Book Summary: “States and Power in Africa” by Jeffrey Herbst

Title: States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control
Author: Jeffrey Herbst
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Herbst examines how African states developed and what this means for African nations today.

My Comments

The origins of the states is one of the most important topics in history. Most of this field has been dominated by state-building in Europe and East Asia. Herbst helps to fill in missing knowledge about the growth of states in Africa.

Key Take-aways

  • African state-building process was fundamentally different from state-building in Europe and Asia.
  • While Europe and Asia state-building was driven by dense populations and militaries fighting against each other for supremacy, Sub-Saharan Africa was lightly populated.
  • Low population density gave African rulers little incentive to take new territories and create clear borders. It also meant that people could easily relocate to new areas if they did not like their rulers.
  • Traditional African states had very small core regions with rapidly diminishing power as one moved outwards.
  • African states ruled over people, not lands. In addition, many people were “ruled” by many different rulers, who had to negotiate their relative power.
  • European colonies established clear borders, but they only dominated small coastal regions where their capitals were located. Outside capital cities, they had limited power over traditional rulers.
  • This history has left African states weak and having great difficulties raising taxes and establishing authority over their entire territory. This left them heavily dependent upon deficit financing and foreign aid.
  • The author implies that this type of state-building process was the rule outside Eurasia, because these regions all had the fundamental problem of low population density.

Important Quotes from Book

This book examines state creation and consolidation in Africa over the last several hundred years. It does so by examining the fundamental problem confronting leaders of almost all African states: how to broadcast power over sparsely settled lands.

The fundamental assumption undergirding this study is that states are only viable if they are able to control the territory defined by their borders. Control is assured by developing an infrastructure to broadcast power and by gaining the loyalty of citizens.

Failure to examine the broad continuities over space and time has meant that Africa has been excluded from the political science mainstream because overarching arguments about the trajectory of the continent do not exist to compare with the well developed models of how political order was constructed in Europe, Latin America, and other regions.

The fundamental problem facing state-builders in Africa—be they precolonial kings, colonial governors, or presidents in the independent era— has been to project authority over inhospitable territories that contain relatively low densities of people. Sub-Saharan Africa, with roughly 18 percent of the world’s surface area, has always been sparsely settled. Africa had only 6 to 11 percent of the world’s population in 1750, 5 to 7 percent in 1900, and only 11 percent in 1997.1 Relatively low population densities in Africa have automatically meant that it always has been more expensive for states to exert control over a given number of people compared to Europe and other densely settled areas.

In only a few places in Africa, including the Great Lakes region and the Ethiopian highlands, are there ecologies that have supported relatively high densities of people. Not surprisingly, these areas, with the longest traditions of relatively centralized state structures, have been periodically able to exercise direct control over their peripheries. However, ecological conditions throughout most of the continent do not allow high densities of people to be easily supported.

In Africa, two other factors have aggravated the cost of extending power in the face of low population densities. First, African countries have quite varied environmental conditions. Ecological differences across provinces of a country in West Africa, which can be coastal, forest, savannah, or near-desert, are greater than in any European country. Therefore, the models of control an African state must develop for these highly differentiated zones are more varied, and thus more costly, than what a government in Europe or Asia must implement in order to rule over their more homogenous rural areas. Second, it is expensive to project power over distance in Africa because of the combination of a peculiar set of geographical features.

The African experience of politics amid large supplies of land and low population densities while confronting an inhospitable physical setting is in dramatic contrast to the European experience of state-building.

However [in Europe], starting in the fifteenth century in Italy and later elsewhere, population densities increased. As a result, European nations began to compete for territory, a tendency that only makes sense if population densities are relatively high and vacant land is limited or nonexistent, so that the value of conquering land is higher than the price to be paid in wealth and men. In turn, there was significant pressure to strengthen states in order to fight wars. Charles Tilly notes that one of the central reasons for the creation of relatively centralized state apparatuses in Europe was the “continuous aggressive competition for trade and territory among changing states of unequal size, which made war a driving force in European history.” Wars of territorial conquest, as chapter four notes in much greater detail, have been central to the formation of particular types of states because they create, quite literally, a life and death imperative to raise taxes, enlist men as soldiers, and develop the necessary infrastructure to fight and win battles against rapacious neighbors.

