The Postcolonial African State in Transition

I have had Amy Niang's 2018 "The Postcolonial African State in Transition: Stateness and Modes of Sovereignty" in my to-read pile for too long, and I am glad I finally got to it. This is a heavy book, but one that makes really interesting contributions and raises thought provoking questions. In the opening, the author explains: "A leitmotif of this book is therefore a productive doubt about an established obsession, in political theory, with the Westphalian common sense of stateness and the relative disregard not only of other species of state but also of what statehood means to the entities that must give it its legitimacy." (p. 2) Drawing on detailed studies (beyond possibility of summary here), spectrums of stateness are exemplified, without judgement. Dr Niang concludes the book noting: "Despite scepticism toward the state form, it is clear by now that what is being presented here is less a critique of a regime (colonial) or a model (nation-state) and more of forms of violence than deny people the means of, and the capacity for, self-constitution. In doing this, I'm certainly not suggesting that we reject the state as an organizing framework but that we keep it open as a possibility of governance." (p. 184)


"Un-understanding the state thus means that we suspend prevailing justificatory, normative accounts of the state in the form of rigid categories that inevitably create 'proper' states as opposed to underperforming, incongruent, inchoate and inadequate ones. In this vein, commonly established accounts of the role of the state as the provider of law and order must be revised." (p. 19)

"…constitutions were framed in a foreign language and idioms inspired by the European experience in Europe. In fact, it would not be controversial to say that postcolonial constitutions were 'conditional' concessions that ensures colonial continuity, therefore dependency. They consecrated an original divide between state and society. What this orientation does is to obscure the fact that constitutions are not abstract institutions but rather 'the product of social practice' (Nugent 2010). The omission of the African experiential past and moral orders further marginalized their systems of values and the allocation of entitlements, rights and obligations of social inheritances and solidarities." (p. 193-194)

"The goal of this book has therefore been to offer accounts of different forms of sociality and accounts of community-making in diversity. To avoid confining these accounts to those interested to things 'African', I have tried to engage foundational concepts and arguments of liberal political thought particularly as they relate to discussions of sovereignty, community, sociality and moral constitutions. These accounts of being together or being-in-the-world tout court should therefore be taken seriously as useful openings for a more critical political philosophy and history. I'm not suggesting here that precolonial constitutional and institutional structures were consistently inclusive and progressive, that they were always examples of accountability and virtue for all constituencies… My concern, throughout this book, has been to show that we need to look at the intellectual tradition of 'other' peoples if we are to understand the way they relate to each other and the way they relate to things and their environment." (p. 202-203) 

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Dessalegn Rahmato on de Soto (Property Law)

A previous post covered the main arguments of Dessalegn Rahmato's "The Peasant and the State: Studies in Agrarian Change in Ethiopia, 1950s-2000s" (2008), this highlights some interesting critiques ofDe Soto's influential book and argument:

"To begin with, by over-emphasizing the determinant role of property law and its legalization de Soto adopts a state-centric view of property rights and its guarantee for the poor. But, as we shall see later, formalization of the law by itself provides no robust guarantee, and where such guarantee has been achieved it has been the result of struggles of the poor themselves and non-state agents. Moreover, formal property law, he argues, and the conversion process in the law allows the poor to convert the assets into capital. Under capitalism, he states, the legal infrastructure is hidden in the property system, and the formal property system converts assets into value (pp. 45-46). But de Soto fails to recognize that the formal property system of capitalist societies is a product of a long historical process and the outcome of competing (often warring) economic interests, social classes, political parties or section groupings. Hidden in the formal property law of a capitalist country is a small slice of its social history. Where this kind of pluralist struggle is absent or weakly manifested, as is the case in many developing countries, property law comes to reflect the interests of one dominate group, or, as in Ethiopia, that of the state and its mandarins. Here property law is not inclusive but restrictive, prohibiting disadvantaged populations the freedom and opportunity to get the full value of their assets." (p. 187)

Dessalegn continues for another two pages, on the arguments made by de Soto, for those interested.

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Post-doc: State and Disintegration in the Middle East

The CEU Center for Religious Studies and the Institute for Advanced Study at CEU announce the launch of "Striking from the Margins: Religion, State and Disintegration in the Middle East," a two-year research project commencing in September 2016 with a major grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The research program will host host two post-doctoral fellows and two doctoral scholars in its present, initial 2-year phase. The team will be based at CEU using our human and institutional resources, and embedded in an international consortium of partner institutions in Amman, Beirut, London, New York and Paris.

The Project: The project Striking from the Margins: Religion, State, and Disintegration in the Middle East seeks a nuanced and dynamic understanding of the transformations of religion in relation to those of state and social structures, most specifically in Syria and Iraq over the past three decades. It aims to work towards conceptual and analytical vocabularies which would seem adequate to the situation, eschewing facile recourse to culturalist and post-colonialist explanations and lending keen attention to social dynamics, political economy, conjunctural developments and the global setting of comparable developments elsewhere. The project is concerned centrally with processes and mechanisms whereby once marginal sets of social, cultural, political and geographical margins, including religious margins, have been moving to the political centre. This is occurring under conditions which have witnessed the atrophy of state functions and the rise of neo-patrimonial communalist, including sectarian and tribal, formations. In analytical terms, the project deliberately intends to question assumptions about religious or sectarian 'revivals,' 'returns of the repressed,' and kindered analytical terms and categories. Religion had never been absent, but recent decades have seen that the religious field in the Middle East, as elsewhere, reconfigured and redefined, very visibly and within the lifetime of one generation, in such a way as to appear as an alternative historical and social model to existing social, cultural and political practices.

The main thematicareas of the project involve:

  • The reframing of religion and the devolution of religious authority to new actors.
  • The atrophy and devolution of state functions, including some security functions, to informal patrimonial and private actors.
  • Structural marginalization and socio-economic, cultural and geographical segmentation.
  • Transnational jihadist networks and the fulfilment of the margins
  • The theme of gender practices relations, and their transformations in present circumstances of jihadism and neo-traditionalism, is a transversal one that cuts across all the others listed, and deliberate attention will be paid to it.
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