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.