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Level 5

5AAH2015 Themes in the Study of Contemporary Africa

Credit value: 30
Module convenor/tutor: Dr Vincent Hiribarren
Teaching pattern: 20 x 2-hour seminars (weekly)
Availability: Please see module list for relevant year
Assessment: 1 x 3 hour examination (60%), 2 x 2,000 word essays (15% each) &
1 x oral presentation (10%)

The modules offered in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand: there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary between years.

The aim of this module is to try and understand what is happening in a continent that seems permanently in crisis. Why was there such unspeakable violence in Liberia and Rwanda? Why are oil-exporting states like Nigeria or Angola still ranked so poorly in the UN Human Development Index? Are multi-party elections the cause of civil violence? Why is corruption apparently endemic? Is aid the answer? And why is witchcraft thriving today? Or is it simply that the press and media continue to give us a distorted image, still pandering to the late nineteenth-century vision of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness?

Starting from an examination of these issues, the course will offer a fresh re-interpretation of contemporary Africa. It will provide the intellectual and conceptual framework best suited to the study of the continent since independence. An important aspect of the course is its emphasis on analysing today’s problems in historical and comparative perspective. This means that we will place Africa within the continuum of its own history, going back to the pre-colonial period and that we will examine the impact of colonial rule across the continent by identifying what was common, rather than distinct, in how the Europeans colonised the continent. We will also compare Africa with other formerly colonised parts of the world.

Some of the key issues we will study are: the legacy of colonial rule; the nature of the colonial and post-colonial state; the history of violence; the colonial and post-colonial economy in the context of the world market; the exercise of power in independent Africa; the rise and demise of the one-party state; democratisation; famine and hunger; illness (particularly HIV/Aids); what ‘modernisation’ and ‘re-traditionalisation’ mean in the present context; the aid and development conundrum; violence and state failure; the merits of regional integration and the role of the African Union; the possible meanings of an African ‘renaissance’ and the prospects for an end to poverty.

The course will be run as a seminar, which means that it will build on class participation. Questions for discussion and set weekly readings will be given at the beginning of each semester. The weekly two-hour session will be organised as follows. The first hour will consist of two separate presentations, one on the question set for the week and another on an agreed text: the rest of the hour will be devoted to a discussion around these two presentations. The second hour will centre on a synthetic lecture drawn from the discussion and a round-up linking the week’s theme and debates to the overall aim of the course. The course will thus require all students to read the set texts.

Provisional teaching plan

Semester 1

1.       Introduction: Africa today

2.        Africa in historical perspective: the pre-colonial period

3.       Africa in historical perspective: the Scramble and ‘pacification’

4.       The colonial set-up: state, society and the economy

5.       Anti-colonial politics, nationalism and the complexities of decolonisation

6.       The new post-colonial political order

7.       Taming territories: borders and belonging

8.       Constructing the state

9.       Inventing the nation

Semester 2

1.       The invention of tradition or ‘re-traditionalisation’: ethnicity & the informal

2.        Religion, faith, witchcraft and the occult

3.       Clientelism and neo-patrimonialism

4.       The economics of dependence

5.       International Relations and the dynamics of ‘extraversion’

6.       Disorder and violence

7.       Democratisation

8.       Aid and development

9.       Problems and prospects

Suggested introductory reading

This is suggested reading and purchase of these texts is not mandatory.

  • Iliffe, John, Africans: the history of a continent (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
  • Nugent, Paul, Africa since Independence (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)
  • Reid, Richard, A History of Modern Africa (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)
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