In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Politics of West Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Political Systems
  • Democratization
  • State and Society
  • Citizenship, Indigeneity, Autochthony
  • Ethnicity and Politics
  • Religion and Politics
  • Gender, Class, Politics
  • Structural Adjustment
  • The Military and Politics
  • War and Collective Violence
  • Natural Resources, the Environment, and Agriculture
  • Regional and International Politics

Political Science Politics of West Africa
David Ehrhardt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0043


Nigerian “419” scams, civil war violence in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and the relatively recent traumas of colonial rule: all examples of the troubling features that people commonly associate with West African societies. At closer inspection, however, a more complex picture emerges. In this picture, West Africa boasts a historical legacy of one of the most developed precolonial forms of statehood on the continent, the Sokoto Caliphate, as well as contemporary examples of ambitious regional integration. Moreover, from the arid Sahel to the voluptuous greens of the Niger Delta, the region contains unparalleled riches in resources and biodiversity. Diversity also extends into the social realm, with the complex and myriad ethnic, linguistic, and religious communities that weave and maintain West Africa’s social, political, and economic fabrics. From grinding poverty to stupendous resource riches, and from civil wars to tourist beaches, West Africa is thus a region of contrasts and the politics of the region, understood to include all actions and institutions involved in the governance of West Africa, reflect these contrasts. This article presents a selection of excellent academic texts on this diverse and fascinating realm of African politics. It discusses the themes of electoral politics, the nature of the state, and democratization alongside the impact of ethnic, religious, class, and gender identities and the politics of collective violence, in an attempt to do justice to the disciplinary and thematic heterogeneity of the academic works it presents.

General Overviews

Starting with the major historical transformations that West Africa experienced in the 20th century, this section presents works that can help to make sense of some of the most important historical trends and developments. Lovejoy 2005 provides an example of politics and Islamic state-making before colonial rule, while Crowder 1984 details the ways in which the French and English governed West Africa. Subsequently, Kirk-Greene and Bach 1995, Zeleza and Eyoh 2003, and Cruise O’Brien, et al. 1989 bridge the tumultuous years since independence. Eyoh and Stren 2007 and Olukoshi 2001 both analyze pertinent aspects of contemporary politics, with the rapid urbanization and political-economic uncertainties that characterize most of the region. Finally, as a resource for general support on West African research, the reader is referred to the West African Research Association and its research center in Dakar, Senegal.

  • Crowder, Michael. West Africa under Colonial Rule. London: Hutchinson, 1984.

    Ambitious introduction to the French and English colonial policies in the region in the period 1880–1945. No online version, but available used and in most academic libraries.

  • Cruise O’Brien, Donal B., John Dunn, and Richard Rathbone. Contemporary West African States. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    Edited volume with good chapters on the politics of nine West African states. Update of Dunn’s West African States: Failure and Promise from 1978.

  • Eyoh, Dickson, and Richard Stren, eds. Decentralization and the Politics of Urban Development in West Africa. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2007.

    Recent collection of papers on the urban dimension of politics in West Africa, structured around decentralization, identity, and citizenship.

  • Kirk-Greene, A. H. M., and Daniel Bach. State and Society in Francophone Africa since Independence. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.

    Comprehensive analysis and overview of the politics of Francophone Africa, based on both French and English sources. Somewhat dated, but still unparalleled in reach and depth.

  • Lovejoy, Paul E. Slavery, Commerce and Production in the Sokoto Caliphate of West Africa. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 2005.

    Fascinating introduction to one of the most developed precolonial African polities: the Sokoto Caliphate. Crucial to understanding colonial and postcolonial politics in this region. Highlights the roles of Islam and slavery in this society, which stretched across Benin, Niger, and Nigeria.

  • Olukoshi, Adebayo O. West Africa’s Political Economy in the Next Millennium: Retrospect and Prospect. Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA, 2001.

    Outlines the main drivers for continuity and change in contemporary West Africa, focusing on, among other topics, regional cooperation, globalization, peacekeeping, governance, civil society, and gender issues.

  • West African Research Association.

    Research association based at the University of Boston, aiming to foster collaborative research on West Africa, supplement documentation resources, and disseminate information about the region. Its West African Research Centre in Dakar, Senegal, provides research support to affiliated scholars.

  • Zeleza, Tiyambe, and Dickson Eyoh. Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century African History. London: Routledge, 2003.

    Collection of introductory articles on the major states, cities, and themes in recent African history. Good starting point for any study on Africa.

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