So many ‘Africanists’, so few Africans

Zack Zimbalist asks who produces knowledge on ‘African politics’? Within political science, our understanding of politics in Africa is overwhelmingly shaped by non-Africans who spend most of their time far removed from Africa. Based on his paper in ROAPE, Zimbalist argues that this reality has serious consequences for the academic community, policymakers, students and citizens across the world.

By Zack Zimbalist

Within the discipline of political science, scholarship and teaching on Africa faces a serious problem that demands urgent attention and redress. The problem is straightforward: the producers of knowledge on ‘African politics’ are overwhelmingly non-African academics located thousands of miles from the contexts about which they write.

As a non-African researcher based outside of Africa, I have come to realise more acutely the glaring inequality and inequity within the current system of knowledge production. As a graduate student preparing for courses and comprehensive exams in African studies and comparative politics, I became aware of the utter scarcity of African and Africa-based scholars in most of the assigned material. I also became well versed in the grand (hegemonic) theories in the ‘African politics’ literature (e.g. ‘neopatrimonialism’, the ‘rhizome state’), whose exclusive provenance was North American and European scholars based outside of Africa. Later, while conducting research in Mozambique and South Africa and then writing my dissertation, I discovered that most of the conceptual, theoretical and interpretive frameworks I employed were created by non-Africans. At the same time, as I interviewed and chatted with locals and read through materials written by Mozambican and South African academics, it was readily apparent to me that they possessed more revelatory theories and insight into how local politics worked in their communities and countries.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that only African or Africa-based scholars should speak to ‘African politics’. That would preclude me and many other dedicated researchers from conducting research and teaching on the topic. Instead, the aim of this blogpost (and my corresponding article which is available to read here) is to raise  awareness and motivate actions to rectify the large underlying power asymmetries existing within the system of scholarly production, which clearly disadvantage African and Africa-based scholars from producing and spreading knowledge.

What is ‘African politics’ and who are the ‘Africanists’?

In my article, I discuss how the category ‘African politics’ and the label ‘Africanist’ perpetuate the power asymmetries in knowledge production. For decades, writing oriented towards an artificial unitary ‘African politics’ has impeded a more accurate and granular understanding of political systems and behaviour across varied African contexts. This practice is linked to an ignominious history in which Africa and its diverse political and social configurations were homogenised, essentialised and distorted by Europeans and other Westerners. During this time, African voices and rich oral traditions and histories were locked out of knowledge production pertaining to their own complex societies and indigenous systems of local governance.

While much progress has been made in correcting these biased and misleading portrayals (owing to the work of Africans and non-Africans alike), the continued production of hegemonic theories speaking to ‘African politics’ remains deeply problematic. First, the dominant knowledge produced by non-African ‘Africanists’—of highly complex and historically contingent processes—is often simplified, incomplete, and loaded with external concepts and paradigms (not to mention languages). Second, it is largely disconnected from debates and research within African research institutes as well as other local African intellectual and political initiatives. As a result, African scholars and other African voices are at a substantial disadvantage to counter or refine the dominant discourses about politics on the continent.

The widespread use of the label ‘Africanist’ by North American and European scholars (but not by Africans) augments the power of such discourses and claims of Africa-wide expertise. Strikingly, many of these hegemonic theories and authoritative arguments about ‘African politics’ are generalised to all of Africa based only on single-country ‘field’ research or, increasingly, a field, survey or ‘lab experiment’ conducted within one African country. Note, for example, the stacks of books and articles published in leading academic presses and political science journals titled using the formula: ‘Democracy/Citizenship/Political Struggle in Africa: A Study of Country B’.

By contrast, there are troves of unpublished (or not widely available) research produced by Africans in Africa that demonstrate a detailed and sophisticated understanding of local political realities. Despite the superb quality of this work, it almost certainly does not reach top outlets or institutions of higher education outside of Africa, where students wish to gain exposure to diverse African perspectives as well as new concepts, theories, and epistemologies. What if, by analogy, students were required to study ‘American politics’ (nearly) exclusively from the perspectives and paradigms constructed by Africans (and written in African languages) who are based far from America? It would be equally startling and unedifying. Yet, this is the reality for the study of ‘African politics’ in many of the top universities and colleges in North America.

Quantitative data from undergraduate course syllabi and PhD reading lists

The ROAPE article that this blogpost is based on analyses authorship data from 1260 ‘readings’ (including academic and media articles, reports, book chapters, books, films and TED talks) from 24 undergraduate course syllabi for courses on African politics or Africa and international relations taught between 2014 and 2019 in the US and Canada. I find that only 15% of readings are written by Africans and only 9% of the readings are written by authors based in Africa. Also striking is the exclusion of women from course readings; only 15% of source materials are authored by women. These core findings illustrate the dramatic under-representation and exclusion of the scholars, researchers and activists who are closest to (and most familiar with) the political battles and actions being carried out across Africa. This stark hegemony (and exclusion of African voices) does not vary on whether the instructor is African or non-African, or by whether the course is taught by a man or a woman.

