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Journal of Contemporary African Studies

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Territorialising identity, authority and conflict in

Africa: an introduction

Anders Sjögren

To cite this article: Anders Sjögren (2015) Territorialising identity, authority and conflict
in Africa: an introduction, Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 33:2, 163-170, DOI:

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Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 2015
Vol. 33, No. 2, 163–170,

Territorialising identity, authority and conflict in Africa:

an introduction
Anders Sjögren*

The Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala, Sweden

(Received 26 August 2014; final version received 8 January 2015)

In much of Africa, the simultaneous contestation over sub-national demarcations,

political identities and the locus of authority has activated a territorial politics. In
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such contexts of uncertainty, state rulers and other social forces advance competing
notions of the relevant and legitimate boundaries of territories and identities. This
collection of articles examines how, across the continent, struggles over territory
are linked to divergent understandings of identity and authority, with
significance for territorial integrity, national identity and conflict.
Keywords: Africa; territorial politics; identity; authority; conflict

Half a century after independence from colonial rule, sub-national territorial demar-
cations, political identities and the locus of authority remain deeply contested in most
African countries. These issues continue to generate conflicts around constitutive fea-
tures of state and nationhood and remain at the heart of political struggles in many
societies including countries with consolidated international borders. In addition,
regional and global economic, technological and ideological processes are reshaping
notions of the relevant and legitimate boundaries of territories and identities. In
most of Africa, regions and populations have been incorporated into the national
polity in highly uneven ways, leading to real and perceived group exclusion. In such
politically divided societies, violent conflict is a standing serious threat, and the func-
tional and spatial organisation and distribution of political power are high-stake
issues. It is against this background that this special issue of the Journal of Contempor-
ary African Studies addresses the dynamics of territory, identity and authority.
One perspective on this nexus has been offered by Catherine Boone, who, drawing
on the case of Cote d’Ivoire, proposes that Africa faces a new territorial politics which
‘centers on rearranging core-periphery relations, reordering political hierarchies
among and within territorially defined constituencies, redefining the locus of control
over resources and market access, and enforcing political authority and sub-national
citizenship rights within regions and localities’ (2007, 61). Many examples of such
politics immediately come to mind. Beyond the cases examined in this collection of
articles, suchlike features have long shaped developments in Kenya, Mali, Ethiopia
and Mozambique, to name just a few countries. Nor is territorial politics in this
sense confined to Africa. Most countries characterised by cultural pluralism and/or

© 2015 The Institute of Social and Economic Research
164 A. Sjögren

colonial or imperial histories harbour similar tendencies, which are currently played
out in a most violent way in the Middle East and parts of the former Soviet Union.
A conceptual point of entry to the debate on territorial politics might be shorthand
notions of territory in a general sense as ‘bounded political space’, and territorialisa-
tion as ‘the attempt by an individual or group to affect, influence or control people,
phenomena and relationships by delimiting and asserting control over a geographic
area’ (Sack 1986, 19). The most common practices of territorialisation within states
can be summarised in terms of how state power is deployed to regulate people, prop-
erty, places and institutions within internationally recognised borders. State strategies
of territorialisation typically aim at, among other things, controlling external bound-
aries and organising authority and resources across the national space. Such strategies
by rulers and managers of the state are always executed in relation to the political
aspirations of other social forces. In many societies, state structures and political insti-
tutions are patterned in relatively stable and predictable ways. Social orders where ter-
ritorial politics is activated are however marked by a much higher degree of
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uncertainty. In such societies many different projects of territorialisation compete.

Social forces advance conceptualisations of bounded political space divergent from,
parallel to, or confronting those of state rulers, leading to contestation over fundamen-
tal issues, such as how space is to be demarcated at different levels, by whom and for
what purposes; and who should have the right to settle, to own property and to exercise
political authority where, how and why.
This brief introduction elaborates and situates these issues theoretically and
empirically. After an overview of different theoretical dimensions of territoriality,
the discussion turns briefly to state formation and territorial politics in sub-Saharan
Africa and the connections to identity, authority and conflict. Finally, the individual
contributions are introduced.

