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Article

Southern Africa is a region marked by huge tensions caused by the longevity of colonial rule and racial discrimination. Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa all achieved independence only years after most of Africa, and only with protracted militarized struggle. Even those countries that did enter independence in the 1960s, alongside most of Africa, were marked by the struggles of their neighbors—Zambia, host to exile liberation movements, was a frequent military target; and wars, sponsored or supported by apartheid South Africa, continued to rage in Angola and Mozambique even after they achieved independence. This has marked the post-independence politics of most countries of the region, almost all of whom have gone through, or remain within, an era of one-party politics or dominant party rule. In part, this can be read as a residual longing for stability. In other part it can be read as a “liberation generation” using its history as a lever by which to hang onto power. Having said that, the politics of each country has distinctive characteristics—although one has certainly been protracted effort to adhere to forms of ethics, such as “Humanism” in Zambia, and truth and reconciliation in South Africa. The contemporary politics of the region, however, is one with forms of authoritarianism and corruption and, in many cases, economic decline or turmoil. The rise of Chinese influence is also a new marker of politics in the region as all of Southern Africa, with many different former colonial powers, enters a new era of problematic cosmopolitanism—with the international jostling with already sometimes-volatile elements of ethnic diversity, balancing, and conflict.

Article

Civil–military relations is traditionally concerned with the nature and interaction among three societal actors namely military institutions, political elites, and the citizenry. The nature of this complex relationship and whether it is harmonious to prevent military intervention in politics depends on how these societal actors cooperate on certain societal variables. Civil–military relations of West African countries are influenced by those countries’ colonial and postindependence experiences. The military establishments of most African states were birthed from colonial armies. Historically rooted pathologies about the role of the security and defense forces in society created deep cleavages between state and the military, and their relations to political authority on the one hand, and society on the other. The use of African armies for political and imperialist purposes during the colonial era and their roles in the struggle for independence were important factors in shaping the behavior of African armies after independence. Most colonial states did not attain independence with indigenous, nationalist-oriented military institutions. The transition of colonial regiments into the national armies of newly independent states were met with challenges in terms of establishing legitimacy and effectiveness, as these institutions had been set up under conditions that were not ideally suited to the needs of new states. Most postindependence African leaders missed the opportunity to build democratic and national militaries; instead, they maintained the status quo, as these leaders appeared more interested in building large armies for the purposes of regime stability. Successive political leaders resorted to deleterious devices such as patron–client systems, ethnic manipulation, and politicization of the military. These practices undermined the professionalism of the security apparatus and provided breeding grounds for pretorian tendencies. As the military became conscious of their political power, coups d’état became a common feature in the political dispensation of West African states. Frequent military interventions in West Africa often came with destabilizing consequences such as devastating military rules, intra-military conflicts, insurgencies, and even civil wars. Even in those countries where civil wars did not occur, the military were influential in the political landscape, in which autocratic regimes ruled with an iron hand and often used the military to inflict severe hardship on the citizens. With the return to constitutional democracies from the late 1980s, it was widely expected the role or influence of the military in the political space would be diminished as those states became more professional and democratic. However, coups d’état have reduced in the region, rather than going away completely, and the military as a state institution with a monopoly over legitimate force remains a very strong political actor, even under civilian governments. Former metropoles have been providing defense and security assistance programs to West African states for diverse reasons, including maintaining strategic hold on former colonies. Some of these interventions that aim at professionalization of the military have produced mixed outcomes in the region. In Anglophone West Africa, the British colonial policy of indirect rule contributed to the class division between the upper class (civilian politicians) and the lower class (the military and common people). This, coupled with the use of the military as agents of repression to safeguard colonial interests, created a popular dislike and negative image of colonial armies. State militaries went on to become destabilizing forces in political processes across the region. After independence, United Kingdom maintained a fluctuating presence in its former colonies due to its imperial past and strategic interests. In French West Africa, Africans were recruited from French colonies into the French army serve France’s military interests. African soldiers played diverse roles in their countries’ struggles for independence, which led to the military’s having a central role in the politics of postindependence Francophone states. France’s Africa policy differs from that of other former colonial powers in terms of its postindependence engagements with former colonies. In other parts of West Africa, Portuguese colonialism contributed to the creation of a central role for national liberation forces, which metamorphosed into postindependence military and political actors, with destabilizing consequences.

