Political Science Comparative Politics of Africa
by
Alex Thomson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0007

Introduction

More than is the case with other continents, scholars of African politics have frequently employed a comparative method in order to understand their region of study. This has been encouraged by similar colonial histories and common modes of post-independence governance. Taking an overview of this scholarship in the postcolonial era, academics initially concentrated on the continent’s prospects for development. How would Africa’s inherited colonial boundaries, for example, or its underdeveloped “monocrop” economies, make an impact politically? Subsequently, as optimism generated by the continent’s independence began to fade and authoritarianism took hold, an explanation was sought for this antiliberal turn of events. Beyond the problematic colonial inheritance, could internal factors such as ideology, ethnicity, religion, or social class be holding back Africa’s progress toward modernity? Likewise, modes of governance were studied. Why had political systems based on neopatrimonialism, personal rule, and authoritarianism emerged? What encouraged the military to intervene? A third phase of scholarship developed in the 1980s and 1990s. This was a response to continued authoritarian governance fostering state collapse in several cases, near-collapse in many more, and, eventually, a continental wave of civil society revolt. The nature of this state collapse was analyzed, while an explanation was sought for the rejuvenation of civil society and the remarkable reintroduction of multiparty democracy that this rejuvenation brought. Currently, many scholars are attempting to gauge the chances of a consolidation of this fragile democratic order, balancing any optimism in this respect against the countervailing authoritarian reflexes that remain ingrained within most African states.

Reference Works

Two of the best ongoing surveys of African politics and economics in the post-independence period have been Africa South of the Sahara and the Africa Contemporary Record (Legum 2006). Published annually, these works provide good individual narratives of political and economic developments in all African states, comprehensive supporting statistics, and topical articles addressing regional and continent-wide trends.

  • Africa South of the Sahara. London: Europa. 1971–.

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    Published annually since the early 1970s. In addition to country surveys and statistics and broader topical articles, these volumes also provide directories of governments, media organizations, and nongovernmental organizations.

  • Legum, Colin, ed. Africa Contemporary Record 2001–2002. London: Holmes & Meier, 2006.

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    Although the annual editions of the series to which this belongs ceased to be published in the early 21st century, Legum’s legacy is more than thirty volumes of compact data, illuminating primary sources and sound analysis stretching back to the 1960s.

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