Territorial politics: concepts and issues

Most contemporary analyses of the spatial dimensions of social relations draw on a set
of connected concepts, including place, scale and territory, all of which are commonly
theorised as constructed and relational rather than fixed (Jessop, Brenner, and Jones
2008; Marston 2000). While this introduction discusses territory, it recognises the
complementary conceptual significance of place and scale, denoting ‘more or less
bounded sites tied to everyday life’, and ‘nested or tangled hierarchies of bounded
space’, respectively (for more elaborate conceptualisations along these lines, see
Jessop, Brenner, and Jones 2008). Following the perspectives referred to above, it is
proposed here that places, territories and scales are not given; they are created as gov-
erned spaces and levels: shaped, upheld and challenged by governments and social
groups through struggles over boundaries. The political significance of these abstract
theoretical propositions about the relational character of space is evident in unequal,
uncertain and fast-changing institutional settings, including the ones analysed by the
contributions to this issue. In such contexts, actors make intense use of formal and
informal resources to recreate and justify the scope and scale of territorial demar-
cations, as well as the political identities and authority structures linked to each.
In most analyses of political authority the fundamental importance of territorial
extension of some kind is asserted (see Weber 1978, 54) or argued (Mann 1984). Ter-
ritorialisation is about creating authority over people and resources within bounded
Journal of Contemporary African Studies 165

spaces. Most frequently, forceful strategies of this kind are undertaken by states, in
direct and indirect ways. Direct measures include the spatial organisation of the
state apparatus (creating boundaries and hierarchies of state institutions) and the
political system (shaping the geographical grids of institutionalised access to
power). State interventions with an indirect territorial bearing are summarised by
Brenner et al. as the creation of state space in the integral sense, and comprise the
spatially specific ways in which states mobilise institutions to regulate social and econ-
omic relations (2003, 6–7, 9–10). The direct measures of state territorialisation locate
spatial and functional jurisdiction to units, levels and actors – that is, they demarcate
who may exercise what power, where, how and over whom. The scope and scale of
such power may be spatially more or less concentrated. The same goes for indirect
measures. The strategies for regulating social and economic relations reinforce ten-
dencies of centralisation or decentralisation of the control and allocation of resources
in the widest sense, such as property and means of production, infrastructure, social
welfare and security. As such control and allocation is nested with power, it can be
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expected to be unequal.
As suggested above, however, territorialisation is not only promoted by state rulers
and managers. State-driven territorial projects are typically uneven in purpose, design,
execution and anchoring. They are often resisted at different levels and in different
arenas and countered by contending versions of the legitimate demarcation of, and
authority over, the same physical space (Lund 2006, 694–695; Vandergeest and
Peluso 1995, 389). This dimension of territorial politics is discussed by Brenner
et al. as state space in the representational sense, including ‘changes in popular geo-
graphical assumptions about politics, political community, and political struggles’
(2003, 7). In most cases, and especially in culturally pluralistic societies, the territoria-
lisation of authority – promoted by either state-based actors or social groups – rests on
or invokes social identities. Social collectivities may be assigned to or claim particular
geographical spaces. Frequently, this is linked to struggles over the allocation of rep-
resentation, resources, rights and recognition to a certain area and/or population, with
significant consequences for citizenship and conflict.

Territorial politics in sub-Saharan Africa

In most of Africa, state formation is an unsettled and uneven process. It has always
been strongly shaped by territorial considerations and implications, but under
rather different conditions over time. Colonial rule made use of and deepened social
cleavages by the differentiated incorporation of regions and ethnic groups into the
colonial and imperial economy. Furthermore, as argued by Mamdani (1996), political
fragmentation was the outcome of the colonially imposed forms of the state. The fun-
damental consequence of colonial indirect rule was the institutionalisation of a bifur-
cated state, with dichotomous types of state structures and modes of power. The
significance of this fragmented state form was underlined after independence, when
the new leadership either reproduced or sought to reverse the particular manifes-
tations of sub-national social and territorial cleavages, expressed as uneven socio-
economic development and state capacity infrastructural power (Mann 1984, 2008).
During the first decade or two following independence, the state was generally
stabilised and enhanced in most African countries. Governments extended state pres-
ence through administration, infrastructure and social services, and in the process
166 A. Sjögren

created institutional mechanisms for the political incorporation of rural populations.

