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States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control (Princeton Studies in International History and Politics) 1st Edition

4.1 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0691010281
ISBN-10: 0691010285
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Editorial Reviews


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 A brave effort to rethink some outdated approaches to fundamental problems."--Foreign Affairs

From the Inside Flap

"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

"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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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Product Details

  • Series: Princeton Studies in International History and Politics
  • Paperback: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; 1 edition (March 6, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691010285
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691010281
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.1 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #763,647 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Herbst does not contend that political geography is the sole determinant in explaining the precarious state of contemporary African nations. Rather he asserts that precolonial social and political norms as well as post-colonial adherence to an imposed state system (reified by the Addis rules) have contributed most to the Continent's current plight. He emphasizes that throughout history, African rulers have had a perpetual disregard for consolidating power in the hinterlands. By means of rational cost-benefit analysis, African rulers historically concluded that the costs of extending formal political authority into the hinterlands pointedly outweighed the purported benefits. Instead, African rulers focused their attention on the capital city and its immediate environs. This precolonial practice soon became a leit motif in African politics. Rulers in contemporary African states continue to focus their attention on the political consolidation of urban centers. When the independence-era African rulers acceded to inheriting the colonial boundaries, Herbst suggests these leaders may have become even less wont to broadcasting their writ of authority. Territorial integrity and the inviolabliity of borders (two salient precepts of the first OAU summit at Addis) convinced African leaders of the futility of broadcasting power past the capital. With no external security threat it seemed pointless to extend political control. Factors such as national design, political geography, and lack of infrastructure (esp. roads) are all strictures exacerbating the sense of alienation and disaffection hinterland populations experience as physical isolation is coupled with political disenfranchisement.Read more ›
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The scholarly literature on state creation and consolidation usually fails to account for the African experience. The central idea of this literature is that the high population density of Europe made land relatively scarce and valuable to control, particularly from the late Middle Ages onward. This and technological change in the methods of warfare (e.g., more sophisticated battle tactics and firearms) drew states into continual conflict. But warfare is costly, and early modern states required resources to attack and defend. To get money for wars, kings had to build bureaucracies, gather information, and map their territory and people. They also had to make concessions- such as creating regular parliaments where citizens could have a voice. All these things were necessary to survive. If a state did not become "stronger", then typically it became extinct. This process created the modern system of nation states with their familiar institutional infrastructures that consolidated in Europe in the nineteenth century.

Herbst's argument is that this process has not taken place in Africa. It did not take place historically in the precolonial era, it did not take place during the colonial epoch, and it is not taking place since or now. Why?

Africa is different because the structural conditions that led to the path of state formation and institution building in Europe were absent in Africa. Unlike in Europe, land was and is not scarce in Africa. Rather, labor was scarce. Thus in the precolonial period, states did not fight over land, but rather people. This meant that precolonial states had vague borders and were often very "weak".
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While Herbst writes of Africa his thoughts could just as well be titled 'war and the state' in general. Herbst begins by questioning a few elements of conventional historical study. He argues that pre-colonial Africa was important in relation to current political situations. The nature of population movement and strategies of control and power cannot go unnoticed in the pre-colonial era. What does this mean for theory of states and our international system? In another look at state formation, Joan Lockwood O'Donovan questions the African state model noticing that while Africa has been cut in to the international mold of state systems it also has the largest number of refugees. For O'Donovan, this means the state system is not a good fit for Africa where nationalism is lost in debate between state loyalty and cultural, ethnic and linguistic loyalty.

Herbst explains the refugee phenomenon further by claiming that when Europe formed its states' systems over densely populated areas, African leaders enforced their power over a central city, projecting their power outward in concentric circles without borders. The availability of land allowed for free movement of Africa's inhabitants. During the colonial era this meant whole villages could cross political borders to escape the harsh rule of one colonizer for the dominance of another less harsh. The initial jubilation of state loyalty (classical nationalism) was short-lived during the independence movements of the 60s and 70s.

As the new African state leaders moved to consolidate their power this also meant their boundaries; creating rules for citizenship, currency and power projection. Herbst excplaimed that Africans lacked creativity in their African rulership.
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