Article

Michelle Sikes

African politics have always had a significant effect on sport, despite cherished mantras that sport and politics are mutually exclusive. Conversely, sport has played a meaningful role in the politics of African nations, from nation-building to widening foreign policy options, to making national alliances of countries that may not have otherwise supported each other, particularly with respect to the anti-apartheid struggle. Twentieth-century African politics have been a laboratory for the testing and ultimate debunking of the long-standing notion that African sport (or any human activity) exists in a vacuum, apart from the political realities of the culture within which it exists.

Article

The peculiar politics of the Horn of Africa derives from the region’s exceptional pattern of state formation. At its center, Ethiopia was Africa’s sole indigenous state to remain independent through the period of colonial conquest, and also imposed its rule on areas not historically subject to it. The Somalis, most numerous of the pastoralist peoples, were unique in rejecting the colonial partition, which divided them between British and Italian Somalilands, French Djibouti, Kenya, and Ethiopia, while formerly Italian Eritrea, incorporated into Ethiopia in the post-World War II settlement, retained a sense of separate identity that fueled a long struggle for independence. These differences, coupled with the 1974 revolution in Ethiopia, led to wars that culminated in 1991 in the independence of Eritrea, the collapse of the Somali state, and the creation in Ethiopia of a federal system based on ethnicity. Developments since that time provide a distinctive slant on the legacies of colonial rule, the impact of guerrilla warfare, the role of religion in a region divided between Christianity and Islam, the management of ethnicity, and external intervention geared to largely futile attempts at state reconstruction. The Horn continues to follow trajectories of its own, at variance from the rest of Africa.

Article

The African Union (AU), an international organization comprising all 54 independent states in Africa and Western Sahara, was established in May 2001 to, among other things, promote regional integration, interstate solidarity, peace, good governance and to enhance the African voice in the global system. Pan-African organization is like the proverbial forest that has bad trees dotted around its many good trees. The AU has been very successful in addressing the needs of the African political class but it is yet to make a significant difference in the lives of many ordinary Africans. The importance of the pan-African organization to African political elite is such that they would have created it today if it did not already exist. The AU has socialized African leaders to accept liberal values as the foundation of international cooperation in Africa; enhanced the agency of African political class on the world stage; and established progressive and innovative rules and norms for the African continent. It has also created many useful decision-making structures that have contributed to the prevention, management, and resolution of conflicts in Africa. The AU has, however, been less successful in connecting its activities and programs to many ordinary Africans; providing common public goods and services valued by commoners in Africa; giving voice to the majority of young people in Africa; promoting intra-Africa trade, good governance, and financial independence of the African continent as well as struggled to address the expressed material needs and quotidian concerns of ordinary Africans.

Article

Francis B. Nyamnjoh

Since the euphoria of independence in the 1960s and subsequent attempts at decolonization of university education through promotion of perspectives grounded in African realities and experiences, African universities have almost without exception significantly Africanized their personnel but not their curricula, pedagogical structures, or epistemologies in a systematic and productive manner. Even a late arrival to political independence such as South Africa has, however reluctantly, embarked upon and covered some mileage toward Africanization of university personnel. Hardly addressed in any meaningful and transformative manner (even in countries that gained independence in the 1960s or shortly before), however, is the tradition of knowledge production and the epistemological order that informs it. This paper argues that any serious attempt at making African universities uncompromisingly inclusive institutions through embracing African traditions of knowing and knowledge production would require looking beyond the academy in its current configuration for inspiration. It uses the example of Amos Tutuola—a man of limited formal colonial education, and his writings depicting African universes as inspired by his Yoruba cosmology and ontology, to make the case on the reservoirs of insights and wisdom in the lived experiences of ordinary Africans, waiting to be tapped and channelled into the lecture halls of universities to refresh minds and reconfigure practice in the interest of a more relevant scholarship. The paper baptizes as convivial such a scholarship that dwells less on zero-sum games of absolute winners and losers, encourages a disposition of incompleteness and humility through the reality of the ubiquity of debt and indebtedness, and finds strength in themes of interconnections, interdependences, compositeness, and incompleteness of being that Tutuola’s writings exude.

Article

The study of politics in the African Great Lakes region is not exempt from the epistemological hardships that often accompany the study of Africa more broadly: dehistoricization and simplification, analogies with the West, a decontextualized miserabilism, and poverty porn. Internal political processes, often visible from a bottom-up perspective, allow us to understand sociopolitical transformation and the meanings that local citizens give to them. In the case of the Great Lakes region, it is a question of understanding the complexity of politics through an articulation of the historical heritage in the longue durée, the strategies adopted by the elites in power, and the national, regional, and international strategies that influence them. It is necessary to abandon an analogic, exotic, culturalist, or romantic point of view that represents a way of understanding African dynamics that still bears the legacy of colonialism. Such an improved framework calls for a rigorous analysis comparing different ideological visions and theories of realities with the reality on the ground in the Great Lakes region.

Article

Oda van Cranenburgh

Democracy promotion in Africa became an increasingly important priority for Western donors in the late 1980s, with a growing normative consensus in support of democracy and human rights since that time. In practice, however, democracy promotion policies suffer from some flaws and inconsistencies and the nature of Africa’s hybrid and ambiguous regimes present severe challenges. The available evidence suggests that donor policies often reflect implicit concepts and theories that do not always reflect the reality on the ground. Moreover, since the turn of the millennium competing economic or strategic interests often trump the promotion of democracy and human rights. Significantly, donors do not always operate in the same way. More specifically, a review of recent activity suggests that donor governments tend to use a negative linkage strategy when they set conditions for economic aid and a positive linkage strategy when they support democratic institutions and processes. In both strategies, competitive elections occupy a central place. While this electoral focus entails limitations, the approach is marked by a clear focus and operationalization. By contrast, broader political approaches target human rights and the rule of law and strengthening of political institutions. These ambitious goals are difficult to achieve. Such policies work when they are based on adequate analysis of the specific institutional context, but they often run up against political challenges that are beyond the control of donors. The scholarship on democracy promotion agrees that positive change can be achieved where internal conditions are favorable and when policies take into account the specific political and institutional contexts in African countries. Broader long-term regime change, however, depends primarily on internal conditions, such as social and economic development, and requires donors to go beyond the “easy part” and address specific African contexts and specific institutional problems.

Article

During the anticolonial struggle and immediately after independence, African political leaders were preoccupied with the creation of a “nation-state.” As a result, many of postcolonial African leaders not only promoted national unity but also instituted centralized governance. Unity and centralization were considered important antidotes to the challenges of consolidating postcolonial states, which by and large were created by the partitioning of the continent by colonial powers. As a result, many of the postcolonial leaders were hostile to federalism in general and power-sharing in particular. This explains why many of the federal arrangements, which were created by departing colonial powers, were dismantled within the first few years after independence. In contrast to the earlier periods, the 1990s could be regarded as a turning point for federalism and devolution of power in the continent. Among African states, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and South Africa could be considered fully fledged federations, which have constitutionally devolved power to different tiers of governments. There is also an ongoing attempt to establish a federal system in war-torn Somalia. Some argue that, although federalism does not have a stellar record in postcolonial Africa, it is possible to contend that in the foreseeable future the importance of federalism will grow in the continent given the challenges that many African countries face in the management of their ethnolinguistic diversity. This is evidenced by the increasing application of the federalist principles of decentralization by several African countries.