State-driven development models often sought to contain regional competition for
access to the centre – or demands for further autonomy from it – by crafting cross-
ethnic coalitions at elite and sometimes popular levels, galvanised by representation
and redistribution (Boone 2007, 62–65). State-led nation-building was however
always fraught with tensions between national and sub-national identities and
between short-term tactical considerations and long-term strategic aims, and in
most cases tended to rest on rather than seeking to eliminate ethno-regional compe-
tition (Berman 1998; Berman, Eyeh, and Kymlicka 2004; Boone 2007; Laakso and
Olukoshi 1996).
The conditions for state-led national integration through development and redis-
tribution became more complicated from the 1980s following the economic crisis
and subsequent liberalisation reforms, which undercut the resources and capacities
of central governments. Boone (2007, 66–69) argues that economic and political liber-
alisation intensified political stakes, but that this played out in ways partly conditioned
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by institutional remnants of the previous era, including competitive regionalism, the

significance of local states, the politicisation of land and underlying fractures
among the political elite. The overall consequence, according to Boone, was the cen-
trifugal tendencies that destabilise national and sub-national politics alike. State rulers
and social groups relate to such effects in different ways.
One common variant of state reform with a pronounced territorial dimension
comes by way of devolved institutional arrangements such as federalism or decentra-
lisation, undertaken over the last two decades (among a vast literature, see Brancati
2006; Choudhry 2008; Crawford and Hartmann 2008). The effects of such efforts
on identity, authority and conflict vary significantly, depending on, for example, the
cohesiveness and territorial concentration of identity groups (Coakley 2003, 9–11)
and on the kind and extent of power and resources devolved. One reason for the
mixed achievements of decentralisation in much of Africa in relation to the stated
aims, is that changes in territorial demarcation and relocation of authority set off
struggles over who should exercise what power, how and where – both between
central governments and sub-national entities, and among as well as within the
latter. Devolution is often resisted, and attempts to recentralise power are common.
Another reason is that devolution brings about its own dynamics. As illustrated by
the articles in this issue, who all examine instances of devolution, fluid national and
local political identities frequently conflict with statutory territorial and authority
This brings the discussion to territorial projects by social forces. Territorial politics
typically intensify in and reproduce settings where state infrastructural power is
spatially and functionally uneven and overall relatively weak, where relations
between the political centre and the regions differ significantly within countries and
where such variations and weaknesses are politically articulated (O’Donnell 2010).
As suggested by Stewart (2008) real and perceived group privileges and subordination
based on region and ethnicity in relation to national wealth and power constitute a
basis for politicisation that goes beyond state-promoted forms of territory, identity
and authority (Berry 2009; Bøås and Dunn 2013; Dorman, Hammett, and Nugent
2007). As the articles in this issue demonstrate, the presence of political parties and
social movements with a pronounced regional base or influence shapes the likelihood
of the articulation of collective grievances and opportunities, and the channelling of
Journal of Contemporary African Studies 167

them into demands and actions. Local political representation is often fragmented,
however. The interplay between formal and informal institutions and identities can
be expected to be pronounced in sub-national arenas (Lund 2006; Sikor and Lund
2009). Where formal institutions are uneven in terms of their presence and effective-
ness, there are strong incentives for making use of informal notions and regulatory
mechanisms of authority and identity, discussed in terms of hybrid political orders
(Boege et al. 2008). As Meagher (2012) shows, however, such expressions of hybrid
governance can be deeply ambiguous in terms of the developmental and democratic
potential of the forms of identity and authority that they promote.

The contributions to this issue

The contributions to this issue illustrate the many ways in which the scope and scale of
governed spaces are constructed and contested, and examine how struggles over terri-
tory are linked to competing notions of identity and authority. In some cases, disputes
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centre on seemingly straightforward issues such as the redrawing of administrative

boundaries or the moving of resources and mandates between levels of the state
within given structures. At other times, territorial struggles challenge fundamental
assumptions of what counts as relevant and legitimate notions of authority and iden-
tity in a particular social order. In such cases, the foundations of those states and
nations become contested and destabilised.
The article by Catherine Boone approaches the theme of this special issue through
the lens of land. Boone argues that for a long time, land tenure regimes have been
among the most significant institutions in African countries for regulating property
as well as for controlling people. Land tenure regimes are territorially significant,
not only in the obvious sense of regulating a territorial resource, but also by having
demarcated communities and assigned them to specific places, and by having been
anchored in the spatial administrative organisation of political power more broadly.
Over the last few decades, a number of changes – demographic, economic and political
– have intensified demands for and conflicts over land. By comparing cases of resist-
ance to land acquisitions in Ghana and Tanzania, Boone demonstrates how two
models of land tenure regimes, statist and neo-customary, structure the scope for
and scale of such resistance in different ways, with consequences for the character
of political identities as well as modes of conflict regulation.
Judith Verweijen and Koen Vlassenroot analyse the connections between violent
conflict and the interplay of territory, identity and power by tracing the history of a
unit of local authority in South Kivu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a
region where the questions of belonging, exclusion and citizenship have been particu-
larly conflict-ridden. In the context of pronounced ethnic politicisation, the local
Banyamulenge community voiced, and for a limited period of time realised,
demands for an administrative unit. This particular instance of territorialised ethni-
city/ethnicised territory was resisted by other local groups, drawing on conceptions
of the Banyamulenge as non-indigenous to the DRC. By examining the mobilising
narratives, Verweijen and Vlassenroot lay bare the political dynamics of this struggle
in terms both of its symbolic effects and of its strategic importance. The stakes and
significance of the mobilisation narratives, and the scope for violent conflict,
however depend heavily on armed and political actors operating at levels beyond
the local.
168 A. Sjögren

