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Review: Reexamining Sovereign States in Africa

Author(s): Edmond J. Keller

Source: International Studies Review, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring, 2002), pp. 197-200
Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The International Studies Association
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States and Power in Africa: ComparativeLessons in Authority and Control,

Jeffrey Herbst (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000). 280 pp.,
cloth (ISBN: 0-691-01027-7), $55.00; paper (ISBN 0-691-01028-5), $17.95.
n States and Power in Africa: ComparativeLessons in Authorityand Control, Jeffrey Herbst boldly attemptsto challenge the conventional wisdom
aboutAfrican states, theirformation,and operationsfrom precolonialtimes
to the present day. He assumes that "states are only viable if they are able to
control the territorydefined by their borders"(p.3). Yet he argues that this is
not the case in most of Africa and that power is distributedand wielded differently thanwhat is generallyassumedby the internationalcommunity.The author
deems most African states as weak and unable to command legitimacy and
governmentaleffectiveness in wide areas of their domain. This reality is based
on the fact that African states historically have had difficulty extending their
authority because of low population densities, traditionallycommon in most
parts of the continent. To rule effectively, African state leaders have always
been confronted with the dilemma of cost because it costs to broadcast state
power to the far reaches of any state, and African state leaders have been relatively resourcepoor.In the modernera,this has led to whatis commonly referred
to as an "urbanbias" in the policymaking of African state leaders since it is
easier to reach the urban areas and be administrativelyeffective than it is to
reach the countryside.
Herbstclaims that a fundamentalreason for the lack of governmentaleffectiveness of modern-dayAfrican states is thatthey accepted withoutquestion the
boundaries bequeathed to them by their former colonial overlords. Colonial
states were constructed on the basis of administrativeconvenience, and not
accordingto a logic that emphasizedthe creationof sovereign states with effective administrativecapacities. He contends that in fashioning states, authorities
should have taken the geography of the territoryinto account. The most effective states are those that have high population densities that can be readily
reached by governmentalauthorities.
? 2002 InternationalStudies Association
Published by Blackwell Publishing, 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA, and 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF,UK.


EdmondJ. Keller

Most African states today, according to Herbst, are states only because the
internationalcommunity has deemed them so. CrawfordYoung has convincingly shown that state sovereignty for formerEuropeancolonies in Africa was
an afterthought.Ratherthan accept this conventional wisdom, Herbstcalls for
a revolutionaryreassessment of the concept of the "sovereign state" in Africa
today.He boldly challengesthe internationalcommunityto engage in new thinking on this matterand to supportAfrican intellectuals and political leaders who
are willing to design alternativesto sovereign states. If this reassessmentwere
to take place and alternativeschosen, Herbstcontends that there would then be
congruencebetween how power is actually exercised by states in Africa and the
design of the governmentalunits adopted.
To achieve this outcome, Herbst calls for-with the help of the international community-opening up intellectual space in Africa, so thatAfricans
themselves can come up with replacementsfor failed states. Furthermore,he
calls upon the United States to take a lead in the internationalcommunity in
developing a mechanismto decertify rogue states in Africa. A logical next step
from decertification, Herbst argues, would be to consider the possibility of
accepting into the world community of states newly created states that claim
Apart from his argument,Herbst sets out in States and Power in Africa to
chart new territory in the scholarly discourse on African politics. Taking a
structuralistapproach,said to be most informed by the work of Charles Tilly,
Herbst employs a combinationof historical sociology and political geography
in craftingwhat he suggests is a new paradigmfor African politics. He debunks
the lack of grand theory in the study of Africa, particularlyrelating to state
building. He suggests that to this point Africanist scholars have been mainly
theory takers ratherthan theory givers and sets out to correct this tendency.
Like Tilly, Herbstthinks thatincompleteknowledge should not preventus from
describinglong-term, historically groundedprocesses (p. 5). He claims that he
wants his analysis to focus on "the forest," engaging at times in sweeping
generalizations,ratherthan on "the trees" or in-depth case studies.
Many studentsof African politics will find this book provocative and controversial. In part, this is due to the method adoptedby the author,and in part
because of what may be rightly perceived as unconvincing and flawed analysis.
The book's strengthlies in Herbst'sconsistent claim that today we cannot simply concentrateon analyses of domestic politics in Africa to understandsocial
processes in a particularcountry;instead,internationalfactorsthataffect domestic politics must be regularlytaken into account.There is an increasingneed for
approachesto studying African politics that "straddle"domestic politics and
internationalrelations, while being sensitive to the interactionsof factors emanating from the respective arenas.Although this is a strength,a majorweakness
of the book is that it fails to deliver on the promise of contributingtoward the
development of a "trulycomparativemodel of state building."Herbst'sframe-



work will not travel well in the literature,and it will lack noticeable impact.
One of the main problems is that he ignores much of the literaturethat already
exists about state building in Africa from ancient times. This literatureis rich
andeven comparesAfricanstatebuildingwith thatin Europeandotherexamples.
The argumentthat "low population density" was the most crucial element
in determiningwhether states would be able to effectively control their territories is not convincing. Population densities are not historical givens. People
have concentratedin places on their own, drawn by the market, security concerns, or the need to find more complex institutionsto govern diverse communities. Leaderstook proactiveroles in statebuildingbecausethey were concerned
about security, about the need to maintainadequatelevels of revenue for their
personal survival, as well as the survival of the institutionof the state. Individual leaders built states on trade, conquest, or the quest for power. This was as
true in Africa as in other parts of the world. State capacity has always weighed
heavily, especially the capacity to raise armies, build roads, and construct and
broadcast state administrationsto the far corners of a territory.These factors
taken together seem much more importantthan populationdensity.
Herbst's rigorous structuralistapproachgives only slight attention to the
importance of human agency in state building. He also does not adequately
account for the shift in "political opportunity structures"that make certain
political options more or less available at different historical moments. For
example, one of the main reasons that Africa fared so badly during the slave
trade,the age of imperialism,and colonialism was the gap between Europeand
Africa in terms of the availability of and command over certain types of technology (e.g., land-basedand maritimetransportation,the military,communications). The technology gap in this age of globalization continues to be a major
problem for African societies. Yet in differentepochs there are differentopportunities. For instance, it could be and has been argued that African leaders
accepted their colonial boundariesas the basis for creating new states because
this was the quickest and most peaceful way to end colonialism. Moreover,by
the time independence came, the world was being organized into sovereign
states, and to have a voice in this process, Africans had to accept and become
conversantwith rules that they obtained at the time. Total "delinking"was not
a viable option then, nor is it a viable option today. It would make most African
states more vulnerablethan they are now.
Rather than calling for the possibility of radically redrawing the map of
Africa and rejecting the concept of the sovereign state as the only way that
large numbersof people can organize themselves, it seems reasonable to suggest that it behooves African states to find ways of preparingthemselves to
compete in the global arena and to have a voice in developing the contours of
the relationshipsthat emerge.
Herbst calls upon the internationalcommunity and African leadership to
consideralternativesto sovereign states.Yet neitherof these communitiesseems


EdmondJ. Keller

to think that this is the most pressing problem facing Africa today. An overarchingproblemis the low levels of state capacity and good governance on the
continent. Moreover, it is obvious that the ideologization of ethnoregionalism
and religion are much more pressing problemsfor the leaders of African states,
not to mention such issues as poverty, inequality, environmentaldegradation,
and various forms of insecurity.
In the final analysis, Herbst'sdecision to focus on the forest ratherthan on
the trees prevents him from seeing importantinteractionsbetween the two. He
is right in assuming that the most useful work in the future study of African
politics will straddle comparative politics and internationalrelations, but he
does little to help us approachan overarchingframeworkfor doing so. Couched
at such an abstractlevel and at times seriously reifying the state, this work will
serve best as grist for the mill of intellectuals concerned with the study of
African states. The serious, policy-relevant work that is needed will have to be
left to others.
CrawfordYoung, TheAfrican Colonial State in ComparativePerspective (New
Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994).

-Edmond J. Keller
Universityof California