Because European states were forged with iron and blood, it was critical for the capital to physically control its hinterland.

Successful European state development was therefore characterized by profound links between the cities—the core political areas—and the surrounding territories.

So profound have been the ties between the major cities and the countryside that the roster of great cities that have dominated the western world (Venice, Antwerp, Genoa, Amsterdam, London, New York) stand as excellent proxies to the rise and fall of national powers.

However, Europe’s demographic history is not shared by many other parts of the world. It is quite remarkable that by 1975, Africa had only reached the level of population density that occurred in Europe in 1500. Nor is Africa’s population density unusual. Many other regions of the world are also sparsely settled. Latin America, North Africa, and the areas of the former Soviet Union have population densities that are historically much closer to Africa than to Europe.

In Africa, in contrast to Europe, the current states were created well before many of the capital cities had reached maturity. Addis Ababa appears to be the only example of rapid urban growth in a designated capital not under the control of Europeans. Elsewhere in the precolonial period, even royal villages moved periodically as “soil become exhausted or buildings deteriorated or as bad fortune indicated that the old site had lost its virtue.”19 Even most of the storied towns of West Africa were quite small until after colonial rule began.

Tellingly, it was only in the limited number of settler colonies, almost entirely in southern Africa, that the colonial state’s reach was extended in a comprehensive manner.

An appropriate capstone to the comparison between Africa—precolonial, colonial, and independent—and Europe is their strikingly different traditions involving the most dramatic action typically associated with a state: warfare. Due to low population densities and the large amount of open land in Africa, wars of territorial conquest, as chapters two, three, and four will discuss at length, have seldom been a significant aspect of the continent’s history. In precolonial Africa, the primary object of warfare, which was continual in many places, was to capture people and treasure, not land which was available to all. In contrast to European states that, at least at some points in their histories, needed to mobilize tremendous resources from their own populations to fight wars and were therefore forced to develop profound ties with their own hinterlands, precolonial African leaders mainly exploited people outside their own polity because the point of war was to take women, cattle, and slaves.

Many other regions of the world share the African experience of having significant outlying territories that are difficult for the state to control because of relatively low population densities and difficult physical geographies.

I suggest that state consolidation in Africa can be understood by examining three basic dynamics: the assessment of the costs of expansion by individual leaders; the nature of buffer mechanisms established by the state; and the nature of the regional state system. Only by understanding all three levels is a complete analysis of the consolidation of power in Africa possible.

Precolonial rulers in Africa struggled over the centuries to extend their power. While few were as direct as Emperor Haile Salaisse, who named his son Asfa-Wasen (Amharic for “expand the frontiers”),1 the desire to expand control over people (in particular) was as much a constant in precolonial Africa as it was elsewhere in the world.

Precolonial political practices do not figure in almost any analysis of African politics because the operations of states before the Europeans are seen as too exotic to be relevant. The critical problem for most current scholars is that power in precolonial polities was not, in the first instance, based on control of land. Unfortunately, the very basis of the modern understandings of states and state systems are tied to the control of territory.

Forced to anchor their analyses in the control of territory, many scholars make the mistake of suggesting that precolonial Africa had neither states nor state systems.

In precolonial Africa, land was plentiful and populations thin on the ground, especially as compared to Europe, China, and Japan.

As a result, there were few areas where territorial competition was the central political issue because land was plentiful. Reflecting the reality of population scarcity in Africa, property rights over people were extraordinarily well developed in Africa compared to other parts of the world.

In addition to the sheer abundance of land, African farmers also depended almost completely on rain-fed agriculture and therefore invested little in any particular piece of territory. As a result, few specific pieces of land were that valuable or worth a great price to defend. African agriculture was extensive, with low fixed investments in any particular piece of land, because the fundamental tool of intensive farming, the plough, spread throughout Eurasia without ever reaching Africa (except, it should not be a surprise to learn, Ethiopia).

African societies differed markedly from the high density Asian polities Wittfogel called “hydraulic societies” where, because of the (literal) sunk costs in irrigation works, particular pieces of land had great value.