Eduard Gargallo investigates the role of Community Conservancies in strategies

by local communities to gain or secure access to land in Namibia. Gargallo’s compari-
son of two conservancies, situated in rather different contexts, shows that in both cases,
relatively disenfranchised groups have been able to increase control over their land.
This does not necessarily, however, indicate a straightforward process towards
greater political or economic autonomy for the communities. Both the state and
private capital seek to establish themselves in the conservancies, and the article
suggests that this has bearings on divisions among and within ethnic communities.
Henrik Angerbrandt’s contribution approaches the issue of how competing con-
ceptions of scale and community structure religious conflicts in Kaduna, Nigeria.
The article examines this through a study of influential Christian perspectives on
the causes and characteristics of the conflict. The Christian perspectives evolve both
in relation to Muslim understandings and the changing conflict dynamics, and
to the federal government’s institutional and ideological model of decentralisation.
A key aspect of the conflict, according to Angerbrandt, is the divergence in views
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between the contending parties, including the state, of the basis for communities,
and the relevant scales for institutionalising authority. The religious character of the
conflict has deepened the polarisation between the groups and raised the importance
of having access to a demarcated territory, something which reinforces a pattern of
demands for separate spaces.
Ole Frahm shifts the perspective on territorialisation from social groups to a focus
on the state. His study of how the government of South Sudan has attempted to
territorialise central state authority and national identity centres on the making of
boundaries and on the ways in which the central government has tried to project its
authority across the territory. Frahm examines efforts to extend service delivery,
guarantee security and infuse a national identity that extends beyond the pre-indepen-
dence unity against Sudan, and concludes that even prior to the outbreak of the civil
war in 2013, the government had by and large failed in its endeavours. Of course, after
decades of war and destruction the developmental challenges in independent South
Sudan were always going to be colossal. The civil war (ongoing at the time of
writing) further underscores the enormous political obstacles to such efforts.
Anders Sjögren’s article sets out from the context of shifting central-local relations
in Uganda and examines territorial politics in three sub-national regions for purposes
of analysing forms of conflict and exclusion at local levels. In Uganda, districts and
cultural regions co-exist as parallel forms of sub-national entities. Changes in
central-local relations occur through redrawn administrative boundaries, by formal
and informal recognition of cultural groups and in the context of regionally specific
shifting economic fortunes by way of the discovery of oil. These processes in turn
set off similar struggles at the local level. Drawing on the dynamics of this in
Acholi, Bunyoro and Buganda regions, Sjögren argues that all these tendencies con-
tribute to intensifying competition among political projects with an identity-base
and territorial ambitions, both among and within regions, and that such competition
generates fragmentation of territory and identity, and multiple forms of exclusion.

The author wishes to thank Judith Verweijen, Maria Wendt and a reviewer for comments on an
earlier version of this text. A special thanks is extended to the two reviewers who meticulously
read and commented upon all of the contributions to this special issue.
Journal of Contemporary African Studies 169

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

Note on contributor
Anders Sjögren is a Senior Research with the Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala, Sweden. He
holds a PhD in political science from Stockholm University. Working in the field of comparative
political economy of development, his current research is on land conflicts, state formation and
citizenship in Kenya and Uganda. Among his recent publications are Between Militarism and
Technocratic Governance: State Formation in Contemporary Uganda. 2013. Fountain Publishers.
Kenya. The Struggle for a New Constitutional Order. 2014. Zed books. He can be contacted at:

Anders Sjögren
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