocating for market-based solutions.  Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid covers similar territory to Easterly, with a stronger focus on developing domestic solutions within African countries.  And Poor Economics, by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, sidesteps this debate by promoting more rigorous evaluation of both traditional development aid and market-based programs.  Pay attention to your reactions to these arguments.  Which points did you find compelling, or questionable?  Did you really disagree with any of them?  Which new ideas excited you?  I think all of approaches can be useful in different contexts, and there are still organizations doing the types of work that all four sets of authors advocate.

Once you have a sense of several topics which interest you – say public health, or market-based approaches like microfinance – educate yourself about the state of the field.  This is important even if you’ve got experience in a related sector in a high income country, because infrastructure, regulatory environments, and the population affected by a given issue are often very different in the low income ones.  The World Bank’s list of publications by topic could be a useful starting point.  More informally, check out the links to development blogs on my home page, and then check out their links as well.  Finally, when you can name one or two topics which clearly seem more interesting than others, do an Amazon search and buy some of the top-rated or popular books in those fields.  Look for those which cover the history of the field and current debates within it.  It’s useful for employers to know that you’re not just uncritically excited about a topic, but have also given some thought to the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches.

The same advice applies to the regions that interest you.  If you already have a strong interest in a particular area, and you’re not originally from it, then pick up a history of the region.  If this seems dry, you might try starting with travelogues, which are generally more entertaining but won’t give you a clear overview of the political, economic and social dynamics of an area in the same way that a more academic text will.  The history of West Africa might initially seem unrelated to your interest in public health, but “development” occurs in places with specific historical contexts, not in a vacuum.  In this example, it’s useful to know that some countries are politically stable and enjoying steady economic growth (Ghana) while others are still working to recover from civil wars (Sierra Leone, Liberia).  Their policy needs are likely to vary accordingly.

If you’re interested in several separate regions, it will be helpful to focus on just one as you’re trying to start your development career.   It’s time-intensive to familiarize yourself with a single area, let alone several, and having a clear regional focus is a useful signal to employers that you’re not just dabbling.  Language skills are a key consideration.  If you’re conversational in Spanish, French or Hindi, build on that and focus on regions where they’re spoken, even if you feel passionately about some other place as well.  Building a professional proficiency in a language takes quite a while, so the midst of switching careers is not the time to drop your years of Spanish classes in favor of Swahili.  Finally, if you only speak English, pick a region where English was the colonial language, as it’s likely to still be used in professional settings.  (Bad for local linguistic autonomy, useful for business in a globalized world.)

The next posts in the series will cover building relevant skills and experience once you’ve selected a topic and region of interest to you.

Recently acquired books

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.”

Largely purchased from The Strand in NYC and Moe’s Books in Berkeley – both very well curated bookstores which amply reward browsing.

African urbanisation

A couple of quick hits around African urbanisation:

  • Via Matt Jones of Moved 2 Monrovia, I found this graph from October’s Economist on GDP and urbanisation in Africa.  Does Liberia reflect the impact of the civil war?  I don’t have strong priors on whether war might increase or decrease urbanization rates, and a quick Google Scholar search didn’t turn up any recent research.  Then again, Zimbabwe and Madagascar see the same direction of change, and their political conflicts have been much less violent than Liberia’s.

  • A list of 2013’s initiatives on urbanisation trends in Africa.
  • Lagos, already sub-Saharan Africa’s largest city, will overtake Cairo as the largest city on the entire continent this year.  (Kinshasa is currently #3, with nearly ten million people.)
  • Finally, I must recommend one of my favorite works of recent anthropology: Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt, by Stanford anthropologist James Ferguson. Ferguson did his research for this book in Zambia in the last 1980s, when the gaps between post-independence hopes of immediate development and the realities of economic stagnation were dismayingly obvious.  He writes deftly of the range of strategies urban copperworkers used to deal with the uncertainty of the period, exploring an interesting disjunct between workers whose plans revolved around maintaining ties with rural associates and planning for a return to the land after retirement, and those who cast their lot more fully with the city, creating new urban subcultures along the way.