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date: 21 April 2019

Postcolonial States and Societies in West Africa

Summary and Keywords

Postcolonial West African history can be understood in terms of transitions across three successive eras: a post-independence era of high nationalism; the military era, characterized by profound political and socio-economic instability; and, finally, since the early 1990s, a democratization era, marked by continued swings between fevered hopes and anguished realities. These temporalities arguably converge on a singular leitmotif, namely, the attempt by state power to preserve its privileges and the struggle by social forces to resist the state and draw effective boundaries between the private and public domains. Gloomy for most of the “lost decade” of the 1980s, the prospect for such a project appears brighter today, especially in the aftermath of pivotal shifts in the global and regional political landscapes.

Keywords: postcolonial, state, society, democracy, military, West Africa, civil society, opposition

Past and Present

When former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh finally bowed to concerted pressure from regional leaders and civil society organizations and fled the country on January 21, 2017, his hurried exit drew the curtains on a 22-year rule, which will be mostly remembered for its severity toward the opposition and Jammeh’s frequent descent into buffoonery. Barely 30 years old when he took office in July 1994 after sacking the civilian regime of Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, Jammeh quickly disappointed early hopes that he would be a young military modernizer. If he saw any advantage to his relative youth, it was the security of his hold on Gambia’s highest office, vowing, at least once, to rule for “one billion years . . . if Allah says so.”1

The ugly denouement to the Jammeh presidency is telling as a point of convergence for two historical and emergent currents in postcolonial West African politics and state–society interaction.

First, the resolve demonstrated by the Gambian opposition and civil society as Jammeh began to waver on his initial promise to hand over to Adama Barrow, winner of the December 1, 2016, presidential election, speaks, if not to total acceptance, at least to the ascendance and continued popularity of the idea of multiparty democracy across West Africa. The tenacity of the pro-Barrow coalition has to be contrasted with the subregional mood in 1994 when Yahya Jammeh shot his way into office. At the time, political centralization was largely the order of the day, and if anything, the idea of the military as holders of political office retained some appeal among those who had welcomed the first generation of military hijackers of power as the last bastions of a wounded national pride. Jammeh came to power as the political mood across the subregion slowly began to turn against military usurpers and their civilian counterparts. Pointedly, he was shown the exit in a process that, if nothing else, underscored the power of a nascent consensus regarding multipartyism and the sanctity of free and fair elections.

A second pattern is the entrance into the political sphere of a new set of actors who, for various reasons, have had very little political training, having functioned more or less outside the rubric of the party system, and who, in a growing number of cases, have spent a considerable chunk of time as political and economic exiles outside the region. Barrow, whose improbable victory at the polls in December 2016 triggered the process that resulted in Jammeh’s ouster, typifies this generation. A one-time property developer in the United Kingdom, Barrow was a political dark horse who had returned to The Gambia in 2006, embracing partisan politics much later. Yet, and not unlike most exiles, having left on account of disillusionment with the system, he returned with new ideas and initiatives, giving an unexpected boost to partisan politics.

The Postcolonial State

When Ghana’s first prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, made the famous statement, “Seek ye first the political kingdom, and all else shall be added unto you,” he was clearly enunciating a personal political doctrine. At the same time, however, he seems to have cast his gaze beyond the personal. Encapsulating an attitude common to his generation of Afro-nationalist politicians, Nkrumah, we can surmise, gestured toward a realistic future in which post-independence Ghana sought solutions to its problems within the purview of a modern political process. Accordingly, “the political kingdom” under consideration here is, on the one hand, the hustle and grind of everyday politics; on the other hand, it is the idea of the modern state and all its bureaucratic appurtenances as the fons et origo of social stability and economic development, the aspirational “all else” in Nkrumah’s statement.

It is true that for several reasons—some of which would come to be recognized as the bane of many postcolonial African states—Nkrumah fell short of taking Ghana to this imagined political paradise. Nevertheless, a positive view of the state as conductor and driver of economic transformation in postcolonial Africa was not uncommon in the immediate post-independence period.

One reason for this was the influence of the modernization paradigm, which, crucially, postulated the centrality of the state to the process by which postcolonial or “developing” countries would eventually transition to capitalist modernity and economic development. Irrespective of their ideological leanings (capitalist or socialist), most of the emergent intelligentsia and political elite initially took the accuracy of the modernization prophecy for granted. Furthermore, the state project appealed to a nationalist political elite that saw it (i.e., the state) as an arena for staging and asserting a newly acquired sovereignty. Finally, and perhaps not so unusual in the overall continuum of state practices worldwide, the state tantalized as a vehicle for the distribution of patronage to those favored by the political elite.

Although there were worrying signals even as the flags of the colonial states were being lowered and those of the newly independent entities hoisted, the personal charisma of some of the independent leaders (Nkrumah, quoted above, is one example) generally sufficed to hold the new states together. At least this was the case until the dam of military coups broke, starting with Togo in January 1963. Benin Republic (1963), Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta; 1966), Nigeria (1966), Ghana (1966), Sierra Leone (1967), and Mali (1968) would soon follow. A cycle of military coups and counter-coups (more than 40 in total) defined regional politics until the early 1990s, and by the time the military intervened in a West African state again in Mali and Guinea Bissau in March and April 2012, respectively, the two incidents were seen as strikingly anomalous, rather than extensions of a historical cycle. As a matter of fact, in some quarters, the Mali coup was hailed, a tad dubiously, as part and parcel of the Arab Spring uprisings which, starting from Tunisia in December 2010, had spread across North Africa and the Middle East.

