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States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control

States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control

by Jeffrey Herbst

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Theories of international relations, assumed to be universally applicable, have failed to explain the creation of states in Africa. There, the interaction of power and space is dramatically different from what occurred in Europe. In States and Power in Africa, Jeffrey Herbst places the African state-building process in a truly comparative perspective. Herbst


Theories of international relations, assumed to be universally applicable, have failed to explain the creation of states in Africa. There, the interaction of power and space is dramatically different from what occurred in Europe. In States and Power in Africa, Jeffrey Herbst places the African state-building process in a truly comparative perspective. Herbst's bold contention—that the conditions now facing African state-builders existed long before European penetration of the continent—is sure to provoke controversy, for it runs counter to the prevailing assumption that colonialism changed everything.

This revised edition includes a new preface in which the author links the enormous changes that have taken place in Africa over the past fifteen years to long-term state consolidation. The final chapter on policy prescriptions has also been revised to reflect the evolution of African and international responses to state failure.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Co-Winner of the 2001 Gregory Luebbert Best Book Award, Comparative Politics Section of the American Political Science Association

"This ambitious and original book turns a comparative historical lens on state-building in Africa. . . . A brave effort to rethink some outdated approaches to fundamental problems."Foreign Affairs

Foreign Affairs
This ambitious and original book turns a comparative historical lens on state-building in Africa. . . . A brave effort to rethink some outdated approaches to fundamental problems.

Product Details

Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Studies in International History and Politics Series
Edition description:
Second edition with a New Preface
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

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States and Power in Africa

Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control

By Jeffrey Herbst


Copyright © 2000 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-5232-1


The Challenge of State-Building in Africa

The history of every continent is written clearly in its geographical features, but of no continent is this more true than of Africa. Lord Hailey, An African Survey

The fundamental problem facing state-builders in Africa—be they precolonial kings, colonial governors, or presidents in the independent era—has been to project authority over inhospitable territories that contain relatively low densities of people. Sub-Saharan Africa, with roughly 18 percent of the world's surface area, has always been sparsely settled. Africa had only 6 to 11 percent of the world's population in 1750, 5 to 7 percent in 1900, and only 11 percent in 1997. Relatively low population densities in Africa have automatically meant that it always has been more expensive for states to exert control over a given number of people compared to Europe and other densely settled areas. As John Iliffe wrote, "In the West African savannah, underpopulation was the chief obstacle to state formation."

In only a few places in Africa, including the Great Lakes region and the Ethiopian highlands, are there ecologies that have supported relatively high densities of people. Not surprisingly, these areas, with the longest traditions of relatively centralized state structures, have been periodically able to exercise direct control over their peripheries. However, ecological conditions throughout most of the continent do not allow high densities of people to be easily supported. More than 50 percent of Africa has inadequate rainfall; indeed, contrary to the popular imagination, only 8 percent of the continent has a tropical climate. Approximately one-third of the world's arid land is in Africa.

In Africa, two other factors have aggravated the cost of extending power in the face of low population densities. First, African countries have quite varied environmental conditions. Ecological differences across provinces of a country in West Africa, which can be coastal, forest, savannah, or near-desert, are greater than in any European country. Therefore, the models of control an African state must develop for these highly differentiated zones are more varied, and thus more costly, than what a government in Europe or Asia must implement in order to rule over their more homogenous rural areas. Second, it is expensive to project power over distance in Africa because of the combination of a peculiar set of geographical features. As Ralph Austen notes,

The geography of Africa also presents serious barriers to long-distance transport. Water travel is limited by the small amount of indented shoreline relative to the size of the interior surface of the continent, as well as the disrupted navigability of most rivers, due to rapids and seasonal shallows. The wheel was introduced into northern Africa for overland travel during ancient times but then abandoned because the terrain and distances to be covered could not feasibly be provided with the necessary roads.

The daunting nature of Africa's geography is one of the reasons the region was only colonized in the late 1800s despite its proximity to Europe. The Europeans found it easier to colonize Latin America hundreds of years before despite the much greater distances involved.

Why the particular pattern of population density occurred, given Africa's geography, is not within my competence to explain. Rather, this book examines how successive sets of leaders in Africa responded to a political geography they were forced to take as a given. This is not an argument for the kind of geographical determinism that has captivated scholars from Ibn Khaldûn to Montesquieu to Jeffrey Sachs. A variety of paths were open to African leaders as they confronted their environments. However, the challenges posed by political geography, especially low population densities, could not be ignored by any leader. Such an approach offers a tremendous methodological advantage: by holding the physical environment "constant," I can focus on the precise political calculations of different African leaders over time as they sought to design their states.

In this book, I argue that leaders confront three sets of issues when building their states: the cost of expanding the domestic power infrastructure; the nature of national boundaries; and the design of state systems. Understanding the decisions made regarding each is critical, and there are profound trade-offs inherent to different approaches. Africa's political geography helped structure the responses that leaders adopted to each set of issues just as European decisions were influenced by the structural features of that region. The following two sections provide a comparison of Europe and Africa's political geographies. I then develop the analytic tools that are central to this study.

The European Experience of State Consolidation

The African experience of politics amid large supplies of land and low population densities while confronting an inhospitable physical setting is in dramatic contrast to the European experience of state-building. In Europe, through the fourteenth century, population densities were not high enough to put immediate pressure on land and compel territorial competition. As Mattingly notes, "In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the continental space of Western Europe still impeded any degree of political organization efficient enough to create a system of continuous diplomatic pressures."

However, starting in the fifteenth century in Italy and later elsewhere, population densities increased. As a result, European nations began to compete for territory, a tendency that only makes sense if population densities are relatively high and vacant land is limited or nonexistent, so that the value of conquering land is higher than the price to be paid in wealth and men. In turn, there was significant pressure to strengthen states in order to fight wars. Charles Tilly notes that one of the central reasons for the creation of relatively centralized state apparatuses in Europe was the "continuous aggressive competition for trade and territory among changing states of unequal size, which made war a driving force in European history." Wars of territorial conquest, as chapter four notes in much greater detail, have been central to the formation of particular types of states because they create, quite literally, a life and death imperative to raise taxes, enlist men as soldiers, and develop the necessary infrastructure to fight and win battles against rapacious neighbors.

Because European states were forged with iron and blood, it was critical for the capital to physically control its hinterland. Tilly notes, "as rulers bargained directly with their subject populations for massive taxes, military service, and cooperation in state programs, most states took further steps of profound importance: a movement toward direct rule that reduced the role of local or regional patrons and places representatives of the national state in every community, and expansion of popular consultation in the form of elections, plebiscites, and legislatures." In particular, the constant threat of war and the need to protect valued territory meant that the physiology of the state forced leaders to place particular emphasis on control of remote areas that could be lost in battle. Again, Tilly notes: "Europeans followed a standard war-provoking logic: everyone who controlled substantial coercive means tried to maintain a secure area within which he could enjoy the returns from coercion, plus a fortified buffer zone, possibly run at a loss, to protect the secure area." These border defenses protected the state from its external competitors and, simultaneously, completed the job of internal consolidation. Thus, frontier fortifications have been, according to Frederick the Great, the "mighty nails which hold a ruler's provinces together." Lord Salisbury—a critical participant in the scramble for Africa, and the eponym for the capital of Southern Rhodesia—even said, in exasperation, that if his military advisers had their way, they would garrison the moon to prevent an attack from Mars.

Successful European state development was therefore characterized by profound links between the cities—the core political areas—and the surrounding territories. Indeed, the growth of states was closely correlated with the development of significant urban areas. As Tilly has argued, "The commercial and demographic impact of cities made a significant difference to state formation.... The existence of intensive rural-urban trade provided an opportunity for rulers to collect revenues through customs and excise taxes, while the relatively commercialized economy made it easier for monarchs to bypass great landlords as they extended royal power to towns and villages." Critically, for this study, he goes on to note, "Cities shape the destinies of states chiefly by serving as containers and distribution points for capital. By means of capital, urban ruling classes extend their influence through the urban hinterland and across far-flung trading networks." So profound have been the ties between the major cities and the countryside that the roster of great cities that have dominated the western world (Venice, Antwerp, Genoa, Amsterdam, London, New York) stand as excellent proxies to the rise and fall of national powers.

Understanding African Politics

However, Europe's demographic history is not shared by many other parts of the world. It is quite remarkable that by 1975, Africa had only reached the level of population density that occurred in Europe in 1500. Nor is Africa's population density unusual. Many other regions of the world are also sparsely settled. As is clear from table 1.1, Latin America, North Africa, and the areas of the former Soviet Union have population densities that are historically much closer to Africa than to Europe.

The ramifications of lower population densities can be seen in the very different history of relations between capitals and their hinterlands. In Africa, in contrast to Europe, the current states were created well before many of the capital cities had reached maturity. Addis Ababa appears to be the only example of rapid urban growth in a designated capital not under the control of Europeans. Elsewhere in the precolonial period, even royal villages moved periodically as "soil become exhausted or buildings deteriorated or as bad fortune indicated that the old site had lost its virtue." Even most of the storied towns of West Africa were quite small until after colonial rule began. For instance, in 1901, Lagos had only eighteen thousand people and Accra about twenty-one thousand, while as late as 1931 only ten thousand people lived in Abidjan. At the turn of the century, only Ibadan, with two hundred thousand, had what could be considered to be a large population. Similarly, in 1906, the two largest towns in East Africa were Dar es Salaam with twenty thousand and Mombasa with thirty thousand people.

The Europeans, after formally colonizing Africa in the late-nineteenth century, did create many urban areas. However, these cities did not serve as the basis of state creation in the same manner as occurred in Europe because the colonizers were not interested in duplicating the power infrastructure which bound city to hinterland in their homelands. Rather, the cities were mainly designed to service the needs of the colonizers. Particularly telling are the location of the capitals the colonialists created. By 1900, twenty-eight of the forty-four colonial capitals were located on the coast, demonstrating the low priority of extending power inland compared to the need for easy communication and transport links with Europe. Rather systematically, Europeans created capitals that moved power toward the ocean and away from the interior centers of power that Africans had slowly created and that had managed to exert control over parts of their surrounding territories. Thus, Lagos became the capital of Nigeria rather than Ibadan, Ife, or Sokoto; Accra the capital of the Gold Coast (Ghana) rather than Kumasi; and Bamako (with its good links to the Senegalese coast), the capital of Mali instead of Timbuktu. Some colonial capitals, including Lusaka, Nairobi, Salisbury (now Harare), and Windhoek were created de novo outside of preexisting polities in order to service the logistical and health needs of the white conquerors. Many others, including Abidjan, Banjul, Dakar, and Kinshasa, were also newly established by the colonialists but quickly acquired an African veneer because they were not in settler colonies. In extreme examples of how African capital cities did not follow the European pattern of extending power, Mauritania and Bechuanaland (now Botswana) were actually ruled by capitals outside their nominal boundaries during the colonial period (Saint-Louis and Mafeking, respectively).

Accordingly, once the capitals were created, they did not immediately begin to effectively extend power throughout their extensive but sparsely settled territories. Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch finds that "as of the beginning of the twentieth century, the colonial penetration had barely begun." W. Arthur Lewis concluded that prior to World War II, "The countryside had no continuous politics." Tellingly, it was only in the limited number of settler colonies, almost entirely in southern Africa, that the colonial state's reach was extended in a comprehensive manner. In Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the presence of a relatively large number of white settlers who saw themselves living permanently in Africa, in contrast to most colonialists who were transients, propelled the creation of a remarkably efficient and brutal state that protected the settlers from market forces while dispossessing many Africans of their land. The fact that wars of liberation had to be fought in Africa's settler colonies (e.g., Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, Namibia) was in good part a reflection of the simple fact that unlike the rest of Africa, where the transfer of power was astonishingly peaceful, those colonial states had the motivation and the ability to fight for power.

During the terminal colonial period, politics become national in many countries as nationalist movements emerged. However, neglect of the rural areas by colonial governments over decades, combined with organizational problems posed by a large peasant population atomistically dispersed across a vast hinterland that had few roads or telephones, deterred most politicians from investing heavily in mobilizing the rural areas. As a result, nationalist politics in the 1950s and 1960s were very much urban affairs. As Aristide Zolberg concluded:

But it is difficult to believe, on the basis of the evidence available, that under existing circumstances the capacity of these [nationalist] movements for "mobilization" extended much beyond intermittent electioneering and the collection of more tangible support in the form of party dues from a tiny fraction of the population. Although their ambition was often to extend tentacles throughout society, they were creatures with a relatively large head in the capital and fairly rudimentary limbs.

The nationalists received states that were appropriate to the way they had conducted their politics: primarily urban, with few links to the surrounding countryside where most of the population lived. In turn, they furthered the urban bias of their states by marginalizing peasant populations and by providing urban groups with privileged access to many of the resources allocated by the state. As Robert H. Bates documented, African politicians traditionally equated their political survival with appeasing their urban populations via subsidies even if the much larger, and poorer, rural populations had to be taxed.

After independence, many African countries made significant progress in extending administrative structures over their territories. However, African leaders still find physical control over substantial parts of the population to be a difficult issue. For instance, Goran Hyden argues that because African peasants depend primarily on rain-fed agriculture rather than on cooperative techniques of production, such as irrigation found in more densely settled areas, and because smallholders are less integrated into the cash economy than elsewhere in the world, the peasantry in Africa is "uncaptured." Hyden argues that because "the state does not really enter into the solution of his [the African peasant's] existential problems" there is "a definite limit ... to how far enforcement of state policies can go in the context of peasant production." Similarly, Michael Bratton has argued that "The essence of the postcolonial history of sub-Saharan Africa is therefore an unresolved political struggle: On one hand, political elites wish to extend the authority of the state over scattered populations, most of whom live in rural areas; on the other hand, peasants remain determined to preserve a realm of authority within which to make decisions about their own lives." It is hardly surprising that in a United Nations' survey, African governments were more likely to express unhappiness over their population distributions than governments in any other regions of the world.


Excerpted from States and Power in Africa by Jeffrey Herbst. Copyright © 2000 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

Charles Tilly
Herbst's arguments will excite controversy among students of African history and politics, who have built up an extensive story about European transformations of African politics. His analysis raises doubts about how deeply those transformations went; rather, he maintains that durable conditions of topography and social structure have long constrained African state formation. Herbst offers an integrated account of state formation, transformation, and deformation in sub-Saharan Africa.
Charles Tilly, Columbia University, author of "Durable Inquality"
An original and intriguing book, which I read with the greatest interest. Herbst's argument is provocative and lucidly presented. This book will be read and debated not only by Africanists but also by others in the political science community. It is the most important and successful contribution to the literature on African politics since Jackson and Rosberg's Personal Rule in Black Africa.
Robert H. Bates, Harvard University, author of "Open-Economy Politics: The Political Economy of the World Coffee Trade"

Meet the Author

Jeffrey Herbst is president of Colgate University.

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