Theorising African states : the case of Angola from a critical theory perspective

Solli, Audun (2009-03)

Thesis (MA (Political Science))--University of Stellenbosch, 2009.


This thesis is a theoretical contribution to the debate about statehood in Sub-Saharan Africa. My primary aims have been to interrogate the use of the state concept on the continent, and to open up new theoretical avenues to analyse the state. My starting point has been that the state is a key to solving socio-economic challenges. Yet the social theory that purports to make sense of the state in Africa is poor. Mainstream scholars use prefixes such as ‘failed’, ‘weak’ and ‘quasi’ to make sense of existing African states. If they call for such labels, it is only because an unhelpful ideal type based on the ‘modern’ European state is postulated. Such scholarship is limited to theorising the distance between the ideal type and real states. This approach gives a functionalist account of the state’s relationship with society and economy, but fails to explain the state as a historical product and expression of the distribution of power between social groups. As an alternative way to theorise states, I propose a synthesis between Robert W. Cox and Mahmood Mamdani. Combining Mamdani’s and Cox’s theoretical frameworks avoids the problems that arise when Eurocentric International Relations (IR) theories are applied to an African context. The synthesis adds to both frameworks by addressing a shortcoming in Cox by paying more attention to power struggles in the periphery, and redresses the exclusive focus on Africa in Mamdani. Adding Cox to Mamdani contextualises Mamdani’s African state in space as well as time, whereas adding Mamdani to Cox shows how African states respond to outside pressures and in the process (re)constitute the world order by adding an inside-out pressure. I use a single case study of the Angolan state to illustrate how a Coxian / Mamdanian synthesis contributes to the debate. This theoretical framework turns the attention to four aspects. First, there is a close historical link between the economic structure and the form of the state in the country, from the slave trade to today’s political economy of oil. Second, I look at the attempts of the Angolan state elite to legitimise its own power. I posit that in the context of social destitution and poverty, strategies to sustain consent based rule assumes particular importance. Third, the Angolan state is an expression of internal powers struggles between social groups in the country. The contemporary balance of power is volatile: recent economic growth has the potential of unsettling old power structures, as the relative balance of who has access to economic power changes. Lastly, the world order supports the current structure of power in Angola, largely thanks to the political economy of oil. Oil gives the Angolan regime ample economic resources, as well as crucial support from oil companies and the states that import the oil. This foreign support underwrites the regime and constitutes an important element in its support base

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