Why did many West African states languish under the spell of a hotchpotch of military dictators and personalist regimes for so long, despite their proven deleterious effect on social institutions and sociality? For one thing, the military was generally seen, not least in the first flush of coups d’état, as uniquely institutionally endowed with the capacity to catalyze modernization. That mythology, along with the fantasy of military officers as disciplined eradicators of corruption, persisted long after it had been decisively negated by experience, and even today, a dark, cold dungeon of postcolonial African political science scholarship is inhabited by an unusually upbeat literature on the benevolent military dictator.2 Second, for all that they were maladroit at “modernizing,” military rulers showed an incredible aptitude for playing members of the political elite against one another, a manipulation that typically redounded in favor of the military in power and as a corporate body. Third, personalist rule in West Africa gave rise to divided societies in which social forces—trade unions, student movements, professional bodies, teachers’ unions, artisans, peasants, journalists, marginalized politicians, etc.—often struggled to forge common purpose. Finally, across the subregion, as in most of postcolonial Africa, sanctions for non-compliance with the strictures of rule were typically onerous, whether for individual political dissenters or communities and groups which deigned to seek redress by taking up arms.

The latter is useful as a framework for understanding the economy of violence in postcolonial West Africa. The point is this: because state power remains the highest political prize (for the dispensation of justice or pursuit of vendetta, as the case may be), violence retains its métier as the common language of power, a fact that is no less true even in today’s moment of ostensible democratic civility. For example, in Nigeria under the military, General Sani Abacha (1993–1998) dispatched Ogoni rights activist and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa in November 1995 after a travesty of a trial and in the teeth of tremendous international diplomatic pressure; in November 1999, this time under a democratic dispensation, Olusegun Obasanjo (1999–2007) unleashed the Nigerian military on defenseless civilians in Odi in the oil-producing Bayelsa state. Their specific properties notwithstanding, the now largely contained uprising in the Nigerian Delta and the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency in the northeastern part of the country emerge as extensions of this economy of violence. In Liberia, Charles Taylor’s successful rebellion to oust Samuel Doe had as much to do with righting perceived wrongs as exacting, all too literally, a pound of flesh.

Accordingly, whether mobilized by the state or deployed by the forces ranged against it, the reflexive recourse to violence is an eloquent testimony to a crisis of legitimacy that, scholars agree, is the overarching leitmotif of postcolonial West African politics.3 Undoubtedly, this crisis has worsened with time. Political independence had brought, if temporarily, an ostensible moral unity between state and society. However, fissures would soon emerge as popular alienation crept in, mostly on account of elite predation. In the military era (largely the three decades between independence and the beginning of the 1990s), efforts to justify the state in the eye of society were little more than supercilious attempts by sundry autocrats to dictate the pieties of martial citizenship. In the end, it is hardly surprising that the dawn of the 1990s in West Africa found state and society sharply discordant.

Transitions to Democracy

We don’t understand the concept of a loyal opposition.

Siaka Stevens4

For precisely this reason, the global Fourth Wave of democratization, when it eventually broke on the shores of West Africa in the early 1990s, could not have been more opportune. The case for democratizing the state was clear enough. Hostage since independence to a succession of dictators, military and civilian, it had by and large been stripped of all legitimacy. There were important variations, of course. In terms of objective political outcomes, coup-riddled Nigeria was not all that different from Cameroon, which had experienced only one failed coup against President Paul Biya in 1984. In both countries, the state was (and still largely remains) a glorified vehicle for elite accumulation. Under Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Cote d’Ivoire had enjoyed remarkable stability, but the rule of “the Wise Old Man,” who passed on in 1993, was always destined to bequeath a dubious legacy.

But not even in relatively politically serene Senegal (the separatist rebellion in Casamance remains a critical dark spot)5 could a general sense of disaffection with the state be disguised. In different West African countries, distrust of the political elites was high and trust in state capacity low, in large part because they (the elites) were seen as the prime beneficiaries of an arrangement whereby the state was clinically divorced from the rest of society. Because elites manipulated the levers of political power, they also determined the overall economic directions (or the lack thereof) of their countries. Hence, for most, an unfortunate combination of economic incompetence, egregious corruption, and rentierism produced states that were in fact formidable obstacles to social freedom and economic prosperity, little respected, but greatly feared for their possession of, and proven appetite to unleash, violence.

Democratization was meant to alleviate, if not completely reverse this untoward situation—by renewing the social contract through the de-privatization of the state, enthroning the rule of law, and liberating the economy from its ideological shackles. In this aspiration, Benin Republic was both subregional pioneer and testimony to the contention that the push for democratization in (West) Africa owed equally to “local” and international imperatives.6 Although Marxism-Leninism was officially retired as the governing ideology in December 1989 right after the fall of the Berlin Wall a month earlier, suggesting that the latter might have been the decisive trigger, the fact that, starting from the mid-1980s, the Beninoise society had come under tremendous pressure to reform should not be discounted. For instance, between January and June of 1989, the University of Cotonou was paralyzed by student protests over nonpayment of government subsidies. In April of the same year, university teachers went on strike, demanding payment of salary arrears. As the society roiled, divisions also emerged within the political class, and the abolition of Marxism-Leninism in December 1989 now seems, at least in history’s rearview mirror, an inevitability. In February 1990, President Mathieu Kerekou convened a National Conference, followed in 1991 by the country’s first multiparty elections since 1964.