Correspondingly, in Asia, and in large parts of Europe, states had a profound interest in controlling areas of intensive agriculture because of the possibilities of high revenue flows from taxes with relatively low collection costs.

The combination of large amounts of open land and rain-fed agriculture meant that, in precolonial Africa, control of territory was often not contested because it was often easier to escape from rulers than to fight them. Africans, on the basis of sensible cost-benefit equations, would, more often than not, rather switch than fight.

In particular, precolonial African societies unbundled ownership and control of land.

Warfare tended to be concentrated on seizing booty since it was hard to hold onto territory. As most farmers had nothing to seize, the most valuable treasure was slaves (i.e., the farmers themselves).

Central governments were often not concerned about what outlying areas did as long as tribute was paid (sometimes in the form of slaves), and there were no imminent security threats emerging to challenge the center.

Because the broadcasting of power was constrained, there was much more cultural diversity even within precolonial empires than in later European empires. African empires in the western and central Soudan, such as Mali and Kanem-Bornu, were similar to the loose-knit empires of the European Middle Ages such as the Holy Roman Empire and the large kingdom of the Angevins that existed on both sides of the English Channel. In all these empires, “the territorial extent of the empire depended not upon the ethnic or cultural unity of the subjects but upon the military predominance and the dynastic alliances of the small ruling group.” Indeed, African invaders tended to be absorbed into the ranks of the conquered, especially as they tended to marry the daughters of commoners.

While generalizations are inevitably faulty across such a broad range of polities, it can be said that power was (quite realistically) conceived of as a series of concentric circles radiating out from the core.

Across Africa, states were naturally largest in the savannah belt of West Africa because, “only here could horses and camels be used to speed the movement of armies and to permit large-scale trade between the various regions.”54 At the other end of the spectrum, in some areas of Africa, it was so difficult to broadcast power that there were, esentially, no centralized political organizations above village level.

African states were expanding in the nineteenth century immediately before the European division of the continent.

Many states grew because of their ability to participate in the increasing amount of international trade generated by the growing European presence on the coasts of Africa.

Even more important was the introduction of the gun into parts of Africa in the nineteenth century.

In fact, the notion of the “frontier as boundary,” was largely unknown in precolonial Africa.64 Power tended to dissipate in increasingly distant hinterlands that were under the nominal control of a distant center rather than be marked by sharp geographic disjunctures. Frontiers tended to be thought of as border regions or zones where more than one polity could actively exercise authority.

Similarly, precolonial African states lacked the ability to control two of the most common and important flows across boundaries: people and money. For instance, the free movement of people was a widely accepted tenant in many precolonial polities.

Also, many African polities had no official currency that might reinforce their physical presence in remote areas by demanding that legal tender be in a particular form. Instead, states adopted the currency that was most popular throughout the trading region.

Since no one state controlled the money supply, sudden inflations sometimes occurred because new technologies or new traders could suddenly drastically increase the supply of one or more of the currencies.

Precolonial states were unable to protect themselves from this sudden debasement of their own currency.

Arguably, the most distinctive aspect of precolonial international relations, in contrast to the current international system, was the diversity of states.

States found it hard to extend authority from the center outward. At the same time, the weakness of boundaries made it impossible to delimit an area that could then be claimed exclusively by a state. Finally, the state system was unforgiving and did not allow for the extension of formal authority without the deployment of a corresponding power infrastructure. As a result, considerations revolving around the costs of extending power dominated political calculations. Precolonial African states therefore had precisely the opposite physiology of many in Europe: the power assets were concentrated in the center with gradations of authority extending into the hinterland. The European model of placing significant assets in the hinterland to protect against outsiders and to make the boundaries real was neither viable nor relevant.

The Europeans brought about a host of other changes in Africa that have reverberated to our own time: they created a system of boundaries and frontiers new to Africa; they established novel economic systems based on mines and cash crops; they built infrastructure systems that still determine patterns of trade; and they left their religions, languages, and cultural practices.

The harshness of European colonization of Africa during the twentieth century often obscures just how late formal control of territory by Europeans, especially in the hinterland, came to the continent. In fact, before 1885, very little territory beyond the coasts was formally controlled.

There were many reasons for the late and limited European interest in Africa. Lack of commercial opportunities was certainly important… In addition, Europeans tended to die in large numbers when they tried to live on the continent.

South Africa, after the discovery of the Witswatersrand, was an exception to the general African pattern. Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, the tremendous mineral discoveries around the Rand prompted massive white immigration and the creation of what was, in places, an extraordinarily well-developed state apparatus.

Great Britain only reluctantly took control of Southern Rhodesia in 1923 after the failure of the British South Africa Company to find another mineral extravagance. In fact, half of the Rhodesian white population immigrated after 1945. Similarly, Portuguese rule in Mozambique and Angola, while stretching back centuries, was sporadic, and Lisbon was unable to move much beyond its coastal acquisitions. Colonies were allowed to disappear and the large white settlements that characterized both territories right before independence in the 1970s were products of the Estado Novo created by Antonio Salazar in 1928.

In many ways, before 1885, the Europeans were just another African group that played the political game according to long-established rules. Especially beyond the coasts, there is little evidence of any kind of significant colonial project that would foreshadow European domination of Africa in later years.

What is most remarkable about the scramble for Africa is not that it happened, but that it occurred so late, so fast, and without significant fighting between the colonialists.

While the Europeans, rather suddenly in the mid-1880s, had decided to conquer Africa, they were extremely ambivalent about ruling Africa. In particular, Britain, France, and the other powers were unwilling, given the high cost of administration and the low probability of reward, to develop extensive administrative networks.

Instead of acting as combatants in an international system typically described as anarchical, the colonial powers devised a way to collude for their common good. The specific mechanism used to divide up Africa peacefully was the Berlin Conference of 1884/5.

Berlin enabled the Europeans to conquer Africa while doing as little as possible to control it…Most territory in Africa was not actually physically conquered but ceded, more or less legitimately, by African rulers.

In his review of African resistance to European colonialism, Crowder notes, “Perhaps the most striking feature of the invading armies was their small size in comparison with the African armies which opposed them.”The cost to Britain of conquering seventy million African subjects was about fifteen pence each, most of that spent not on armies but on railroads that followed the soldiers.

Even at the height of colonial rule, governments, reflecting the power gradients made possible by Berlin, penetrated the rural areas in only a partial and incomplete manner. In 1939, the average British district commissioner was responsible, with his staff of Africans, for an area roughly the size of Wales. Ruling over the roughly 43 million people in British tropical Africa in 1939 were a grand total of 1,223 administrators and 938 police.80 Similarly, there were 3,660 officials to govern 15 million Africans in French West Africa, 887 to govern 3.2 million in French Equatorial Africa, and 2,384 to govern 9.4 million in the Belgian Congo in 1938

A limited administrative presence was also possible because, even after 1917, the Europeans did little in most parts of the continent to change the biological facts on the ground. The signal aspect of colonialism in Africa was how few European settlers there were.

I use road density (kilometers of roads per square kilometer) as a way of measuring the colonial ability to broadcast power. When roads finally were built, they, more than railroads or waterways, brought the most profound changes to African society.

As a result, the practice of colonialism before World War II never exceeded the very limited vision formed in the first decade of the twentieth century when Africa was formally conquered.

To stress the limited and incomplete nature of colonial rule is not to deny its brutality. Indeed, a central feature of colonial rule was violence.

The extent of violence was, in many ways, not an indication of control but the result of the very limited presence of administrative structures in many areas outside the major cities.

For the most part, Europeans only wanted order preserved and their limited economic interests protected. When European rule was challenged during the terminal colonial period, the colonialists would leave rather than fight. In doing so, of course, they were acting like typical African rulers in the precolonial period.

After gaining independence in the early 1960s, African leaders were faced with an exquisite dilemma. They recognized that the states that emerged from Berlin were artificial and did not, in many cases, actually rule their putative nations other than through the use of exceptional violence. Yet, if the states, with their colonial power gradients, were to change, the new leaders would have to give up many of the newly tasted benefits of power and face considerable uncertainty about their own fate and the fate of their nations. In a rare instance of not muddling through on a question of monumental importance, the Africans decided early and decisively that the colonial map should be retained.

Following their colonial predecessors, the new leaders decided against gaining control of African territory through wars of expansion or by claiming control of territory on the basis of the administrative facts on the ground. At the same time, despite much rhetoric about recovering the African past, the new leaders rejected the entire precolonial tradition of multiple sovereignties over land with soft borders. Instead, Africa’s leaders devised a set of domestic and international strategies that, much as during the colonial rule, gave maximum flexibility to the leaders when deciding how to expand the actual geographic reach of the state while formally preventing any outside challenge to their territorial control. Therefore, the particular international system and domestic institutions that African countries erected have had profound effects on the ability of the state to consolidate authority, either by collecting taxes or by developing bonds of loyalty through nationalism, which are still apparent four decades after independence.

African countries faced the luxury of escaping the brutal history of continual war that so mars the barbaric European experience in the twentieth century. However, the problem of state-building in times of peace and, in particular, of extending authority, is nonetheless consequential.

At the most basic level, war in Europe acted as a filter whereby weak states were eliminated and political arrangements that were not viable either were reformed or disappeared. Weak states do exist in Europe today— Belgium is one example—but the near-constant threat of war prompted most states to become stronger in order to survive. The contrast between this evolutionary development and the current situation in Africa, where even states that are largely dependent on foreign aid will continue to exist for the foreseeable future, in good part because of the protection afforded by the international system they helped to create, is dramatic.

There is no better measure of a state’s reach than its ability to collect taxes. If a state does not effectively control a territory, it certainly will not be able to collect taxes in a sustained and efficient manner. At the same time, a widely distributed tax base helps guarantee consolidation of the state by generating a robust revenue stream. Perhaps the most noticeable effect of war in European history was to cause the state to increase its ability to collect significantly more revenue with greater efficiency and less public resistance.

War affected state finances for two reasons. First, it placed tremendous strains on leaders to find new and more regular sources of income. While rulers may have recognized that their tax system was inadequate, a war may have been the only prompt that would have forced them to expend the necessary political capital and to deploy the coercion required to gain more revenue.

Second, citizens are much more likely to acquiesce to increased taxation when the nation is at war, because a threat to their survival will overwhelm other concerns they might have about increased taxation.

Thus, war often causes a “ratchet effect,” whereby revenue increases sharply when a nation is fighting but does not decline to the ante bellum level when hostilities have ceased.55 Once governments have invested the sunk costs in expanding tax collection systems and routinized the collection of new sources of revenue, the marginal costs of continuing those structures are quite low and the resources they collect can be used for projects that will enhance the ruling group’s support. Ironically, it is under external threat from others that European states were able to consolidate control over their own nations.

It is extraordinarily difficult, outside times of crisis, to reform elemental parts of the governmental system, such as the means of taxation.

Given low densities of population dispersed across large hinterlands, it was difficult for precolonial states to tax individuals. It was also hard to derive rents from land the way that feudal governments did in Europe because land had such a low value and because it was easy for the population to avoid land-based taxation.5As a result, most precolonial governments were dependent on taxing trade.

As a result, most colonial governments were also highly dependent on revenue from customs duties. Hopkins estimates that customs duties accounted for about two-thirds of the total revenue for the greater part of the colonial period in both the West African anglophone and francophone colonies.

The inability to change the structure of the revenue stream had an immediate and obvious impact on overall government finances. In the face of poor revenue growth, African countries have depended on deficit spending for growth in government revenue.

Normally, governments would not have been able to increase spending based almost completely on borrowing. However, governments south of the Sahara found one revenue stream they had was robust: foreign aid.

There are, as would be expected, important continuities and discontinuities in patterns of state consolidation in Africa across the centuries. The fundamental continuity is that almost all leaders have had to confront the common problem of low population densities, which have made it expensive to control people as distance from the capital increases relative to areas with th higher population densities. Allowing for different historical contexts and variations in technology and political norms, precolonial, colonial, and postindependence leaders also developed remarkably similar strategies in the face of a sparse and unforgiving physical setting.

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