Politics and Governance in Africa

Professor Emeritus Jan Abbink

Under the chair ‘Politics and governance in Africa’, research is conducted on cultures of politics in Africa, both in relation to (in)formal political and governance structures and into what people understand as ‘the political’. Africa’s political dynamics, policies and conflicts feature frequently in the news, underpinning the relevance of describing and explaining political processes in their constitutive dimensions and placing this research within a historical context and the long tradition of political anthropology and political science on Africa. Africa is still rising, but there are trends impacting its overall development:

  • projected high demographic growth
  • environmental problems
  • rapid urbanization
  • inequality structures and class differentiation
  • enhanced global extraction processes

Political culture
Features of governance, local socio-political structures and movements, and ethno-cultural repertoires combine to form patterns of political culture – a heuristic concept – that provide the basis for people to act on their values and to frame preferences and goals. Interactive processes that shape African governance patterns and socio-cultural formations emerge from the competition of interests and from norms and ideas of ‘group’ and ‘self’. The empirical study of these themes benefits from ethnographic, sociological and historical approaches, and should take into account possible specifics of knowledge production in Africa. In addition to situated ethnographic and sociological methods, the use of relevant statistical sources and large data sets on economic life, education, health, and demographic conditions (if available) will be profitable in terms of grasping the wider setting and understanding the historicity, long-term trends and contexts of strategies and practices of power, governance and contestation.

Four overarching themes form the focus of this Chair (including for PhD research projects):

  • Local, community-based forms of political action and political strategy, seen in the field of tension between the heritage of ‘indigenous’ African practices of power on the one hand, and ideas and techniques of ‘modernity’ on the other. This may include analysing: a) new ICT and social media use for local purposes; b) community conflict resolution and social and material infrastructure challenges in non-state spaces; and c) intriguing local forms of the knowledge economy.
  • Interactions between religion and politics. This dynamic retains its importance, not least due to the clash of governance narratives and the challenges to secular state models, which virtually all African state constitutions still emphasize. The emergence of hybrid or violent politico-religious movements, as well as security concerns and public sphere issues of managing diversity are also crucial. One example of ongoing research is the changing pattern of Christian–Muslim interactions in Ethiopia.
  • The production of insecurity and conflict, revealing profound divergences in narratives and power claims in African societies. Many conflicts are related to the creeping ‘ecological crunch’ in Africa’s natural environments and resources, making the comparative study of environmental governance/management (esp. between state and local communities) timely and relevant, but others relate to pervasive mental constructions of enmity. This sub-theme also links to the study of security issues and the securitization of social and environmental problems in Africa, which we argue are best understood in wider societal contexts than politics only.
  • The (contested) visions and versions of development, or rather, ‘developmentalism’, an ideology of practice combining a host of classic economic themes that originate in the simple, modernist versions of growth propagated in the 1950s and tested in the communist world before 1989. However, also in Africa developmental governance is never a purely technocratic process based on a depoliticized management of ‘the economy’ and of the national administrative system; it is clothed in networks of interest groups, power formations, ideologies, and cognitive-cultural narratives that rank groups, create patterns of meaning, and are constitutive of governance practices. Research under this theme focuses on contexts of governability – the conditions under which interests, ideas and practices of ‘political’ organization, rule and control are formed and expressed. These are clearly socially and culturally constituted and are perennially contested. Land policies and conflicts are an obvious example, as resistance is often mobilized against state projects and external investors.

Read the full text of the research intentions of this Chair.