The democratization process in Benin prefigures the subregional pattern in one important way, and this is the all-important economic backdrop. Marxism-Leninism might have been directly implicated in the Beninese failure to deliver economic growth, but as already noted, the overall economic crisis in West Africa had little by way of ideological specificity. By the end of the 1980s, the economic situation across the subregion was characterized by sluggish growth rates, soaring inflation, high unemployment, high external indebtedness, decline in agricultural output, de-industrialization, and, in a few notable cases, total reliance on a single commodity for the generation of external revenue.7

The climax of this situation, and still today one of the most controversial episodes in postcolonial West African history, was the decision by various states, teetering on the edge of disaster, to accept the conditionalities imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) under the rubric of the Structural Adjustment program (SAP) as guarantee for credit necessary for the revitalization of their economies. SAP’s core conditionalities were liberalization (in essence the surrender of the economy to market forces), privatization, and the shrinking of the public sector, meaning a withdrawal of the state from areas once considered to be zones of proper intervention. Accordingly, the protests organized by workers, students, and teachers’ unions in Benin in the late 1980s were as much about their corporate interests as they were about the new economic climate then slowly emerging in the subregion in the aftermath of structural adjustment. In Niger, for instance, similar protests by students at the University of Niamey in February 1990 led to clashes with the police in which several student demonstrators lost their lives. In Nigeria, student demonstrations and clashes between students and the police took place in 1986, 1988, and sporadically between 1990 and 1992. The protests started when, aiming to curry favor with the Bretton Woods twins, the military junta of Ibrahim Babangida ordered the removal of subsidies on petroleum products. They were further fueled by anger over unsubstantiated reports that Babangida and his wife, Maryam, had stolen and stashed away extraordinary amounts of cash in foreign accounts.

Such, then, was the explosive twinning of economic and political agitation that, in short order, what had seemed like a one-off episode in Benin quickly snowballed into a full-blown subregional democratic procession. After the success of the February 1990 National Conference and the March 1991 election in Benin, copycat conferences ensued in Mali, Niger, and Togo in 1991, and even in countries where incumbents stubbornly stood up to demands for similar constitutional conferences, pro-democracy forces, sensing a rare weakness in the authoritarian carapace, and drawing inspiration from the overall shift in the political temper across the subregion, continued to pressure to have multiparty elections and other democratic reforms.

They did not always meet with success as, in some countries, leaders quickly moved to nip the emergent movements in the bud. For instance, in Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, who became head of state following the assassination of his friend, Thomas Sankara, on October 15, 1987, hastily organized elections in December 1991 (which he handily won), more to head off demands for a national constitutional conference than to implement actual democratic reforms. Eventually, he would hold on to power until October 2014 when, after 27 years in office, he was toppled by a popular revolt. There was greater success next door in Mali, where violent demonstrations and a general strike eventually led to the removal of General Moussa Traore in March 1991. In Nigeria, facing unrelenting protests, General Babangida decided to bring a costly and long-drawn-out transition process to conclusion with presidential elections in June 1993. When the official result of the election was abruptly canceled because the army brass refused to accept the winner, millionaire politician Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, the ensuing political crisis paved the way for the military’s continued entrenchment until May 1999.

Setbacks like this hardly detract from the one positive outcome of the democratic resurgence of the 1990s across the subregion—the revitalization of civic energy. Riding a global crest wave, and boosted by generous financial support from an enthusiastic array of Western governments and donors, trade unions, student movements, religious organizations, university teachers, professional bodies, media houses, youth groups, and a new wave of human rights and pro-democracy nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in different West African countries found common purpose in mobilization for democratic reform. One upshot of this, pertinent to an understanding of state–society relations, is that even where they clearly enjoyed limited success, pro-democracy groups left a deep imprint in the way they expanded democratic space and created a discursive legacy by putting good governance and multiparty democracy permanently on the political agenda. Whether or not they succeeded in altering the essentially expropriatory character of rule, they subjected the state to a degree of scrutiny not seen in the subregion since the heyday of decolonization.

In February 1990, former French prime minister and mayor of Paris at the time, Jacques Chirac, visited Abidjan, capital of Cote d’Ivoire, to attend a conference of Francophone mayors. Addressing the international press, he provocatively described multipartyism as a “political error” and a “luxury” that developing countries could ill afford.8 Most probably, Chirac meant to show solidarity with his friend and Ivorien leader at the time, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, who had come under intense pressure to lift the ban on opposition parties and allow multiparty elections. At the same time, however, it is significant that Chirac’s controversial remarks were timed to coincide with the Conference Nationale des Forces Vives de la Nation taking place during the same month in Benin.

Political error or not, the pressure to liberalize told on Houphouet-Boigny, who eventually agreed to multiparty elections in October 1990. Significantly, however, he won (beating Laurent Gbagbo, a history professor who later became president in 2000) and would remain in office until his death in December 1993.

Houphouet-Boigny’s rapid adaptation and cynical mastery of the evolving political landscape was typical of the response of many West African leaders to the democratic surge of the 1990s. In Benin, the subregional trailblazer Kerekou was initially eased out of office but would re-emerge later in 1996 after defeating incumbent Nicephore Soglo. Kerekou in fact continued in office for another two terms until 2006. Like Houphouet-Boigny, Togo’s Gnassingbe Eyadema was president for life (1967–2005) and similarly used the democratization wave of the 1990s to strengthen his grip on power, winning “multiparty” elections in 1993, 1998, and 2003. In Ghana, J. J. Rawlings, perceiving a change in the political atmosphere, stepped out of his military gear and, in 1992, transformed into a civilian president under the aegis of the National Democratic Congress (NDC). He would go ahead to win a second and final term as president in 1996.

Mayor Chirac’s undisguised support for Houphouët-Boigny hints at the role of foreign actors in helping various sit-tight leaders in West Africa manipulate the opposition, hold on to power, or, as we see from the example of Kerekou, overcome all odds to reclaim power. In the case of Francophone West African countries, this was made easier by the special relationship between them and their former colonial master, France. Inspired by Jean-Francois Bayart’s notion of “Franco-African hegemony,” Pearl Robinson describes this unique relationship as follows:

African rulers participate in French political life via circuits of information and the financing of electoral campaigns; French political, economic, financial, military, and cultural influences wield disproportionate weight in African societies; and African diaspora communities residing in France attempt to influence French policy, particularly with regards to support for human rights and political pluralism. The political activities of groups, such as the Conseil des Communautes Africaines, and the influence of intellectual circles . . . are vital threads in this political fabric. Moreover, France’s multiparty system allows for a range of trans-Atlantic coalitions and alliances to accommodate these relationships.9

Given the foregoing, it is tempting to ascribe the blame for the tenacity of political authoritarianism and the travails of democratization in the subregion to the vagaries of incestuous relationships between West African leaders and their Western allies. While this is not invalid, it is important not to inflate its explanatory value in proportion to the way in which West African leaders themselves (Francophone and non-) have been able to manipulate such “special relationships” for their own political benefits. Second, and as an ancillary, it is important not to overestimate the power that such “patrons” have over “clients” who, if nothing else, have proved adept at playing powerful international patrons against one another or, in the ultimate example of the state as a protection racket, using patronage to corral or seduce local adversaries and clients.

In essence: even without external complicity, the political elite’s impulse to monopolize power was always keen, as evidenced by the Siaka Stevens statement at the head of this section.

Weathering the Storm

The sheer ferocity of the democratic resurgence of the 1990s in West Africa caught many of the subregion’s leaders by surprise. Most did not see it coming because, having successfully negotiated the turbulence arising from the “lost decade” that was the 1980s, they presumed that the worst had been avoided. Thus, they must have tracked the Eastern European social convulsions that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 from what felt like a safe distance. Evidently they were mistaken, as the subregion would soon find itself in the eye of a democratic storm. That pro-democracy protests in different West African countries were shaped and energized by global discourses and concepts then current cannot be denied. Yet local drivers of agitation were far from trivial: a closed political system, limited opportunities for social mobility, profound immiseration, plus a nagging feeling, especially among young people, of being left permanently holding the short end of the stick.

For all that the protests caught various leaders unaware, it didn’t take them long to fashion a response. Though responding to contrasting national scenarios, gradually, the leaders accepted the democratic challenge as an opportunity to put a patina of democratic legitimacy on regimes with scant claims to popular credibility. There were different models for this, but the overall arc bent toward regime preservation. In Benin, Kerekou’s knowledge of the inner workings of the state was essential to his successful comeback. In Guinea (and similar to Chad, Burkina Faso, and Ghana), Lansana Conte, head of state since a successful 1984 military coup, deftly took advantage of opposition calls for democratization to further entrench his rule, winning—in 1993—the first multiparty presidential election since the country’s independence in 1958, a feat he repeated in 1998, and again in 2003 in the teeth of vociferous opposition. Furthermore, even in places where the military left office in disgrace, such was its insinuation in existing political structures (that, and the vast financial resources at its disposal) that it remained a potent political force and had direct access to the levers of power.

Nigeria is a good example. After Babangida’s forced exit in 1993, the military, as already noted, held on to the reins until May 1999.10 Yet, and in the most eloquent testimony to the institution’s enduring influence, the man elected to usher in a new era of multiparty democracy in May 1999 was Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military head of state (1976–1979). To deepen the symbolism, a significant percentage of those elected into the Senate and the House of Representatives of the newly inaugurated Fourth Republic Benin were former soldiers. From 2007 until 2015, the Nigerian Senate was headed by David Mark, former army colonel and minister of communications during the Babangida era (1985–1993). While it is true that the Nigerian military is especially politicized (former President Shehu Shagari once memorably described it as the alternative party to politicians),11 the Nigerian situation regarding remilitarization and the sustenance of military prerogatives is by no means atypical. Recent studies by Carrie Manning and Anders Themner (on Liberia)12 and Mimmi Soderberg Kovacs and Ibrahim Bangura (on Sierra Leone)13 reveal a similar institutional impulse to self-perpetuate.

The point is this: all things considered, the ancien regime across West Africa weathered the democratic storm. If one of the central goals of democratization was to deprivatize the state, its continued personalization, fostered in no small measure by the nagging shortcomings of efforts to decentralize the system, is an affirmation of the durability of the authoritarian ethic.

The Authoritarian Backlash: Society Under Pressure

That various leaders managed to see off the democratic challenge is partly attributable to their success in playing up tensions among social forces, a success that inevitably strengthened the state’s hand but, at the same time, helped to explode the myth of a concordant and univocal postcolonial society.

As already indicated, a signal achievement of the anti-state, pro-democracy mobilizations of the late 1980s and early 1990s in the subregion was the coming together of different social forces under a common umbrella. Because statism left no turn unstoned and imposed the same heavy burden on nearly all segments of society, groups previously split along the lines of class, religion, ethnicity, and professional affiliation saw democratization as a joint investment whose dividend would benefit the common cause. For societies where a sense of common citizenship remains elusive despite repeated attempts at “nation building,” and where the easiest way to undermine a coalition is to stoke ethnic resentment, the significance of that moment cannot be overemphasized.

In Nigeria, the cancelation of the result of the June 12, 1993, election by the military was the cause célèbre for an unprecedented coalition of university professors, journalists, lawyers, traders, religious associations, organized labor, and professionals under the umbrella of the Campaign for Democracy (CD). At the height of its success, this coalition forced the Babangida junta to its knees through a series of carefully coordinated political actions. Especially effective in this respect were well-timed industrial actions coordinated in liaison with the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) and the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW). With the two key sectors of the economy (oil and public transport) in tow, CD exerted enormous pressure on the Babangida regime, and its unrelenting adversarialism was pivotal to the decision by Babangida to “step aside” on August 16, 1993, and hand over to an Interim National Government (ING) under Ernest Shonekan.

Yet the same factors behind CD’s success, the highlight of which was the exit of Babangida, also prefigured its eventual problems. Because it aggregated numerous and not always harmonious social forces and interests, it was relatively easy for the military to poke at its veneer. Eventually, CD broke up along ideological, regional, and generational lines, helped along by a military state that felt uniquely threatened by its rare unity.

The fate of CD throws an important light on the fortunes (hardly the right word here) of social forces as the state and those vested in it quickly regrouped in the aftermath of the democratic challenge. When possible, the state (civilianized soldiers or governing parties) played up and exploited factional differences among the political elite. His astuteness at this (and the manipulation of ethnic, linguistic, regional divisions) is one reason behind Paul Biya’s longevity in Cameroon. At other times, it (i.e. the state) weakened the opposition by dangling blandishments before economically vulnerable social agents. Yet still, the state, taking advantage of its historically privileged position as the most direct route to wealth in most (West) African countries, targeted the most vocal members of the opposition for direct co-option by offering them sinecures. In Nigeria, Baba Gana Kingibe, running mate to Chief MJKO Abiola, the winner of the June 12, 1993, election who subsequently died in detention in July 1998, served as foreign minister under General Sani Abacha between 1993 and 1995. He was also minister of internal affairs, minister of power and steel, and secretary to the federal government, respectively. The damage done to the opposition’s morale by his defection cannot be overestimated.14

But this wasn’t the worst part. In the deepest irony, the most important outcome of the democratic surge of the 1990s was that it ended up unleashing a severe winter of political repression across West Africa. Accordingly, in many countries it was not unusual for the most vocal opponents and perceived enemies of the state to be detained without trial or, in not a few cases, murdered. For instance, writing about Nigeria in the aftermath of the abrogation of the June 12, 1993, election, Larry Diamond regretted “the unprecedented political repression and misrule” that the military visited on the country.15 This included, as referenced above, detention of major opposition figures, harassment of journalists, and proscription of publications critical of the regime. Under Abacha, the Nigerian state became a killing machine, directly or indirectly implicated in a series of fatal bomb explosions and political assassinations.

The Gambia under Yahya Jammeh was no different. A 2014 report on the human rights situation in the country by Media Foundation for West Africa, a subregionally focused media development and freedom of advocacy organization, accuses the Jammeh government of serious violations, including

. . . the killing of 14 protesters in April 2000, the killing of journalist Deyda Hydara in 2004, the enforced disappearance of journalist Ebrima Manneh in 2006, the torture of journalist Musa Saidykhan in 2006, the arbitrary executions of 9 prisoners in 2012, and the “incommunicado” detention of human rights defender Imam Baba Leigh for five months of (sic) the same year.

The report adds:

The Gambian government has repeatedly failed to comply with several rulings by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice, including refusing to compensate Musa Saidykhan, and the families of Ebrima Manneh and Deyda Hydara. The justice system has also been weakened since President Yahya Jammeh came to power, undermined by interference by [sic] the Executive and increasingly repressive legislation aimed at muzzling dissent.16

Across the societal spectrum, reactions to the authoritarian backlash featured a mix of the mundane and the spectacular, including self-censorship, direct confrontation, innovative journalism using mobile logistics, ridicule, exile (both internal and external), and, not to forget, collaboration.17 The varieties of engagement (or disengagement) validate Nigerian political scientist Claude Ake’s observation, an observation that faintly echoes Peter Ekeh’s theoretical construct on the two publics in Africa, that, because “Most African regimes have been so alienated and so violently repressive . . . their citizens see the state as enemies to be evaded, cheated and defeated if possible, but never as partners in development.”18

Notwithstanding, and as the mention of collaboration in the foregoing suggests, it is grossly misleading to portray society as something permanently under pressure, hence lacking in invention or tactility. For one thing, it underestimates the fluidity of the boundaries separating society from state. For another, it exaggerates the moral differences between state and society while overlooking the extent to which society is also prone to the same ethnic and regional prejudices and manipulations normally associated with the state and state actors. Third, it discounts the dense and morally ambiguous layers of relationships between states and informal economies in (West) Africa.19

Perhaps most crucially, it gives scant credit to the established capacity of social forces to reinvent themselves, the better to renegotiate the terms of political engagement with the state. For example, this is evident in (though by no means limited to) the way in which some of those who had left the subregion, either in search of economic opportunities or to escape political persecution, have returned to rejuvenate politics and in some cases to turn the table on the state. The example of Adama Barrow, Yahya Jammeh’s conqueror, has been cited. Laurent Gbagbo, the historian who first ran unsuccessfully for the Ivorien presidency in 1990, spent much of the 1980s in exile in France. In Nigeria, members of the democratic exile, many of whom would soon occupy important positions in the country’s Fourth Republic (1999–), spearheaded the use of electronic technologies for instigating new forms of interaction and postulating “new terrains of relations of power, particularly between the exiles and the regime in power in Nigeria.”20 Extending a subregional tradition dating back to the colonial period, such individuals capitalize on time in exile for a broadening of subjectivity, subsequently leveraged for re-entry into the vortex of national politics.

Generally speaking, exilic politics is a useful reminder of the undiminished importance of the “abroad” or “elsewhere” to contemporary West African societies and the profound shift in the tectonics of traditional political practice. As the capacity of the state to furnish a framework for the pursuit of economic prosperity has declined, floods of young people have left West Africa for destinations in Europe, the United States, and, increasingly, China. From these far-flung destinations, they contribute, mostly through social media, to conversation about the futures of individual countries. In doing so, they put tremendous pressure on conventional political structures, articulate an alternative moral template for state–society interaction, and adumbrate new political and socio-economic possibilities in the subregion.

Conclusion: A Region of the Mind?

Writing coherently and accurately about a subregion as culturally diverse and politically complex as West Africa presents a unique analytic problem. In part, this is because any assertion made about, say, the structure of political organization in one part of the region faces the ever-present danger of being successfully challenged by a counterclaim in another part. Not only is the region obviously disaggregated along geographic, cultural, and religious lines, contrasting colonial experiences under French, British, and Portuguese overlords still routinely intrude upon a shared solidarity.

One way in which scholars have tried to remedy the problem is by aggregating and emphasizing political, socio-cultural, and economic characteristics which they assume to be transversal to states in the subregion. Such “regional characteristics” typically include a common experience of colonial subjugation and administration, quick regression into military authoritarianism following short-lived post-independence civilian dispensations (when ECOWAS was chartered in 1975, journalists across the region jokingly referred to it as the Economic Community of West African Soldiers), economic collapse due to a combination of local mismanagement and international mischief, chronic political instability, and, since the early 1990s, a measured transition into an era of political liberalization.

Another way in which the challenge of diversity has been met is by using socio-political elements and processes of social transformation in a particular country as proxy for developments in the rest of the subregion. The success or failure of such an approach is often determined by the imaginative resources available to the researcher; that, and a capacity to embed apparently “local” particularities within seemingly unrelated regional dynamics. Anthropologist Charles Piot’s work on Togo offers one such successful template. In Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa After the Cold War, Piot uses themes and discourses from Togo’s sociopolitical process, such as the demystification of the state and the deregulation of spirituality, to capture what he calls “the crisis of the West African post-Cold War moment.”21 In the same spirit, Sasha Newell’s The Modernity Bluff: Crime, Consumption, and Citizenship in Cote d’Ivoire, in one sense an ethnography of young people’s attempts in urban Abidjan to “fit in” while “standing out,” is, alternatively, profitably read as an excerpt from a longstanding repertoire of young people’s “money struggles”22 and quest for belonging taking place in numerous urban spaces across the subregion. Furthermore, using a historical methodology, Joshua Forrest’s Lineages of State Fragility: Rural Civil Society in Guinea-Bissau valorizes the experience of Guinea Bissau (essentially the remarkable durability of rural society, giving rise to a “resistance” to state capture) as a perspective on the problem of state “weakness” in colonial and postcolonial West Africa.

This second scholarly strategy for overcoming the challenge of diversity is important because it calls attention to one of the critical methodologies for the production of West Africa as a coherent entity. The modality in question is the “invention” of a subregion by the very fact of referencing it as though its prior existence could be taken for granted. This aspirational quality to scholarship on West Africa is of course not limited to the subregion but appears to be the principle, and often the bane, of most efforts to extrapolate a common identity out of what in the end may be nothing more than a cluster of states.

This is not to say that the subregion is totally lacking in common historicity. The archaeological23 and historical24 literatures prove otherwise. By contrast, and going all the way back to the precolonial era, a tradition of sustained interregional migration and trade would seem to have laid the foundation for something approximating a pan-regional consciousness. From one section of the subregion, this connection though trade comes through forcefully in separate studies by Mahdi Adamu25 and Paul. E. Lovejoy26 on the Hausa factor in West African History and the Hausa Kola trade, respectively, and it seems reasonable to imagine that a solidified history of unbroken economic, cultural, and political interaction must have smoothed the path for the creation of ECOWAS in 1975.

Contemporarily, and linguistic and other differences notwithstanding, West Africa remains positively porous with respect to the circulation of political ideas and cultural forms.27 To take one example: in a post-1990s atmosphere of religious liberalization, charismatic Pentecostal pastors circulate freely across the subregion, galvanizing a spiritual economy in which devotional principles and modalities are prodigiously exchanged. Concurrently, and in a similar vein, Islamic marabouts consult promiscuously with a plurality of clients from Dakar to Douala, forging networks and alliances that transcend religious boundaries and refreshing old doubts about the actual location of political power.

Hence, if it makes any sense at all to speak of a common West African politics, that owes more than is normally acknowledged to the “ungoverned” transboundary activities and parallel interventions of these and other “nonstate” actors. Their agency may very well hark back to a time in West Africa before the coming of the modern state, but it also tells of the titanic struggle of the same state to pass the mustard of bureaucratic rationality.

Discussion of the Literature

Scholarship on West African states and societies has more or less paralleled their evolutionary milestones as articulated in the foregoing. Forged in the crucible of fevered nationalism, the first generation of historical and sociological scholarship was appropriately focused on recovering the West African past and showcasing precolonial West African empires as complex bearers of an African civilization. In this regard, the works of J. F. Ade Ajayi, F. K. Buah, J. S. Trimingham, Basil Davidson, Michael Crowder, and J. D. Fage28 were important pacesetters.

The early postcolonial struggles of many West African states and the incursion of the military into power would soon prompt a decisive shift in focus, as scholarly attention was riveted by the growing threat of personal rule, corporatism, class and social stratification, and economic decay. As the subregion gradually fell into an era of full-blown military rule,29 scholars struggled to understand the long-term impact of military capture of the state apparatus on the state as symbolized by its bureaucracy,30 society in general,31 and the military as an institution.32

Beginning from the late 1980s through the early 1990s, pro-democracy forces, inspired by a combination of local grievance and external support, struggled to dislodge the military from power. Now generally accepted as part of a global Third Wave of democratization, that struggle was both backdrop and fodder for a vibrant scholarship on West African postcolonial states and societies. As a cohort, this “transition scholarship” attempted to excavate the socio-economic and political drivers of the movement for multiparty democracy in Africa,33 while at the same time querying the wisdom of adopting wholesale institutional mechanics and praxes imported from countries with profoundly different histories and circumstances.

As economic globalization intensifies, contemporary West Africa finds itself in the eddy of two contrapuntal movements—on the one hand, global capitalism with its corrosive effect on state sovereignty; on the other hand, emigration of highly skilled talent with its deleterious impact on civil society.

Primary Sources

For the best part of a century, until it finally went under in 2005, West Africa magazine was the leading and most trusted source for political, economic, and socio-cultural reportage about the West African region. A complete run of the magazine is available at the National Archive of Nigeria, University of Ibadan. An incomplete run is available in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London library.

