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Review of The Politics of Transition in Africa


By Peter Woodward

The Politics of Transition in Africa. eds. Giles Mohan & Tunde Zack-Williams. James Currey & Africa World Press, London & Trenton NJ, 2004. 278pp. ISBN 0-85255-822-8 (pb). £14.95.

This collection is the first in a series of readers by the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE): forthcoming titles are Gender Relations in Africa (ed. Lynne Brydon) and The Environment in Africa (eds. Phil O’Keefe and Chris Howarth). ROAPE has been going for 30 years and certainly has plenty of material to draw on from that period.

The collection is divided into four sections. The first is on ‘The Politics of Underdevelopment: Dependency, Bureaucracy & the Bourgeoisie’, and for many who have known the journal from the outset this issue has really lain at its heart since the 1970s, for that was the decade of ‘underdevelopment’ in all its pomp. That said it is slightly surprising that out of 26 articles in the whole collection only the two that open this section are from that decade, by John Saul and Colin Leys. Bjorn Beckman turns up no less than three times in this section and the other contributors are Rafael Kaplinsky, Morris Szeftel and Joshua Forrest. Section two is on ‘The Politics of Violence: Imperialism, Militarism and ‘Warlordism’, and, in addition to Beckman once more, there are pieces by Eiichi Shindo, John Markakis, James Petras and Morris Morley, Jacklyn Cock as well as Roger Charlton and Roy May. ‘The Politics of Cultural Pluralism: Gender, Culture and Participation’ comprises section four, with contributions from Hussaina Abdullah, Jean Copans, Lars Rudebeck, Craig Charney, Basil Davidson and Barry Munslow, before concluding with Jocelyn Alexander. The final section is on ‘The Politics of Neoliberalism: Democratisation, Civil Society and the Developmental State’, with articles by Yusuf Bangura, the late Carolyn Baylies, Bjorn Beckman (the fifth time), John Rapley and Chris Allen. The articles range from those that seek to offer theoretical overviews of sub-Saharan Africa as a whole to a number of more specific pieces, but mainly fall within ROAPE’s ‘philosophy’ of radical engagement with Africa.

It is the story of that moving feast of theorising about Africa that has lain at the heart of ROAPE from the start, and one of the most notable conclusions that I drew from this collection is how far the streams of thought have come together. ROAPE was launched in part to move beyond existing approaches and journals. African Affairs, the oldest of the British-based Africanist journals (in which I have to declare an interest as joint editor from 1986-97), appeared rather old-fashioned in the early 1970s, if not actually ‘colonial’, and with little regard for theoretical discussion; while Africa was often seen as ‘anthropological’ in character and inevitably socially conservative. Much newer then was the Journal of Modern African Studies, but that had shades of ‘modernization theory’, and with the arrival in African studies of ideas of dependency and underdevelopment (largely a spill-over from studies of Latin America) the way was open for a journal that at the start, at least, drew heavily on the Marxist tradition (I was amused by the editors’ use of Ralph Miliband’s The State in Capitalist Society in the Introduction and wonder what he would make of his sons today). In the 1970s these did seem to be very different journals one from another, but as one compares them over time it is true that while ROAPE still genuflects to radical theory more than the others, in their treatment of empirical material they have moved closer to one another, and ROAPE in particular has become less sectarian. This is particularly apparent once the reader is beyond section one and finds discussions of warlordism in Chad, structural adjustment in Guinea Bissau, and the shortcomings of neo-liberal thinking about democracy and civil society that could have found a home equally in the other journals mentioned above. The editors even finish their Introduction by quoting approvingly from the World Bank (1997) on the need to bring the state back in (with ‘good governance’ of course), though whether the developmental state, as generally drawn from Asian models, is possible in Africa is certainly open to debate.

One is left wondering how this reader can achieve its intention of fitting in to the teaching of African politics? Since it reflects much of the material available elsewhere it has to be judged in terms of overall quality, and from this standpoint a trawl of a wider range of journals would probably have produced a stronger work, such as Tom Young’s recent reader, also from the James Currey stable. Perhaps one will be able to use it to show the better students something of the evolution of academic writing on Africa, and how much it has changed since ROAPE was founded.


[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 68 (2006), pp. 81-83]

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