African Politics in Comparative Perspective
by Goran Hyden
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Reviewed by Derek Catsam, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of History, University of Texas of the Permian Basin

In African Politics in Comparative Perspective respected veteran Africanist Goran Hyden tackles those perennial vexing questions: What is wrong with modern African states? Can they be fixed? And if so, how?

The questions are easy to pose and incredibly difficult to answer. But in this synthetic work pulling together decades worth of scholarship, especially in his discipline of political science, Hyden puts forth his best efforts. If he is not successful at coming up with conclusions, he does a masterful job of laying out the problems, identifying possible courses of action, and makes suggestions for short and long-term approaches.

After a perceptive introduction, Hyden organizes the book thematically, allowing him to explore in some depth some of the crucial areas in which African states seem to be falling short. In so doing, Hyden casts his gaze upon the legacy of anti-colonialism and the “problematic state” that emerged from it, with its deeply personal, informal relationships of power and its concomitant “economy of affection,” in which informal relations are as important as the mechanics of a formal economy. He addresses the well known and pernicious phenomenon of “Big Man Rule” and how it is tied in to a “policy deficit” in which policy objectives really boil down to questions of politics, with questions of cost, efficiency, or long-term sensibility falling by the wayside. He devotes a chapter to “the agrarian question,” most notably the failure of leaders to develop coherent agricultural policies that allow simultaneously for self-sufficiency and market successes. He addresses questions of gender in politics, and tackles the seemingly ubiquitous (but most often misunderstood) role of ethnicity in the continent’s myriad conflicts. And of course he deals with “the external question,” most notably the role of development policies in the global economy. Hyden closes the book with two chapters of assessment, one in which he tries to sum up these themes and a concluding chapter in which he addresses the most difficult question of all: “Quo Vadis Africa?” (Where is Africa heading?)

Hyden falls into neither the Afro-pessimist or the blinkered optimist camps. His lack of cynicism is refreshing. But so too is his clear-eyed honesty. He is so comfortable with his depth of knowledge and grasp of the literature that he is unafraid to tackle controversial issues and unfailingly draws serious and clear conclusions. If he falls short on prescription, well, so do most writers, whether scholars or journalists, whether writing about politics in Africa or in the United States. Few pundits have especially illuminating records when it comes to predictions. Hyden instinctively seems to know this, and as a result, he only tentatively puts forward proposals for the future. But what he does try to do is place Africa in the center of a global political dialogue, essentially, to show why Africa matters.

Hyden is at his best when laying out the nature of the problems he identifies, and with marshaling clear examples from across Sub-Saharan Africa. Hyden is a political scientist, however, and so occasionally he lapses into some of the least endearing characteristics of that discipline’s writing. As a result, African Politics in Comparative Perspective probably will not serve as a useful text in most undergraduate courses on Africa and it is unlikely to draw a wider audience of interested lay readers. But Africanists and their graduate students will welcome the book and Hyden’s sagacious perspectives. Policymakers and journalists who find themselves dropped into Africa without any particular training should place this book on their shelves after reading it closely so that they can refer to it often.

As Hyden admits at the end of his text, the process of addressing Africa’s problems “will be both painful and enduring. It is not a fifteen-year but a fifty-year perspective that is relevant for understanding and dealing with Africa’s social and political transformation.” This assertion, like so much that is contained in this book, is sobering, but not hopeless.