Exploring Law, Rights and Governance in Africa: Reflections of contemporary Africanist researchers, looking to the future

What does it mean to research post-colonial Africa in the 21st century? What should a ‘good Africanist’ scholar consider when engaging with complex socio-political, legal and economic issues confronting the continent? Whose voices are foregrounded when making assumptions about Africa’s future as ‘the observer’ observing? How do we conceptualise what constitutes law, rights and governance in Africa? On 28 and 29 January 2020, twelve early career researchers gathered at Leiden University to discuss these questions, during the workshop “Law, Rights, and Governance in Africa. A look to the Future”.

The two-day workshop formed part of the 'Africa 2020' activities, the year in which 17 countries on the African continent celebrate 60 years of independence. With this historic moment in mind, we felt that it was time to take a look at the future.

New research agendas
Several current large‐scale developments in Africa will cast the themes of law, rights, and governance in a new light, which calls for new research agendas for the next decade (2020 – 2030). Take for example the rapidly increasing population, issues related to the effects of climate change, economic growth, resource stress and urbanisation, the spread of new technologies, and the displacement of the European border to the African continent. In order to discuss what these developments mean for the future of doing research in Africa, we aimed for the interdisciplinary workshop to interrogate the study of African institutions, actors and phenomena across various disciplines - including law, economics and anthropology – and between various levels of analysis. Early career researchers from these academic backgrounds hailing from different academic institutions joined our workshop to collectively reflect on the future of Africanist research.

Law, rights and governance
Over the course of two days, our discussions encompassed topics such as the past and present of state law and institutions and the wide range of religious, traditional, “twilight”, and customary legal political institutions that can be found across the continent. We also paid attention to the political and legal power of corporations and of networks of businesses and investors, both private and public. At the regional and global level, the focus included disparate actors and institutions such as the African Union vis-à-vis international organisations, national Parliaments, non-governmental organisations, and street-level bureaucrats. We also explored the creation, translation and appropriation of human rights and international benchmarks used to evaluate the continent’s ‘progress’ through domestic policy reform. Finally, the workshop paid explicit attention to the governance of ‐ and the (often‐conflicting) rights to - natural resources. These discussions were based on the papers about their research which each of the workshop participants presented. Participants presented papers that were categorized in three panels: 1) rights, law and government; 2) law, economics and business networks; 3) governance and mobility (also see the programme).

From ‘modern’ state actors to ‘traditional’ leaders
Apart from these three panels, we also enjoyed three keynote lectures and workshop activities led by Professor Elisio Macamo (Universität Basel) , Professor Thomas Bierschenk (Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz) and Professor Janine Ubink (Leiden University). Professor Ubink paid close attention to the importance of unpacking conceptualisations of authority – be they ‘modern’ state actors or ‘traditional’ leaders. What does their power mean on the ground and how does it come into being? These are important questions. Professor Bierschenk emphasized how concepts we use have a history and can also re-emerge in other spatial and temporal contexts: they travel and get new meanings. We should be very aware of this and reflect on this process.

Critical self-reflection
Each in their own way, all three professors encouraged us to explicitly consider the implications of the norms and normative frameworks that (implicitly) underpin the concepts we use when doing research (in Africa). What constitutes ‘law’, ‘rights’ and ‘governance’ are contested concepts in the broadest sense of the word: within communities, between communities and the state, between the state and international organisations, but also between researchers. Professor Macamo’s keynote emphasized that critical self-reflection of the Africanist researcher is paramount when grappling the legal, political, economic and social nuances of any research problem. Whether situated in the Global North or South as ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’, how researchers approach their fields of study is largely informed by various explicit and implicit assumptions that underpin their worldviews. Throughout the workshop, this realisation sparked discussions on theoretical, methodological and ethical challenges that we all confront when engaging in research (in Africa). Professor Macamo also reminded us that we should not forget that academia is heir to the Enlightenment project. The Enlightenment focused on progress, hence making the future into a site for human intervention. This same process has also turned Africa into a site for European intervention – a theoretical move that we should be critical of, by exposing the implicit norms that shape research, development and our shared world.

In this light, we concluded our workshop not by prescribing the ways in which future research should be conducted, but rather by explicating the norms that we would want to change: we wrote an obituary to bid farewell to these old ways and usher in new intentions for future studies in, of and about Africa:


Here lie the researchers

  • who fell prey to Afro-pessimism.
  • whose work reproduced unverified assumptions about the research problem, as they were blind to the normative underpinnings of their work.
  • who succumbed to agenda setting by development and donor agencies.
  • who were blind to the disciplining effects of the current racist and capitalist mobility regimes that shape doing science.
  • who forget to reflect on the possibility that the ‘Africa’ they are seeing and describing is an artefact of their own conceptual grid.
  • who made no attempt to connect and reach out to scholars from other disciplines.
  • who were unable to speak about their research without the extensive use of jargon.
  • who were unable to do the kind of research they believed in because they did not make tenure.

They will not be missed.

Annelien Bouland, Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance and Society, Leiden Law School, Leiden University
Danse de Bondt, Tilburg Law School, Tilburg University and Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh
Tanja Hendriks, Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh
Thandiwe Matthews, International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam