Insight in a singular view of Africa

Politics and Society in Contemporary Africa - African Politics and Society
November 24, 2000

The study of African politics is "so exciting" declaim the authors of one of these texts, which offer an introduction to the study of African politics and stake out the field in similar terms, but with a clear difference in the style of presentation. The other text more effectively conveys a sense of that excitement.

Both books deal with the principal schools of interpretation, the liberal tradition from modernisation onwards, neo-Marxian or dependency approaches. They deal in similar terms with state/society relations, with military and other regimes, with ethnicity and class, with possible transitions to multi-party democracy, with relations between Africa and the outside world and with prospects for the future. They each make perfunctory recognition of the need to integrate studies of sub-Saharan Africa with those of northern Africa, then go on largely to ignore north Africa. That geographical separation, with its racial shadow, follows the literature.

The contrast between the two texts lies in the presentation of the subject — this is at bottom a contrast between single and collective authorship. The single author comes out on top, taking a risk, reaching out for the reader’s interest. Peter Schraeder offers an imaginative introduction to the subject that is based on his own teaching experience at Loyola University, Chicago. As far as possible, he refers to particular cases (with helpful guides to further reading in each case), breaking up the text with boxes on particular themes or controversies ranging from female genital mutilation to Franco-African summits and la francophonie. There is a balanced review of France’s competition with the United States for African influence after the cold war, "Rhetoric and reality in support of democratisation". An excellent chapter on the politics of the African novel introduces the controversies surrounding novels and novelists, starting with the choice of language in which to write — African or European? One hears Schraeder talking to his class, inviting their questions, keeping their interest alive.

The collective authorship of Politics and Society in Contemporary Africa (Naomi Chazan et al) deals most comfortably with generalisations and prudent approximations, and does not go into any detail on specific examples. The authors seem to be aiming for a voice of authority, they are not worried if the audience is falling asleep. At the chosen level of generality, there is nothing much with which to disagree — nor is there much to engage one’s interest, although the new chapter on "South Africa: The possibilities and limits of transforming state and society" is an honourable exception. The rest of the text falls some way short of supporting the authors’ concluding remark that the study of African politics is "so exciting".

That is a pity, because there is nothing wrong with the subject. Yes, at one level the record of African regimes is often unimpressive, full of faltering institutions and weak economic performance; these are old familiars. But at another level — the state’s capacity to survive — there is nothing boring about the question and nothing predetermined about the answer. Neither of these texts takes on the question of state survival directly, but Schraeder does suggest where you might start looking.

Donal B. Cruise O’Brien is professor of political studies with reference to Africa, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

    

Politics and Society in Contemporary Africa: Third edition

Author - Naomi Chazan, Peter Lewis, Robert Mortimer, Donald Rothchild and Stephen John Stedman
ISBN - 1 55587 668 4 and 679 X
Publisher - Palgrave (formerly Macmillan Press)
Price - £15.50
Pages - 498

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