Government and politics in Africa

Key information

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Module code
FHEQ Level
Department of Politics and International Studies

Module overview

This module examines theoretically and empirically the government and politics of Africa, focusing in particular on sub-Saharan Africa, insofar as it is possible to explore a vast continent of 53 states, 48 of which lie partly or entirely below the Sahara. The study of African states and their internal politics necessarily involves the study of governance, governing ideologies, forms of ethnic and political pluralism, monopolisation of political and economic power, popular resistance to power, convergences with and fractures from international society, chronic underdevelopment and maltreatment of citizens, the emergence of active polities nonetheless, and the use and abuse of cultural linkages amid great dynamism and widespread violence. Many theoretical approaches have evolved to address the issues of African politics. Not all are helpful – and that includes those developed both in the West and Africa itself. The module will examine many of them, without being star-struck by any of them.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

By the end of the course it is anticipated participants will be able:

  1. To consider various theoretical frameworks for the analysis of African politics.
  2. To disaggregate the governments and politics of sub-Saharan African states.
  3. To establish thematic groupings for the purposes of considering and debating the governments and politics of sub-Saharan Africa.
  4. To evaluate accounts of the social and cultural origins and animations of sub-Saharan African politics.
  5. To consider normative approaches to the politics of sub-Saharan Africa and to contemplate informed alternatives for the future.
  6. To relate the governments and politics of individual sub-Saharan states to Africa-wide developments, to international pressures, and the global political economy.
  7. To pay particular attention to rural and urban political formations, and their expressions in literature, culture, religion, crime and technology.


  • 2 hour lecture per week
  • 1 hour tutorial per week

Scope and syllabus


  • Week 1: Introduction – Theorising Politics, Diversity and Disorder in Africa
  • Week 2: Shackles and Enduring Structures of History – Colonialism, Independence and Self-Determination
  • Week 3: Sovereignty, State Formation and Governance
  • Week 4: Pan-Africanism, the African Union and Regional Formations
  • Week 5: Personal Rule and Cults of Personality – Patronage, Neopatrimonialism, Clientilism and Corruption
  • Week 6: READING WEEK
  • Week 7: Military Rule and Military-Civilian Relations
  • Week 8: Facilitating Political Change – Elections, Democratic Transitions and Consolidation
  • Week 9: Sources of Cohesion and Division I: Ethnicity and Nationalism
  • Week 10: Sources of Cohesion and Division II: Religion
  • Week 11: Sources of Cohesion and Division III:  The Politics of Race and Class


  • Week 12: Below and Beyond the State I – Customary and Traditional Authority
  • Week 13: Below and Beyond the State II – Civil Society, Informal Governance and Protest
  • Week 14: Gender and Engagement with Politics
  • Week 15: African Cities, Urbanisation and the Rural Imagination
  • Week 16: Youth Politics
  • Week 17: READING WEEK
  • Week 18: Violence, Civil War and Genocide
  • Week 19: State Failure and Collapse
  • Week 20: Security, Securitisation and the Management of (Dis)Order
  • Week 21: Responding to Conflict: Peacebuilding and Transitional Justice
  • Week 22: Reconceiving ‘Home’ – Refugees, Diasporas and Contested Identities

Method of assessment

Assessment is 100% Coursework - all coursework is resubmissible

Suggested reading

A Brief History of Leading Literature

It is important that all students become familiar with the bodies of academic literature dealing with African politics. It is these, together with the pronouncements and writings of African leaders, the articulations of African citizens and civil societies, and the articulated view of international actors that comprise the discursive formation inspired by Africa and within which Africa sits. A selective sample of bodies of academic and other literature is as follows:

  1. There is a current vogue for voluminous tomes that seek to describe Africa for readers unfamiliar with the continent. These are either vast travel documents (in a line from Mungo Park) or purport also to analyse Africa – usually superficially and gloomily. The contemporary specimens by Martin Meredith and Guy Arnold fall into this category.
  2. There is a still highly influential body of writing by first-generation African political scientists, i.e. those writing at the time of independence – some of these people are still writing – and many of their works are regarded as ‘classics’. Scholars such as Zolberg, Bayart, Villalon, Rotberg and (Crawford) Young merit consultation by today’s new generation. Excerpts from some of their work are represented in Tom Young, Readings in African Politics , Oxford: James Currey, 2003.
  3. African scholars have long sought to represent their own continent’s condition, often positing a philosophical apparatus by which Africa might be viewed. The pioneer’s work has now been reprinted:
    Edward W. Blyden, Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race , Baltimore: Black Classic, 1994.
    The two most influential contemporary political/philosophical writers are:
    Valentine Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge , Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.
    Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony , Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
  4. There are two outstanding British Africanists whose work will, even amidst controversy, enter the realm of ‘classics’. The broadest sweep, with depth – in a way no one else should even attempt – has been accomplished by:
    John Iliffe, Honour in African History , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
    John Iliffe, The African Poor: a history , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
    He has maintained his best qualities in his crusading but immaculately scholarly book:
    John Iliffe, The African AIDS Epidemic: a history , Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006.
    More geographically focused in East and Southern Africa, the work of Terence Ranger is unavoidable, e.g.
    Terence Ranger, Peasant Consciousness and Guerilla War in Zimbabwe , London: James Currey, 1985.
  5. Not as scholarly, briefer and protagonising, are ‘agenda’ efforts, such as:
    Greg Mills, Poverty to Prosperity: Globalisation, Good Governance and African Recovery , Johannesburg: Tafelberg, 2002, which predated and was better than the report of the Commission for Africa, and
    Stephen Chan, Grasping Africa: A Tale of Tragedy and Achievement , London: I.B. Tauris, 2007, which reacted revisionistically to the Commission’s work.

Each of the 22 lecture topics detailed in the syllabus information is accompanied by readings. These have been kept to a workable minimum. Students are therefore advised to become familiar with them. Ambitious students, e.g. those contemplating doctoral studies, should add to them from their own library and electronic searches. All students should become familiar with key periodicals, e.g. African Affairs , The Journal of Modern African Studies , T he Journal of Southern African Studies , and Politikon .


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules