Changing stateness in Africa


Predominantly the debate in the humanities and social sciences on the state in Africa is highly normative. Based on an interpretation of Weber and a shared understanding of what a state ought to be, a universalized model of statehood – which is said to exist in the OECD world – was transferred to Africa. The real state in Africa then is measured in terms of deviations from this model which in the West is now massively put into question by people insisting on the newness of the situation due to recent processes of globalization. The academic (and political) debate is focused on phenomenologies which are descriptive rather than analytical, but rich in metaphors. Not surprisingly the state in Africa is seen as deficient: “juridical” trumps “empirical” statehood. The conventional narrative is one of “state decay” or “state failure”.

The point of departure of our project is following the change of perspective advocated by the SPP 1448. Intensified projects of globalisation and the way Africa is integrated into these processes are causing various re-territorialisations of different localities in African states, from the capital to ports to small towns. Those projects driven by powerful actors around the world and often described as globalisation have an enormous impact on Africa and tend to respace the continent’s political, so¬cial and economic landscapes. Our epistemology is based on historical and recent empirical ob¬servations in which, in line with postulates developed through the so-called spatial turn, territoriality and sovereignty are increasingly de-linked; different forms of sovereignty are practiced beyond the state and by a variety of non-state actors. In Africa the state is just one actor among many other authorities. What was seen for long as a particularity of states in Africa becomes now a description of changing stateness in other geographical realms as well. But evidently the state in Africa remains a research topic in its own right.

The somehow confusing, simultaneous debates about the nature of the state in the Global North, where it had almost been declared dead, and “failing states” in Africa invite for more careful investigation with regard to the mismatch between a Western (in fact Weberian) model applied to postcolonial circumstances and the realities of stateness in Africa as experienced and expected by African people. They address only certain, but not all of their expectations into the provision of (semi- or para-) public goods to the state.

This project wants to contribute to the debate on the nature of the state in Africa by focusing on the subjective experience of changing stateness in Africa. We assume that the functions states have to perform as well as expectations of people on what states should do are changing as a result of uneven processes of globalisation. On the one hand we are interested in how, under these circum¬stances, state institutions master the adaptation and cultural coding of creativity when they trans¬late external concepts of “state” into local ones. And on the other we want to investigate how core actors in these processes of adaptation and cultural coding, i.e. discourse entrepreneurs such as academics, journalists, trade unionists, businessmen, people involved in the work of NGOs, imagine and practice changing stateness in Africa. Methodologically, we analyse these processes based on the assumptions of the cultural transfer approach (Espagne 1999; Middell 2000), which shares common ground with the literature on travelling concepts (Czarniawska and Joerges 1996; Behrends, Park and Rottenburg 2014; Middell 2014).

In both Cameroon and Ghana we, firstly, were interested in how Africans experience what African states themselves consider as their core business, e.g. the (internal) integration of people into a common political community and their (external) representation as well as the delivery of a set of social goods and the provision of internal and external security. We have confronted the imagina¬tions and practices of key discourse entrepreneurs (ranging from political, civil-society, economic and social actors to representatives of the ‘state’ at regional and local levels) with the way the state (here understood and analysed in its most centralised representations) is enacted (or signified) and acts. We also analysed their expectations towards what the state should do under conditions of changing stateness and how this change of challenges, and reactions to these challenges, are per¬ceived. A second focus has been on state institutions’ translations of external “state” and “development” concepts into local ones, with a view to how historically elder (pre-colonial, colonial and post-independence) forms of stateness and social contracting are mobilised.

In the second project period (2013-2015) we systematically developed further the comparative design with regard to the central concepts of the SPP 1448, also by extending the empirical basis of our research by including another case study, Ethiopia. This has offered the opportunity to bring in a very different post-colonial experience. The reason for including Ethiopia into the comparative research design is two-fold: Firstly, Ethiopia adds to the internal dimension of the research design a distinctive history of stateness and, secondly, it adds to the external dimension of the project a new angle.

Our research on Cameroon during phase II has so far focused on the interconnectedness of the institutions of chieftaincy and the formal state. “Traditional” authorities have adopted a crucial position during different historical phases of state-building, and they are (with strong regional differences) currently involved in the sphere of the state in ambiguous ways. While, for instance, the interviews conducted show that chiefs are often perceived of as extremely close to “the state” or even as performers of state power, they are at the same time described as independent and powerful political actors acting opposed to or beyond the public sphere. Aside from that, although chiefs only since autumn 2013 receive considerable monthly allowances from the Cameroonian government, they are likewise experienced by civil actors apart from any dimension considered “political”, but rather as mere preservers of “traditional” culture and customs. Also, field work in Cameroon showed that common perceptions of traditional elites to large parts reflect certain discourses on traditionality, ethnicity, and autochthony appropriated by the state as a national political project. In this respect, the “pre-colonial” and “traditional” aspects of chieftaincy are instrumentalised by the state constructing a certain form of “politics of belonging” in order to secure regional power bases and to undermine a transregionally united political opposition (Page et al. 2010; Rowlands 2002).

Regarding chieftaincy in Ghana, we found that “traditional” authorities play a two-fold role. On the one hand, there is general agreement that especially in rural areas, chiefs have a significant influence on people’s voting behavior. As such, the problem of incoherent project implementation in Ghana identified by many interviewees is also due to the different alliances of politicians and chiefs. For example, a chief may be rewarded for his support by building a road in his sphere of influence; or he may be punished for supporting the other party by a reduction of his financial means. Emphasizing its prohibition in the constitution, the political involvement of chiefs is usually perceived of as inflicting damage and disorder on Ghana’s democracy. On the other hand, most state and non-state actors agree that traditional authorities are development agents with a positive impact, as they complement the state and make up for its partial “failure” to deliver outside Ghana’s urban centres. The main areas of activity of chiefs and queens seem to be education and tourism. Chieftaincy is usually described as more accessible than the “modern” state, which makes traditional authorities especially important for people in the countryside with low levels of education. Most of all in the realm of justice, traditional courts provide a popular alternative to the state’s courts, the latter of which are associated with more complex regulations and financial obligations (e.g. for paying lawyers). Thus, depending on the respective angle, chieftaincy in Ghana is seen as an institution that is engaged in the creation of both order and disorder, while the emphasis on order clearly prevails.

In Ethiopia, the interviewees generally agreed that “traditional” authorities play an important role in terms of cultural, but not in political matters. This has to do with the fact that in post-Derg federal Ethiopia, based on political technologies like land redistribution and forced affiliation of ethno-regional parties with the ruling coalition, political control has remained with the federal state (e.g. Keller 2002).

In all three case studies we found that the welfare state model is an important frame of reference for assessing the state. A felt gap between the ideal imagination of a welfare state and the actual performance of the respective states was mentioned throughout. In Ethiopia and Ghana, intellectuals associate this ideal with both Western Europe and the US. In Cameroon, there is a difference between Francophone intellectuals who refer to mainly France and Germany, and Anglophone intellectuals, who make reference to the US and call for reduced state involvement in the economy. Francophone Cameroonian intellectuals expect the state to improve its performance particularly in the realms of public health and education.

Furthermore, we found that in Ghana and Ethiopia, the East Asian developmental state model has become another crucial frame of reference for both state officials and key non-state actors. Starting from different contexts, and with differing objectives, intellectuals and policy makers in both countries are convinced that their respective country would profit from a more pronounced orientation towards East Asian states, whose economic success is perceived as the outcome of strong, benevolent governments being heavily and continuously involved in economic affairs. In both Ethiopia and Ghana, the formulation of policy choices (on the part of state officials) and expectations towards the state (on the part of intellectuals not affiliated with the state) have been shaped by key actors’ perceptions of, and also interactions with, Asian role model states such as South Korea, Malaysia, and China.

In Ethiopia, the developmental state model is usually seen as a modern alternative to socialism, enabling the country to engage with the global economy without following a strictly neoliberal path. The adaptation of the model is also part of the regime’s legitimization strategy. Since the older legitimizing narrative of Ethiopia’s federal reconstruction tailored to the multi-ethnic country’s needs has run out of steam (e.g. Abbink 2006), the EPRDF has shifted its rhetoric to one of shared benefits of high economic growth rates, achieved through the developmental state. Non-state actors’ criticism is usually targeted at the way how the model is implemented, rather than at the model per se.

In Ghana, the developmental state concept is perceived as a governance model capable of overcoming political dead ends. Even though established political liberties are seen as important achievements, and constitute a sense of regional and continental superiority, the electoral cycle is at the same time experienced as an obstacle to the implementation of development projects irrespective of government changes. Against this background, especially the Malaysian and Chinese states have become crucial role models for Ghanaian state officials and intellectuals. As in the Ethiopian case, the transfer of the respective models builds on personal visits to the role models. For example, Ghanaian officials have been invited to a technical cooperation training center in Malaysia; Ethiopian officials have learnt about Saemaul Undong in South Korea. Furthermore, it became clear in both cases that the compatibility of new models with earlier experiences with stateness is highly relevant for their adaptation.

In phase III of the SPP 1448, we are introducing Mozambique as a fourth case study. It has been our intention to compare a large range of long-term experiences with stateness, and since we have been focusing on Cameroon (mainly French-colonial background), Ghana (mainly British-colonial background), and Ethiopia (no colonial background), we are now focusing on a case with a Portuguese-colonial background.


Starting date:

1. April 2011

Research areas:

Yaoundé, Cameroon

Accra, Ghana


New Publications


Mattheis, Frank (forthcoming): "Brazil and the international strategic dimension of Sub-Saharan Africa: Peace, Security and Development". Policy Report. Instituto Affari Internazionali, Rome.

Müller, Felix (forthcoming): "Ethiopian Federalism Revisited: Reterritorialization, Nationality, and the (De)Legitimization of Ordering Practices". In: Böckler, Marc; Engel, Ulf; Müller-Mahn, Detlef (Eds.): Spaces of Order: Adaptation and Creativity in Africa.

Schubert, Jon (2016): "Emerging middle-class political subjectivities in post-war Angola". In: Melber, H. (Ed.): Examining the African Middle Class(es). London, New York: Zed Books.