In This Review

States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control
States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control
By Jeffrey Herbst
Princeton University Press, 2000, 290 pp

This ambitious and original book turns a comparative historical lens on state-building in Africa. Unlike most European states, which consolidated their power and fixed their present boundaries largely through war, African states acquired their borders by fiat and have rarely faced external military threats to their sovereignty. The postcolonial international system has given them an easy ride to statehood, leaving their national identities, revenue-extraction capabilities, and administrative systems seriously underdeveloped in the process. These observations are not new, but Herbst develops them in interesting new ways. Comparing a wide range of African countries, he explores the implications for state consolidation posed by their sizes, shapes, and population distributions, as well as by their historical records of road building, effectively allocating land, managing national currencies, and defining citizenship. He concludes by offering some radical suggestions for addressing state failure in Africa: less rigid adherence to the nation-state model, more tolerance of viable secessionist movements, nonrecognition of the sovereignty of failed governments, and stronger promotion of supranational identities. A brave effort to rethink some outdated approaches to fundamental problems.