In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Postcolonial Sub-Saharan African Politics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Decolonization
  • Implications of BRICS Economics

African Studies Postcolonial Sub-Saharan African Politics
John W. Harbeson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0057


Postcolonial politics in Africa have been, and continue to be, still very much works in progress. Prevailing designs for building prosperous, viable, stable states have changed markedly over sub-Saharan Africa’s first half-century of independence through reliance upon various hypothesized keys to overcoming fundamental and endemic manifestations of political and economic underdevelopment. Leaders of the mass-based nationalist parties that brought their countries to independence charted the first visions of postcolonial politics, centering upon rapid, egalitarian, state-led political development. These generally dissolved amid political disarray with their objectives largely unrealized. In response, from the 1970s onward, post-independence African countries’ engagement in world affairs coincided increasingly with dominant external influence upon the objectives and shape of African politics. This trend has continued in varied and changing forms into the 21st century. The rapidly and profoundly changing contours of late-20th and early-21st-century world politics and the global economy have intertwined, at least until recently, with predominant weakness and political decay in African politics as well as endemic economic underdevelopment. These conditions have spawned sharply divergent formulations of what has been required to overcome them. The influencing vectors shaping these formulations have been many, varied, and contrasting. They have included (1) residual legacies of colonial rule along with evolving international regimes enshrining democracy and human rights; (2) contending orthodoxies in the academy and in policy arenas concerning the nature of the state and its proper roles in development processes; and (3) African cultural norms, as they have endured and been reformulated in colonial and post-independence times, juxtaposed to increasingly pervasive liberalizing and secular mores of the West, notably with respect to gender and religion. Cross-cutting all of these influencing vectors have been cascading paradigmatic world changing events: (1) the changing roles of the Bretton Woods institutions, (2) the end of the Cold War, (3) revolutionary information technologies, (4) ascendant BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and more recently South Africa) and other emergent economies, (4) increasingly salient environmental imperatives, and (5) fallout from the events of 11 September 2001. Following an overview section, these dimensions of postcolonial African politics will be traced in this annotated bibliographic essay in terms of (1) political decolonization processes; (2) African postcolonial visions and their decay; (3) externally induced models of postcolonial polities in response to paradigm changing global events, reflecting emergent international regimes; (4) post–Cold War democratization; (5) claims and quests for postcolonial cultural and political identity; (6) crises of the postcolonial African state and their amelioration; (7) indicators and measures of postcolonial political development; and (8) intimations of possible futures for postcolonial African states.

General Overviews

The study of postcolonial African politics has both influenced (and been influenced by) salient themes in the study of comparative politics more generally. Goran Hyden, one of the foremost students of African politics, supplies that context in Hyden 2013. The fields of comparative politics and international relations have always been closely interconnected and at no time more so than in the early 21st century. Four editions of Africa in World Politics since 1991 (and a fifth forthcoming in 2013) edited by John Harbeson and the late Donald Rothchild (Harbeson and Rothchild 2013), have brought together leading students of these interrelationships. The study of African postcolonial politics can be properly understood only through an appreciation of the long sweep of African history, including colonial and centuries of precolonial history. Basil Davidson has been one of the premier students of African history, and Davidson 1994 brings together his insights and those of distinguished students of African history and politics to supply that perspective. The nature and condition of the African state has been perhaps the central problem of the study of African politics in post-independence times, but it has necessarily taken into account the roles and both colonial and precolonial precedents. At the heart of the problem of the African state has been the reality that as it is generally understood today the state has been a Western implant in Africa. Meeting the requirements of Western stateness has posed profound, even controversial, challenges for African political leaders and their citizens, a struggle that Herbst 2000 explores. The nature of the colonial state as a genre of Western stateness and their enduring influence on postcolonial politics are the subject of two magisterial books by Crawford Young, The African Post Colonial State (Young 2012), and The African Colonial State (Young 1994, cited under Weak, Corrupt, Unreconstructed Colonial States). The condition and problems of the state in post-independence Africa has been at the forefront of the study of African politics in an era when the economic as well as political failings of new postcolonial states throughout the developing world prompted the rescue of the state within the field of political science from its reductionist treatment in both modernization and dependency theories. Evans, et al. 1985 was instrumental in that rescue of the state.

  • Davidson, Basil, ed. The Search for Africa: History, Culture, and Politics. New York: Times Books, 1994.

    A collection of essays that yields important and representative perspectives on the African cultural aspirations as expressed in the troubled political arenas.

  • Evans, Peter B., Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol, eds. Bringing the State Back In. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511628283

    The story of post-independence African politics has largely centered around the struggles and travails of African states. This collection was pathbreaking in restoring the study of the state to preeminence after decades in which it was largely subordinated to the study of broader processes of modernization and/or dependent development that African and other developing countries were thought to be immersed in.

  • Harbeson, John, and Donald Rothchild, eds. Africa in World Politics: Reforming Political Order. 5th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2013.

    A dozen leading students of African politics reflect on the major contemporary issues affecting the continent’s participation and roles in world affairs. A sixth edition is forthcoming in 2017.

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

    An important historically and comparatively grounded study of the problem of sub-Saharan African state formation, addressing the nature and basis of their pervasive contemporary weakness.

  • Hyden, Goran. African Politics in Comparative Perspective. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    The most cogent and concise introduction to the study of African politics from the perspective of the broader study of comparative politics of which it is a component.

  • Young, Crawford. The Post-Colonial State in Africa: A Half-Century of Independence, 1960–2010. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012.

    A magisterial, authoritative review of the evolution of half a century of post-independence politics, deeply influenced as they have been by colonial precedents.

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