Since the demise of West Africa, other newsmagazines have aspired to fill the vacuum it left behind, with Africa Today and New African (both published in London) doing more than most in aspiring to a pan-regional coverage.

The library of the Dakar-based Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) carries extensive primary material on most aspects of postcolonial West African history, politics, and economy.

The Accra-based West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) has a constantly updated directory of regional Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and compiles annual reports, internship reports, and training assessment reports of civil society bodies across the subregion.

Further Reading

Ade-Ajayi, J. F. A Thousand Years of West African History. Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1969.Find this resource:

Ade-Ajayi, J. F., and Michael Crowder. History of West Africa: Vol. 1. London: Longman, 1971.Find this resource:

Ade-Ajayi, J. F., and Michael Crowder. History of West Africa: Vol. 2. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1974.Find this resource:

Adebajo, Adekeye, and Ismail Rashid, eds. West Africa’s Security Challenges: Building Peace in a Troubled Region. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2004.Find this resource:

Adebanwi, Wale, and Ebenezer Obadare, eds. Encountering the Nigerian State. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010.Find this resource:

Adekanye, J. Bayo. Military Occupation and Social Stratification. Inaugural Lecture, University of Ibadan. Ibadan, Nigeria: Vantage Publications, 1993.Find this resource:

Ake, Claude. The Feasibility of Democracy in Africa. Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA, 2000.Find this resource:

Akyeampong, Emmanuel Kwaku. Themes in West Africa’s History. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Andah, Bassey W., C. A. Folorunso, and Ikechukwu A. Okpoko, eds. Imprints of West Africa’s Past. Ibadan, Nigeria: Wisdom Publishers, 1993.Find this resource:

Apotsos, Michelle. Architecture, Islam and Identity in West Africa: Lessons from Larabanga. New York: Routledge, 2016.Find this resource:

Barrington, Lowell W., ed. After Independence: Making and Protecting the Nation in Postcolonial and Postcommunist States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Bates, Robert H. When Things Fall Apart: State Failure in Late-Century Africa. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Cline-Cole, Reginald, and Elsbeth Robson, eds. West African Worlds: Paths Through Socio-Economic Change, Livelihoods and Development. London: Pearson Prentice-Hall, 2005.Find this resource:

Crowder, Michael. West Africa Under Colonial Rule. London: Hutchinson, 1969.Find this resource:

Cruise O’Brien, Donal B., John Dunn, and Richard Rathbone, eds. Contemporary West African States. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Davidson, Basil. A History of West Africa, 1000–1800. London: Longman, 1978.Find this resource:

Englebert, Pierre. Burkina Faso: Unsteady Statehood in West Africa. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996.Find this resource:

Eyoh, Dickson, and Richard Stren, eds. Decentralization and the Politics of Urban Development in West Africa. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2007.Find this resource:

Forrest, Joshua. Lineages of State Fragility: Rural Civil Society in Guinea-Bissau. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Goldthorpe, J. E. The Sociology of Postcolonial Societies: Economic Disparity, Cultural Diversity, and Development. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Harris, David. Civil War and Democracy in Contemporary West Africa: Conflict Resolution, Elections and Justice in Sierra Leone and Liberia. London: I. B. Tauris, 2011.Find this resource:

Hart, Keith. The Political Economy of West African Agriculture. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1982.Find this resource:

Herbst, Jeffrey. States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Hoffman, Danny. The War Machines: Young Men and Violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Hopkins, A. G. An Economic History of West Africa. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.Find this resource:

Ibrahim, Jibrin. Democratic Transition in Anglophone West Africa. Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA, 1993.Find this resource:

Jegede, Segun, Ayodele Ale, and Eni Akinsola, eds. State Reconstruction in West Africa. Lagos, Nigeria: CDHR, 2001.Find this resource:

Kandeh, Jimmy D. Coups from Below: Armed Subalterns and State Power in West Africa. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.Find this resource:

Kirk-Greene, Anthony, and Daniel Bach, eds. State and Society in Francophone Africa Since Independence. London: Macmillan, 1995.Find this resource:

Le Vine, Victor T. Politics in Francophone Africa. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2004.Find this resource:

Newell, Sasha. The Modernity Bluff: Crime, Consumption, and Citizenship in Cote d’Ivoire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Nguyen, Vinh-Kim. The Republic of Therapy: Triage and Sovereignty in West Africa’s Time of AIDS. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Mann, Gregory. From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel: The Road to Nongovernmentality. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Mbembe, Achille. On the Postcolony. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Mendonsa, Eugene L. West Africa: An Introduction to Its History, Civilization and Contemporary Situation. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Newell, Stephanie, ed. Writing African Women: Gender, Popular Culture, and Literature in West Africa. London: Zed Books, 2017.Find this resource:

Obadare, Ebenezer. Partnering for Development? Analyzing Possibilities and Challenges for Civil Society Organizations and the Private Sector in West Africa. Accra, Ghana: WACSI, 2012.Find this resource:

Ogundele, S. Oluwole. Rethinking West African Archaeology. Ibadan, Nigeria: John Archers, 2004.Find this resource:

Olowu, Dele, Adebayo Williams, and Kayode Soremekun, eds. Governance and Democratization in West Africa. Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA, 1999.Find this resource:

Olukoshi, Adebayo. West Africa’s Political Economy in the Next Millennium: Retrospect and Prospect. Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA, 2001.Find this resource:

Piot, Charles. Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa after the Cold War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Stride, George T., and Caroline Ifeka. Peoples and Empires of West Africa. New York: Africana, 1971.Find this resource:

Tremolieres, Marie, and Olivier J. Walther, eds. Cross-border Co-operation and Policy Networks in West Africa. Paris: OECD Publishing, 2017.Find this resource:

Wunsch, James S., and Dele Olowu, eds. The Failure of the Centralized State: Institutions and Self-Governance in Africa. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1990.Find this resource:

Young, Crawford. The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Young, Crawford. The Postcolonial State in Africa: Fifty Years of Independence, 1960–2010. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Zolberg, Aristide. Creating Political Order: The Party-States of West Africa. Chicago: RandMcNally, 1966.Find this resource:


(2.) For a summary of this perspective, see Olatunde Odetola, Military Regimes and Development: A Comparative Analysis in African Societies (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982).