Article

Since the late 1980s, historians have paid increasing attention to party politics and political movements in Africa. Recent work has emphasized the importance of World War II in transforming political constituencies, mobilizing opposition to colonial regimes, and encouraging new political imaginaries. Documenting these processes has also enabled a richer appreciation of the complexity of African publics, and the ongoing power demanded and asserted by women as well as men, non-elites as well as elites. In this way, the role of history has often been to tell important stories from the bottom up. Africanist historians’ interdisciplinary research methodologies, emphasizing local discourses and cultural frames, have also contributed to an increased understanding of the specificities of political participation and state practices in African countries. In turn, these insights represent a useful addition to—and in some cases revision of—existing accounts of “weak” African states and other notions of African dysfunction.

Article

The variety in climate, vegetation, and population density in Central Africa is enormous, but some of the main features of policymaking and informal rules of politics—at first sight at least—appear quite similar between N’Djaména and Kinshasa, between Libreville and Bangui, in a vast territory bigger than the European Union: clientelism, personalization of power, politicized ethnicity, the impact of external intervention, and a legacy of repeated political violence establish some constant features. On the other hand, the variable size of countries (from island states in the Gulf of Guinea to large territorial states) has also come with various challenges. Also, Central Africa features land-locked countries such as Chad and Central African Republic, which negatively impacts economic development, in contrast to countries located at the Gulf of Guinea with an easy access to maritime trade routes. At closer inspection all of the eight countries have a specific history, but this overview article rather stresses the commonalities. Featuring in this contribution are the countries of Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Equatorial-Guinea, Gabon, and São Tomé and Príncipe. The limited achievements of pro-democracy movements in Central Africa in the 1990s have enduring consequences on politics in Africa. Authoritarian regimes have consolidated their grip on power after surviving severe crises in most Central African states. Big man politics continue to prevail, only few opposition parties have upheld their initial strength and lack internal democracy. Enduring violent conflicts in DRC and CAR (and arguably to a somewhat lesser extent in Chad), have undermined conviviality between groups and state capacities in providing public goods with dramatic consequences on effectiveness and legitimacy of the state and its representatives. Prospects for a future allowing for more participation, truly competitive elections, and a peaceful change of government are therefore also grim. However, both violent and peaceful forms of contestation since about 2015 are also signs of renewed mobilization of citizens for political causes across Central Africa. New topics, including consumer defense and ecological issues, plus now-ubiquitous social media, may all be drivers for a new episode of engagement after two decades of frustration. The limited achievements of regional integration and the lack of dynamism of subregional organizations means that Central Africa is still a much less consolidated subregion compared to, for example, West Africa.

Article

Why have there been no successful military interventions or civil wars in Tanzania’s nearly 60 years of independence? This one historical accomplishment, by itself striking in an African context, distinguishes Tanzania from most of the other post-1960 independent African countries and focuses attention on the possibilities and nature of successful civil–military relations in sub-Saharan Africa. Contrary to most civil–military relations theory, rather than isolating the military in order to achieve civilian oversight, Tanzania integrated the military, the dominant political party, and civil society in what one observer called a combination of “political militancy” and “antimilitarism,” somewhat akin, perhaps, to the Chinese model. China did provide intensive military training for the Tanzanians beginning in the 1960s, although this could in no way have been expected to ensure successful integration of the military with civil society, nor could it ensure peaceful civil–military relations. Eight potentially causal and overlapping conditions have been outlined to explain this unique absence of civil–military strife in an African country. Relevant but admittedly partial explanations are: the largely salutary and national developmental role of the founding president, Julius Nyerere; the caution and long-term fear of military intervention engendered by the 1964 East African mutinies; Tanzania’s radical foreign policy as a Frontline State; its ongoing territorial disputes with Uganda and Malawi; concerted efforts at coup-proofing through the co-opting of senior military commanders; and the country’s striking ethnic heterogeneity, in which none of the 125 plus ethnolinguistic tribes had the capacity to assume a hegemonic dominance. Each factor has a role in explaining Tanzania’s unique civil–military history, and together they may comprise a plausible explanation of the over 50 years of peaceful civil–military relations. They do not, however, provide a hopeful prognosis for future civil–military relations in a system that is increasingly challenging the dominant-party state, nor do they account for Tanzania’s subsequent democratic deficit.

Article

The persistent and changing forms of military interventions in global politics present continuing challenges for democratic agendas. Authoritarian regimes in Africa bolstered by militarist structures limit the possibilities for democratic alternatives. This can lead to desperate hopes that some form of militarism is a necessary prerequisite for democratic transition sometimes with the assistance of a popular sense of appeal. The outcome of such interventions is often a prelude to yet another round of authoritarian politics. In countries like Zimbabwe embedded in a Southern African region with a history of armed liberation struggles the narratives of a liberating militarism remain strong, as does the official ownership of the liberation narratives and the purported trajectory they should follow. However as these liberation parties face growing challenges from opposition voices that contest for their own claims on liberation histories, divisions and factions within the dominant parties have increased. The future of these struggles remains uncertain but there is a growing danger that a global preference for any form of political stabilization will marginalize the more difficult challenges of developing democratic alternatives.

Article

Jacqueline M. Klopp and Jeffrey W. Paller

Africa’s growing slums are complex, diverse neighborhoods with their own histories. Currently, these places, characterized by spatially concentrated poverty and human rights abuses, are where large proportions and, in many cases, the majority of Africa’s growing urban populations live. These slums often have a politics characterized by clientelism and repression, but also cooperation, accountability, and political mobilization. Importantly, they must be understood within a wider political context as products of larger historical processes that generate severe inequalities in standards of living, rights, and service provision. Varied approaches (modernization vs. more critical historical and political economy approaches) attempt to explain the emergence, dynamics, and persistence of slums and the politics that often produces, characterizes, and shapes them in Africa. While raising important questions about the link between urbanization and democracy, modernization theories, which are typically ahistorical, do not fully explain the persistence and actual growth of slums in African cities. More historically grounded political economy approaches better explain the formation and dynamics of slums in African cities, including the complex, uneven, and inadequate service delivery to these areas. Whether the conditions of Africa’s slums and the social injustice that undergirds them will give birth to greater democratization in Africa, which, in turn, will deliver radical improvements to the majority, is a critical unanswered question. Will social movements, populist opposition parties, and stronger citizenship claims for the poor ultimately emerge from slum—and wider city—politics? If so, will they address the political problem of inequality that the slum represents? A focus on cities, slums, and their politics is thus a core part of growing concern for the future of African cities and democratic politics on the continent.

Article

Interstate conflict has been rare in sub-Saharan Africa and militaries often do not fit the image of a force focused on external threats. Instead, they have often been heavily engaged in domestic politics, regularly serving as regime protection. For many militaries on the continent, the continued internal focus of the armed forces has been shaped by practices under colonialism. One defining feature of African militaries’ involvement in politics is the coup d’état. From the 1960s to the 1980s coups were the primary method of regime change, making the military central to the political landscape of the continent. By the start of the 21st century there were far fewer direct attempts at military control of African states, yet militaries continue to influence politics even under civilian leadership. While there are differences in the role of militaries based on the unique circumstances of each state, there are also general patterns regarding new missions undertaken by armed forces following the end of the Cold War. These include peacekeeping, counterterrorism, and humanitarian assistance, all of which generally involve international partnerships and cooperation. Yet these missions have also had domestic political motivations and effects.

