Introduction: The Emperor's New Clothes? Continuities in Governance in Late Colonial and Early Postcolonial East Africa

By Burton, Andrew; Jennings, Michael | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Introduction: The Emperor's New Clothes? Continuities in Governance in Late Colonial and Early Postcolonial East Africa


Burton, Andrew, Jennings, Michael, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Much of the Africanist literature that has emerged on postcolonial politics and society over the past four decades has emphasized the shaping influence of colonial rule on forms of governance that evolved after independence. Dependency theorists and the radical critics of early postcolonial regimes who dominated debate on East Africa in the late 1960s and 1970s viewed the structures and styles of governance as fundamentally unchanged from the colonial period, apart from the skin color of those exercising authority.1 Academic observers into the 1980s and 1990s continued to stress the colonial inheritance.2 More recently, in an influential book, Mahmood Mamdani has outlined what he terms the "bifurcated state" forming an enduring legacy in a postcolonial Africa riven by an urban-rural divide arising directly from the institutions of colonial rule.3 As with earlier, colonial schools of thought, such analyses often underplayed African agency. At their crudest, the depictions of postcolonial states portrayed institutional structures over which vested interests-from international capital and local bourgeoisies to dominant political and ethnic factions-exercised a determining influence. In the functionalist logics of power attributed to them, these states in many respects came to resemble more monolithic representations of the colonial state that have been so thoroughly unpicked by historians of Africa over the past few decades. They also tended to erect rigid, often artificial, barriers between state and society in a fundamentally inequitable balance of power in which the former exercises more or less complete control over the latter; or where this is not the case the society has attained an "uncaptured" status in which its relation to the state is simply one of evasion.4

In recent years these positions have come under attack, either implicitly or explicitly, in a growing body of literature that presents more nuanced depictions of the political cultures that have evolved in sub-Saharan Africa since independence. Focusing on social and sociopolitical relations in particular, as opposed to institutions, they stress the distinctiveness of postcolonial political cultures in which, while those wielding power may exercise considerable influence, state-society relations are nevertheless negotiated and contested, and the hegemonic grip of the state is often more or less non-existent.5 These new politics have been portrayed as the product of deeper continuities: as the reassertion of older strands of social relations harking back to the precolonial period that were submerged under European domination,6 or as a novel postcolonial response to the sociopolitical context of a continent fundamentally influenced by precolonial and colonial legacies.7

Such analyses have played an important part in deepening our understanding of a changing Africa. However, more recent scholarship has emerged in a context, arising after the mid-1970s oil crisis, in which the capacity of African states has withered away under multifarious challenges, both internal and external.8 As in other parts of the continent, the reach of East African administrations has in recent times been significantly reduced (in part, it should be stressed, because of a shifting international context in which the role of the state was diminished). In the first decade or so after independence, though, East African governments often adopted or adapted both administrative structures and ideological concepts from their colonial predecessors in order to create quite successful forms of governance-certainly by regional standards.

That such continuities existed in postcolonial East Africa is hardly surprising, nor should they be blithely condemned. The choices made by postcolonial politicians were constrained. Most significantly, by the marginal position occupied by African countries in a world economy, in which demand and prices for the exports they produced were largely beyond their control. …

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