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Reviewed by:
  • An Introduction to African Politics
  • Robert L. Ostergard Jr.
Thomson, Alex . 2004. An Introduction to African Politics (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge. 304 pp. $33.95 (paper).

Scholars of African politics face a multitude of problems in approaching the study of social diversity and political complexity. Africa's diversities and complexities constitute what Schraeder (2000) calls a "mosaic in transformation." The continent's problems, of course, carry over to how we approach the teaching of the subject. The second edition of An Introduction to African Politics is a serious attempt to tackle these problems for students and instructors.

A difficulty that all authors of textbooks on African politics face is that, while common themes run through the studies they must accommodate, the continent is extremely diverse. Thomson acknowledges this fact by [End Page 123] offering advice to new students of African politics, advising them that they should not "regard Africa as homogenous" (p. 3). Unfortunately, the body of the book does not confirm and illustrate this complexity. In fact, the book oversimplifies its subject. Though it is written for undergraduates, it does not adequately convey the complexities that students face in their studies.

Thomson arranges the book along thematic lines, which prove useful as a guide, in general, to the study of African politics; however, these themes may be where the oversimplification of the approach begins. For instance, in the second chapter, "History: Africa's Pre-Colonial and Colonial Inheritance," Thomson discusses the role of Africa's colonial past on the present problems of African states: arbitrary boundaries, nonhegemonic governments, weak links between state and society, state elite formation, economic problems, and weak political institutions. These are accurate descriptions of colonial legacies in Africa, but the chapter gives the impression that colonial rule and its results were almost uniform across the continent. Thomson tells students that "The continent, like other parts of the world, had to adapt to invasions and imperial rule as history unfolded. Just as Britain experienced eras dominated by Roman and Norman occupation, North Africa played host to Persian, Greek, Roman and Ottoman empires over time" (p. 11). The imperial conquest and colonization of Africa was not so simply another invasion. Colonialism across the continent varied by colonizer. For instance, there is no mention of the differences between English colonialism and French colonialism (indirect vs. direct rule), or the varying impacts such rule had on the states the colonizers controlled. In the same chapter, Thomson uses Kenya to highlight the impact of English colonialism in East Africa. Such case studies, given at the end of each chapter, can be useful, but they do not well highlight the complexity of the themes. Can we, for instance, say that colonialism and its historical impact in Kenya have been the same as those experienced in Nigeria or Mozambique or Chad? The slave trade, likewise, receives general attention, with its impact discussed in one small paragraph (p. 18).

A second problem emerges within the thematic structure of the book, in that there are often few attempts to link important themes together. The book separates the discussion of ethnicity and social class. Other textbooks (Chazan et al. 2000; Schraeder 2000) put these topics together for good reason. As numerous texts, past and present, have pointed out, African historical experiences have brought these themes together in many states (Coquery-Vidrovitch 1985; Horowitz 2000; Keller 1988). Thomson barely links ethnicity and class, leaving a wide gap in understanding African social structure and political power.

In the introduction, Thomson tries to get students to understand that "Africans are innately no more violent, no more corrupt, no more greedy, and no more stupid than any other human beings that populate the planet. They are no less capable of governing themselves" (p. 3). He is correct in telling students this; nonetheless, Africa is different from regions like Latin America, Asia, the United States, and Europe. If it were not, then we would [End Page 124] not have a field of comparative politics that seeks to understand the variations between regions and between countries within the regions. Ultimately, scholars teaching African politics must decide upon the approach that should be used. Thomson's book provides a...


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