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New Left Review 63, May-June 2010

paul nugent


For perfectly understandable reasons, much writing about contemporary Africa has focused on instances where there has been a partial or complete breakdown of central authority—as was true of Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s or is the case in Somalia today—or where predatory rulers holed up in capital cities have lived off the rents derived from oil and mining enclaves: for example Chad, Congo-Brazzaville or the Democratic Republic of Congo (drc). [1] The literatures are too vast to capture here, but indicative are David Keen, Conflict and Collusion in Sierra Leone, Oxford 2005; Lansana Gberie, A Dirty War in West Africa: The ruf and the Destruction of Sierra Leone, London 2005; Stephen Ellis, Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War, London 1999; William Reno, Warlord Politics and African States, Boulder, co 1999; and, for the oil states, Ricardo Soares de Oliviera, Oil and Politics in the Gulf of Guinea, London 2007. There is a whole research industry on ‘failed states’, in which Africa features most prominently. See, for example, I. William Zartman, Collapsed States: The Disintegration and Restoration of Legitimate Authority, Boulder, co 1995; Robert I. Rotberg, ed., When States Fail: Causes and Consequences, Washington, dc 2003 and State Failure and State Weakness in a Time of Terror, Washington, dc 2003; and Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart, Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World, New York 2008. Accounting for the more extreme configurations is a necessary exercise, as is the effort to explain how a degree of normality is possible in the absence of a functioning state. [2] For example, Peter D. Little, Somalia: Economy Without State, Oxford 2003. What is problematic is when these cases are made to stand for Africa as a whole. There has been a trend in recent scholarship to posit a pattern common to pretty much all African countries, with the possible exception of Mauritius, Botswana and South Africa: namely endemic levels of clientelism, which turn all government institutions into ciphers of particularistic interests and have an in-built dynamic towards chronic instability. [3] Two parallel accounts are Jean-François Bayart, Stephen Ellis and Béatrice Hibou, The Criminalization of the State in Africa, Oxford 1999; and Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz, Africa Works: Disorder as a Political Instrument, Oxford 1999.

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Paul Nugent, ‘States and Social Contracts in Africa’, NLR 63: £3

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