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Histories of the State in Africa




Admission requirements

  • Classes of 2013-2016: a similarly-tagged 200/300-level course, ideally (a combination of) the three courses listed above.

Course description

In the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, the state has become the dominant form of political organization globally and a fundamental building block of the international system. As such, it is the primary unit of analysis and organization in diplomacy, international trade, international development, conflict and peacebuilding, etc. However, the origins of the state as it is understood today as a territorial and political unit that has specific tasks such as providing security, maintaining a legal and judicial system, collecting taxes, but also providing inhabitants with citizenship, lie in the western world. In Africa, the modern state has been imported through the colonial experience of the late 19th and 20th centuries. After the colonial era, the state has been problematic in Africa as it has in many cases failed to provide basic political goods, has developed into a violent structure of domination, is practically absent in the daily lives of many people, and/or has failed or collapsed due to pressures of poverty, structural mismanagement and conflict. Despite its shortcomings, the African state remains an important structure, not the least because it continues to be an important center of accumulation for (aspiring) elites. In this course, we will study the modern African state, looking at its colonial and precolonial roots, as well as its development in the post-colonial era. We will also look at contemporary phenomena such as state failure, state collapse and the coming into being of new states in Africa. We will focus particularly on African engagements with the state, considering what the state means for people in their daily lives in contexts where the state is overtly present or where the state is only present at a distance.

Weekly overview

Class 1 Introduction – the Theory and Practice of the Modern State in Africa
Class 2 States and Political Organisation in Pre-Colonial Africa
Class 3 Colonization, Boundaries and the Forming of States in Africa
Class 4 The Colonial State
Class 5 “Seek Ye First the Political Kingdom”
Class 6 The State as Colonial Legacy
Class 7 One-party state, big men rule: the state as centre of accumulation and the state as violence, oppressive state
Class 8 The absence and presence of the state
Class 9 Nationhood and citizenship
Class 10 Boundaries and Borders in Contemporary Africa: nomads, trade and the meaning and meaninglessness of borders (Sahara Nomads, Touareg)
Class 11 State reform
Class 12 State failure, state collapse
Class 13 State building
Class 14 New states: Somaliland and South Sudan

Learning objectives

Students will acquire in-depth knowledge and understanding of the historic trajectories of the state in Africa, as well as an in-depth understanding of how challenges of the modern state in contemporary Africa are historically rooted. The course will equip students with the ability to critically reflect on key concepts and on how they are given shape and meaning in practice in African societies. Students will learn to compare and reflect on different perspectives based on historical and political contexts. Students will acquire comprehension of the theoretical and conceptual aspects of the study of the state in Africa from a historiographical perspective, and learn to apply these theoretical and conceptual insights to an in-depth case study.

Students will acquire/improve the following skills:

  • The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question

  • The ability to independently identify and select sources

  • The ability to analyze and evaluate literature and sources for the purpose of producing an original scholarly argument

  • The ability to study contemporary topics using sources, methods and approaches from different disciplinary fields

  • The ability to provide constructive academic feedback

  • The ability to engage in scholarly debate on theory as well as case studies

  • The ability to co-operate with fellow-students

Mode of instruction

This course will be taught through two-hour interactive seminars. Seminars will generally include a short introduction by the instructor, after which students will be asked to actively reflect and discuss the literature and the themes of the class in question. Seminars will focus on historic processes, concepts, theories, and empirical case studies. Students are expected to come to class prepared in order to be able to participate actively in the discussion in class.


  • 2×2-hour on Mondays (17-19) and Thursdays (13-15)

  • Seminars and the required assignments provide the students the opportunity to apply the newly gained knowledge, as well as train their academic skills.


Assessment 1: Final Research Essay
Weight: 40%, deadline: 19/12
Students will write an individual research essay of 2500 words on a self-chosen case study.
Learning aim: Expression of holistic understanding of the subject of the course, and the ability to apply theoretical insights of the course to a case study. Expression of the ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, to identify and select sources, to analyze and evaluate sources for the purpose of producing an original scholarly argument.

Assessment 2: Presentation1 – “elevator pitch”
Weight: 10%, deadline: weeks 44-51
Students will give a brief individual presentation on the case study for their final Research Essay, in which they present the research question, approach and their findings so far.
Learning aim: Expression of the ability to present complex matter in a concise and focused manner, and the ability to formulate a clear and well-argued research question.

Assessment 3: Presentation 2 – Group presentation on sources selected by the students
Weight: 30%, deadline: week 47
In couples, students will give a brief presentation on a relevant source that they have identified and selected independently. This can be a scholarly article, or a primary source such as for example a historic newspaper clipping, a speech, … In the presentation students will argue how they have found the source, why they have selected. The presentation should also critically reflect on the content of the source and discuss its relevance for the topic of the course.

Learning aim: Expression of the ability to independently identify and select sources and to analyze and critically reflect on the meaning and relevance of the selected source; expression of the ability to constructively work-together with fellow students.

Assessment 4: Active Participation in Class and in Discussions
Weight: 20%, deadline: weeks 44-46 and 48 – 51
Students are expected to come to class prepared, and to actively participate in in-class discussions about the subject matter, the readings and the presentations of fellow students, as well as providing constructive academic feedback.

Learning aim: Active engagement with course material. Expression of the ability to analyze and evaluate literature and sources for the purpose of producing an original scholarly argument, to provide constructive academic feedback, and to engage in scholarly debate on theory and case study material.

Compulsory textbook


Contact information

Mw. Dr. M.J. de Goede,