Africa is not a country, but a continent. Notwithstanding, Africa is often seen as a single bloc in academia and beyond and too often generalized. Three figures highlight the need to challenge this: Africa is home to 55 states, around 1.2 billion people live there, and they speak more than 3,000 languages. Acknowledging the diversity of Africa that these three figures imply was the starting point of my endeavor to write a book on African history and politics since decolonization. The core idea was to picture the diverse historical and political developments that took and take place on the continent.
It was not only the prejudiced perception of Africa as a single bloc that inspired me to embark on the journey to produce a concise book on African history and contemporary politics – Africa Since Decolonization – but also the relative ignorance vis-á-vis the continent and the people leaving there. In 2005, Binyavanga Wainaina masterfully captured this ignorance in his iconic and wonderfully ironic essay “How to write about Africa.” In this text, he pointed to several manifested stereotypes about Africa that stem from an unwillingness of non-Africans to engage closely with the continent, instead conveniently linking Africa to terms like darkness, safari, Masai, drum, sun, and guerilla.
Wainanina was not the only African to fight the biased perceptions of the continent. Other intellectuals like Achille Mbembe, Felwine Sarr, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o likewise urge to rethink the perspectives of and thinking about Africa and challenge many stereotypes. Writers like Alain Mabanckou, Abdourrahman Waberi, Dipo Faloyin, and Stephen Buoro more recently flank these works by offering insightful and intriguing accounts of the rich and diverse life in Africa.
How to write about Africa
Albeit written by a white man from Europe, my book speaks to these contributions insofar as it is meant to challenge the notion of Africa being a single bloc and to underline the richness of the diverse continent that should be seen beyond stereotypes. My attempt to write about African history and politics is inspired by some of Hedley Bull’s maxims, which I consider applicable beyond the school to which he contributed. Bull, amongst others, demanded us to ask the big questions and get the big picture, to hold up every fashion to the mirror of history, and to acknowledge the extent to which we are in the dark rather than pretending that we can see the light. Applied to my book this means that I do not claim that my account of African history and politics is ultimately true. Rather, I offer my perspective on African history and politics that stems from a very close engagement with the topics that I cover over several years.
Two points differentiate my book from other introductory books on African history and politics. First, as should be clear by now, I carve out many nuances. Second, I do not view developments in Africa taking place in a vacuum. Indeed, I place African history in a global history (something that is rarely done by historians) and show connections between political developments in Africa and developments elsewhere (something that is little done by political scientists). This makes the book also interesting for those who are interested in International Relations.
My treatment of the topic “Africa’s role in world politics” makes this difference all too clear. Search for literature on this topic in any academic database and you will find numerous studies that investigate the role external actors play in Africa. In those accounts, Africa is acted upon; it is on the receiving end. While one chapter in my book explores such external influences – which are an undeniable fact – another chapter broadens the perspective and complements the picture insofar as it explores the influences African actors have on world politics, particularly those policies that reach beyond Africa. As such, I analyze the role African states and the African Union play in the international negotiations on how to deal with climate change and how they work to transform international orders. In short, I see African players also as acting and influencing international politics and not only being on the recipients of policies designed elsewhere.
Putting African agency centre stage
Studies that put “African agency” centre state are urgently needed as African actors are increasingly gaining bargaining power in an international environment that is not anymore dominated by Western states. In fact, the environment has changed over the past two decades and African states can now find support from a broad range of other actors, most notably from China.
This changing international environment not only puts African governments into a stronger position on the international level (for an illustrative example watch the helpless and hapless looking French President Emmanuel Macron when being lectured by Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo) but has also repercussions on the domestic level. As I argue in the book, it is no coincident that the current reversal of several of the democratic achievements of the 1990s and early 2000s takes place at a time when the West has lost its monopoly in Africa.
Western states and international institution dominated by them could force African governments to democratize and liberalize trade during the 1990s. This was not possible during the Cold War as neither the United States nor the Soviet Union cared about the regime type for as long as the respective government belonged their camp. In effect, both superpowers strengthened authoritarian rule. With the rise of China in Africa and other actors in its slipstream, the West’s monopoly ended and the bargaining power of Western governments decreased while the one of their African counterparts increased, given of the various alternatives they could now cooperate with.
The content in a nutshell
Besides elaborating on the development of the political systems in Africa, I reflect on the decolonization and the legacies of the colonial period in two chapters of the book to show path dependencies. In addition, I explore the economic situation in two chapters that cover the time up until 2000 and the period thereafter. Having started my academic career with a study on the African Union – and noticing the role that organization plays on the continent and beyond – I considered it as crucial to include a chapter on intra-African cooperation and integration. I also discuss political crises like secession attempts, coups, electoral violence, and terrorism in a separate chapter. There is another chapter on large-scale conflicts, in which I scrutinize amongst others inter- and intra-state wars as well as genocides. Furthermore, I included a chapter on conflict management, which builds on my research on peace operations in Africa. Throughout the book, I provide facts and figures to highlight that some countries and regions are more affected than others by the phenomena I discuss – thereby underlining my overall argument of Africa being a diverse continent.
Moving beyond biased generalizations, challenging stereotypes, and carving out nuances has been the main motivation to write the book. The goal was to offer a more reflected picture of Africa. As the journalist Hodding Carter has noted in 1987, “[t]here is a difference between the Africa you read about or see on your TV screen, and the other more complex Africa that is hidden from you.” My book shows that we are well advised to pay more attention to the “hidden Africa” in order to present Africa – a continent, not a country – in its diversity and complexity than in simplistic and maybe even unwarranted terms. My account is meant to open the door to see and understand African history, politics, and their effects in a broader way, including hidden aspects and I wish you would start engaging with.
Martin Welz is Professor at the Department of Social Sciences and Public Affairs, University of the Bundeswehr Munich, Germany.