(3.) See Claude Ake, Democracy and Development in Africa (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1996); also William Reno, Warlord Politics and African States (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1998).

(4.) See Sierra Herald 8, no. 5, July 28, 1980.

(5.) For a background to the conflict in the Casamance region and the search for an enduring peace, see Hillary Thomas-Lake, “Keeping Promises: Building Sustainable Peace after the Peace Accord” (PhD diss., Johns Hopkins University, 2010).

(6.) For an analysis of the historical and sociological for Benin’s embrace of multiparty democracy, see Thomas Bierschenk, “Democratization without Development: Benin 1989–2009,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, 22, no. 3 (1989): 337–357.

(7.) See Adebayo Olukoshi, West Africa’s Political Economy in the Next Millennium: Retrospect and Prospect, Monograph Series 2 (Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA, 2001)

(8.) In Pearl T. Robinson, “The National Conference Phenomenon in Francophone Africa,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 36, no. 3 (1994): 575–610.

(9.) Robinson, “National Conference Phenomenon,” 585.

(10.) Babangida installed an ineffectual Ernest Shonekan at the head of an Interim National Government (ING). On November 10, 1993, a Lagos High Court declared the ING illegal. A week later, it swept aside in a military putsch led by General Sani Abacha.

(11.) See Larry Diamond, Prospects for Democratic Development in Africa (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University, 1997).

(12.) Carrie Manning and Anders Themner, “Discourses of Peace and Fear: The Electoral Navigations of Sekou Konneh and Prince Johnson in Post-War Liberia,” in Warlord Democrats in Africa, ed. Anders Themner (London: Zed Books, 2017), 95–120.

(13.) Mimmi Soderberg Kovacs and Ibrahim Bangura, “Shape-Shifters in the Struggle for Survival: Post-War Politics in Sierra Leone,” in Warlord Democrats in Africa, ed. Anders Themner (London: Zed Books, 2017), 177–198.

(14.) For a discussion of opposition politics in general, see Adebayo Olukoshi, ed., The Politics of Opposition in Contemporary Africa (Uppsala, Sweden: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 1998).

(15.) Olukoshi, Politics of Opposition.

(16.) See Media Foundation for West Africa, July 22, 2014.

(17.) See Ebenezer Obadare, “The Uses of Ridicule: Humour, ‘Infrapolitics’ and Civil Society in Nigeria,” African Affairs 108, no. 431 (2009): 241–261.

(18.) Claude Ake, “As Africa Democratizes.” Africa Forum 1, no. 2 (1991): 13–18.

(19.) For more on this, see Donald S. Rothchild and Naomi Chazan, eds., The Precarious Balance: State and Society in Africa (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1988).

(20.) See Wale Adebanwi, Tech-Politics and the Production of Knowledge: Democratic Activism and the Nigerian Exile, African Association of Political Science (AAPS) Occasional Paper Series, 10, no. 1 (2005): 52.

(21.) Charles Piot, Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa After the Cold War (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), 19.

(22.) See Jane I. Guyer, Laray Denzer, and Adigun Agbaje, eds., Money Struggles and City Life: Devaluation in Ibadan and Other Urban Centers in Southern Nigeria, 1986–1996 (Ibadan, Nigeria: Bookbuilders, 2003).

(23.) See, for example, Bassey W. Andah, C. A. Folorunso, and Ikechukwu A. Okpoko, eds., Imprints of West Africa’s Past (Ibadan, Nigeria: Wisdom Publishers, 1993); S. Oluwole Ogundele, Rethinking West African Archaeology (Ibidan, Nigeria: John Archers, 2004).

(24.) For instance, J. F. Ade-Ajayi and Michael Crowther, History of West Africa, vol. 1 (London: Longman, 1971); Ade-Ajayi and Crowther, History of West Africa, vol. 2 (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1974); Basil Davidson, A History of West Africa, 1000–1800 (London: Longman, 1978); George T. Stride and Caroline Ifeka, Peoples and Empires of West Africa (New York: Africana, 1971).

(25.) The Hausa Factor in West African History (Zaria, Nigeria: Ahmadu Bello University Press, 1978).

(26.) Caravans of Kola: The Hausa Kola Trade, 1700–1900 (Zaria, Nigeria: Ahmadu Bello University Press, 1980).

(27.) For an excellent analysis of the creation of a “West African imagination” through fiction, see Pius Adesanmi, “The West African Imagination Since Independence,” in West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, ed. Gus Casely-Hayford, Janet Topp Fargion, and Marion Wallace (London: The British Library, 2015), 132–154.

(28.) See J. D. Fage, An Introduction to the History of West Africa (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1962).

(29.) For an excellent overview, see Samuel Decalo, Coups and Army Rule in Africa (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990).

(30.) See, for instance, Jimmy Peters, The Nigerian Military and the State (London: I. B. Tauris, 1997).

(31.) Adekanye, op. cit. See John Dunn, ed., West African States: Failure and Promise: A Study in Comparative Politics (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1978).

(32.) Kandeh, op. cit. See also George Klay Kieh Jr. and Pita Ogaba Agbese, eds., The Military and Politics in Africa: From Engagement to Democratic and Constitutional Control (London: Ashgate, 2004).

(33.) See, for example, Eshetu Chole and Jibrin Ibrahim, eds., Democratization Processes in Africa: Problems and Prospects (Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA, 1995).