In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section State Building in Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • The Precolonial Era
  • The Colonial Era
  • Early Postcolonial Analyses (1960s–1970s)
  • Structural Adjustment and Crises (1980s–1990s)
  • Post-Washington Consensus (2000s)
  • Aid, Natural Resources, and State-Building
  • War and the International Relations of State-Building

Political Science State Building in Sub-Saharan Africa
Elliott Green
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0050


State-building in Africa has long been a concern of scholars and policymakers. The subject is particularly fascinating because of the large and quick shift from a continent largely populated by small states and acephalous societies in the precolonial era to one partitioned among European powers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and then to one in which four dozen new sovereign countries were created upon independence. For decades the ongoing question in Africa has been how these new states could build themselves into modern nation-states. This issue became especially pertinent in the context of large-scale political and economic collapse from the 1970s onward and the resultant donor-driven structural adjustment and reform programs. The effects on state-building of both political and economic instability and the subsequent attempts at reform have been the subject of major debate, as has the relationship between the continent’s numerous civil wars and state formation. Africa is also a continent rich with numerous natural resources, such as oil and diamonds, many of which have had an effect on state-building together with continued supplies of foreign aid.

General Overviews

Numerous textbooks on African politics and African studies could be useful to readers; however, the eight books that are listed here directly engage with the more specific topic of African state-building. Both Bayart 1993 and Chabal and Daloz 1999 are by Francophone scholars and thus wrestle slightly more than the others with the French-language literature on state formation and state-building. Others such as Englebert 2009 and Young 1994 treat both Francophone and Anglophone Africa and are thus unusually comprehensive in their coverage of the continent. Young 1994 is the only book here that discusses North Africa as well. Although Boone 2003 and Mamdani 1996 both largely rely upon select case studies, they also develop frameworks that are generally applicable throughout the continent and are thus essential reading for scholars. Herbst 2000 is unusual in its use of political geography and political demography, and Hyden 2006 is perhaps the closest book on the list to a textbook on African state-building.

  • Bayart, Jean-François. The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly. London: Longman, 1993.

    A highly influential book from an expert on Cameroon noting the way that African politicians have neglected state-building in favor of coalition-building, with adverse consequences for most African citizens. Originally published in French as L’État en Afrique: La politique du ventre (Paris: Fayard, 1989).

  • Boone, Catherine. Political Topographies of the African State: Territorial Authority and Institutional Choice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511615597

    Despite the geographical focus on West Africa, this book proposes a general model of state formation across Africa’s uneven political terrain, with an eye toward the current importance of territorial, or “sons of the soil,” politics.

  • Chabal, Patrick, and Jean-Pascal Daloz. Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

    A book that reverses the dominant idea that African politicians have tried to avoid economic, social, and political disorder in arguing that, on the contrary, African politicians have survived and flourished through the promotion of disorder and state failure.

  • Englebert, Pierre. Africa: Unity, Sovereignty and Sorrow. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2009.

    A new work that explains why African states have formed around former colonial boundaries and have largely avoided secession, with attention to the entire continent. Based in part on field work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Zambia.

  • Herbst, Jeffrey. States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

    An overview of state-building in Africa from the precolonial period through the postcolonial era, with a focus on the role of the extension of state power over space.

  • Hyden, Goran. African Politics in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    A textbook that builds upon Hyden’s previous work on Tanzania by stating that African state formation has floundered due to the “uncaptured peasantry” who live outside the bounds of the state and formal economy.

  • Mamdani, Mahmood. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

    A modern classic that argues that the modern African state is bifurcated between urban citizens and rural subjects due to the impact of colonial policies of “indirect rule.” The two prime examples used are South Africa and Uganda.

  • Young, Crawford. The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.

    An ambitious book relating the creation of modern colonial states in Africa to previous colonial efforts in other parts of the world with attention to the legacy of colonialism in contemporary efforts at state formation in Africa.

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