Article

Sara Rich Dorman

African nationalism’s origins are found in anti-colonial protest and the artificial boundaries of post-colonial states. But it has proven a resilient force in African politics, alongside the colonially engineered states, with few border changes in the post-independence period. Despite the artificiality of the new states and nations, only a few new states emerge, with most political conflict aimed at ensuring inclusion within the state’s original boundaries. The experience of decolonization has led nationalist politics to be coalitional in form rather than ideological, bringing together diverse groups. Nation building strategies are deployed after independence to promote unity and development while depoliticizing, homogenizing, and gendering the nationalist legacy. Memorialization and iconography are deployed in this cause, but unevenly. The decades after independence are marked by single party or no-party rule in which the nationalist generations hold on to power. After the end of the cold war, when multiparty elections resumed in many states, and with the aging nationalists increasingly unable to maintain their hold on power, identity-based politics was transformed into an often violent politics of belonging, identifying some ethnic and racial groups as more fully national than others. In states that experienced liberation wars, the generation that led the struggle proved particularly resistant to handing over power, basing their claims on their nationalist credentials and seeking to discredit others. Yet generational and technological change ensured that subaltern groups, through creative and social media, as well as political movements, continued to claim, contest, and transform national imaginaries.

Article

Oluwafemi Adeagbo and Kammila Naidoo

The dominant belief in Africa is that same-sex intimacy is a child of modern civilization and Western culture. Hence, we see a high level of homophobia and continuous policing of same-sex relationships in most African countries, including those that have decriminalized them. Over time, different scholarly discourses have emerged about homosexuality in Africa. Although some writers believe that same-sex intimacy is fundamentally un-African, others argue that same-sex intimacy is inherent in African culture. Arguably, the introduction of Western religion, such as Christianity, which forms part of the colonization agenda, favors the monogamous, heterosexual relationship (the basis of the “ideal family unit”) as the acceptable natural union while any relationship outside it is regarded as unnatural. Given deteriorating socioeconomic and political situations in Africa, political leaders often find it expedient to use religious-based homophobic narratives to distract their impoverished citizens and muster popular support. Put together, this has led to the criminalization of same-sex unions in most African countries. Modern discourses in Africa on gender equality and sexual freedoms reveal more liberal attitudes, but the same cannot be said about how same-sex desire is viewed. Toleration of same-sex intimacy is seen as a threat to the dominant African definition of marriage, family, and patriarchal gender and power relations. Despite the prevalence of homophobia, the establishment of gay networks and movements that championed the liberation struggles of sexual minorities in South Africa from the apartheid to postapartheid era have sharpened the sense of belonging of LGBTIA groups. While some countries (e.g., South Africa, Lesotho, Cape Verde, Rwanda, Mali, and Mozambique) have abandoned sodomy laws that criminalized same-sex relationships (often after much pressure was exerted), others (e.g., Chad, Sudan, Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, Tunisia, Tanzania, Uganda, and Mauritania) have upheld the laws with stiff punishment—prison terms up to 14–30 years or death sentences for the crime of being homosexual. The first half of 2019 raised some hopes about LGBTIA rights in Africa when Angola (January 2019) and Botswana (June 2019) decriminalized homosexuality. However, Kenya, which had previously shown a “glimmer of hope” in decriminalizing same-sex relationships, upheld laws that criminalize homosexuality in May 2019. Currently, more than 30 of the 54 recognized African countries still have laws (with harsh punishments or death) that outlaw consensual same-sex relationships. Both theoretical and empirical insights into the current state of Africa’s LGBTIA rights and scholarship are discussed.

Article

The term “peaceocracy” refers to a situation in which an emphasis on peace is used to prioritize stability and order to the detriment of democracy. As such, the term can be used to refer to a short-lived or longer-term strategy whereby an emphasis on peace by an incumbent elite is used to close the political space through the delegitimization and suppression of activity that could arguably foster division or conflict. At the heart of peaceocracy lies an insistence that certain actions—including those that are generally regarded as constituting important political and civil rights, such as freedom of speech and association, freedom of the press, and freedom to engage in peaceful protest and strike action—can spill over into violence and foster division and must therefore be avoided to guard against disorder. Recent history suggests that incumbents can effectively establish a peaceocracy in contexts where many believe that widespread violence is an ever-present possibility; incumbents have, or are widely believed to have, helped to establish an existing peace; and the level of democracy is already low. In such contexts, a fragile peace helps to justify a prioritization of peace; the idea that incumbents have “brought peace” strengthens their self-portrait as the unrivaled guardians of the same; and semi-authoritarianism provides a context in which incumbents are motivated to use every means available to maintain power and are well placed—given, for example, their control over the media and civil society—to manipulate an emphasis on peace to suppress opposition activities. Key characteristics of peaceocracy include: an incumbent’s effective portrait of an existing peace as fragile and themselves as the unrivaled guardians of order and stability; a normative notion of citizenship that requires “good citizens” to actively protect peace and avoid activities that might foster division and conflict; and the use of these narratives of guardianship and disciplined citizenship to justify a range of repressive laws and actions. Peaceocracy is thus a strategy, rather than a discreet regime type, which incumbents can use in hybrid regimes as part of their “menu of manipulation,” and which can be said to be “successful” when counter-narratives are in fact marginalized and the political space is effectively squeezed.

Article

What explains contemporary variation in legislative strength and institutionalization in Africa? Contrary to the widespread belief that African legislatures are uniformly weak, there is significant variation in both the institutional forms and powers of these institutions. Colonial institutional development and the nature of postcolonial single-party autocratic rule partially explain the variation in legislative strength and institutionalization in Africa. Legislative development (or lack thereof) under colonialism bequeathed postcolonial states with both institutional memory and intra-elite conceptions of executive–legislative relations (how legislatures work). The nature of postcolonial autocratic rule determined the upper bounds of legislative development. Relatively secure presidents tolerated legislative organizational development. Their weaker counterparts did not. These differences became apparent following the end of single-party rule in much of Africa the early 1990s. Legislatures in the former group exploited their newfound freedom to rebalance executive–legislative relations. Those in the latter group remained weak and subservient to presidents. In short, strong autocratic legislatures begat strong democratic legislatures.

Article

In a seemingly virtual era, maritime commerce and shipping retain a central role in contemporary global capitalism. Approximately 90% of global imports and exports currently travel by sea on around 93,000 merchant vessels, carrying almost 6 billion tons of cargo. Oceanic mobility and long-distance networks of trade are made possible and sustained by the life and labor of over 1.25 million seafarers currently working at sea as well as regimes of global security and governance. Yet, this oceanic world and its role in shaping politics, sociality, and regulation remains, for the most part, obscured and hidden out of sight in everyday life. As one of the oldest perils at sea, maritime piracy is not only a daily threat to seafaring and global shipping but makes visible this oceanic world and the larger networks of security and regulation that govern maritime commerce. In recent years, coastal Africa, specifically the waters off the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Guinea, has seen an unprecedented rise in incidents of maritime piracy. The geopolitical and global trade importance of these areas has led to numerous national, regional, and international military and legal responses to combat this problem. While often seen as a seaborne symptom of failed states or criminality, maritime piracy has a more complex relationship with land- and sea-based governance. Occurring primarily in spaces that are politically fragmented but reasonably stable maritime piracy is better understood as a practice of extraction and claim making on mobility that emerges from deeper historical contexts and is linked to land-based economies and politics. Emphasizing maritime piracy in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Guinea within these wider historical and geographic contexts highlights the imbrication of the political and economic in shaping the emergence and transformations of this practice. This is not to deny the violence that constitutes maritime piracy, but to locate piracy within larger processes of mobility, governance, and political economy on the African continent and beyond. In addition to impacting local communities, seafarers, and global shipping, maritime piracy is key to apprehending challenges to global governance from the vantage point of the world’s oceans.