In parallel, the descriptive analysis of PhD comprehensive exam reading lists in comparative politics from a small sample of top US universities is also biased heavily against African and Africa-based scholars. For various topics within the graduate comparative politics reading lists, there are zero (or at best a few) books or articles based on African cases or written by Africans or Africa-based scholars. In addition, the relatively few books or articles about African cases are predominantly written by non-African academics based in the US or the UK.

Efforts to address the problem and how to strengthen them

In the ROAPE article, I conclude by highlighting some actions that North American and European academics and institutions could undertake to correct some of the inequities in the current research and publication system as well as in the classroom.

On an individual level, one first step we can all take is to critically examine our approaches to teaching and studying political dynamics in Africa. This examination should include questions such as who guides our research questions and designs, what methods do we employ to answer our questions, who do we interview and how, which documents do we review, which theoretical frameworks do we rely on, how do we interpret our findings and how do we seriously engage with external validity to other African countries. As teachers, we should also carefully weigh how we select materials and structure discussions so that African voices play a central role in shaping discourses about politics and governance. This process requires us to reflect on the institutions to which we belong and the resources at our disposal, as well as how we are positioned to contribute to knowledge production vis-à-vis other scholarly communities.

Apart from research and teaching, we can help change the nature of the publication system and how we execute our tasks as journal board members, editors and reviewers so that we remove structural barriers that disadvantage African voices and scholarly output (such as the privileging of particular epistemologies and methods prominent in the US and European academies and the incentivising of generalised proclamations about ‘African politics’, which Africa-based authors are less likely to make).

We can also leverage our individual actions to support and develop existing institutional efforts. Organizations such as the Working Group in African Political Economy (WGAPE) and the Evidence in Governance and Politics (EGAP) network could expand opportunities for Africans and Africa-based researchers and institutions to shape research projects. In parallel, additional assistance could be provided to enlarge social science training opportunities for African researchers, through initiatives like the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research, the Mawazo Institute’s PhD Scholars program, and the Center for Effective Global Action’s (CEGA) East Africa Social Science Translation Collaborative (EASST). Finally, greater support could be provided to institutions within Africa, such as the Dakar-based Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), which has several initiatives and is a leading publisher for research by African scholars in and outside the continent.

While these are some small piecemeal efforts aiming to address this problem, what is needed is a large-scale collaborative effort and the infusion of far greater resources (time, energy and financial) to correct for the substantial biases in who generates knowledge about ‘African politics’ and how it is generated. The system of knowledge production must be transformed so that Africans and Africa-based academics are driving research agendas and questions while shaping the theoretical frameworks, methods and data sources we use to answer them. Such an effort would extend the range of possibilities for learning about Africa, which are all heavily circumscribed because of the status quo hegemony of non-African academic institutions and scholars. In doing so, we can all help reconstruct the epistemological underpinnings of such knowledge in a way that is Africa-centred and grounded in the dynamic aspirations of Africans across the continent.

The full article can be accessed for free until the end of December here.

Zack Zimbalist is a visiting foreign professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico. His research interests focus broadly on economic development, governance, political behaviour, and public opinion in developing democracies, mainly in Africa.

We encourage our readers also to listen to the LSE Citing Africa podcasts. There are two series both which explore knowledge production, decolonisation, data extractivism and development in Africa – the first series can be accessed here and the second here.  

Featured Photograph: Katrina Daly Thompson opens DAY IN AFRICA with a keynote address (Catherine A. Reiland/UW-Madison).


  1. I read the article with great interest. I remembered a similar debate in relation to the production on Latin America made by foreigners. The “brazilianists” of the US or the “eurocentrists”. The discussion is not geographical, it is political.
    The discussion is in its content. They hide the theft of mineral and oil wealth. They hide the over-exploitation of the working class, and this is very common in these authors. They talk of poverty, of the brutality of war and say that this is the fruit of “bad governments”. They never treat them as “modern colonial administrators” and they hide the imperialist role of their countries, be they the US, Europe or Japan.
    The problem of geographical location serves to understand how these authors work (consciously or incientiously) in the service of their own imperialism.

  2. On this article, what strikes me is how carefully the (very talented) author avoids providing any sense of the ideological realm of debate here. To illustrate:

    I also became well versed in the grand (hegemonic) theories in the ‘African politics’ literature (e.g. ‘neopatrimonialism’, the ‘rhizome state’), whose exclusive provenance was North American and European scholars based outside of Africa. Later, while conducting research in Mozambique and South Africa and then writing my dissertation, I discovered that most of the conceptual, theoretical and interpretive frameworks I employed were created by non-Africans. At the same time, as I interviewed and chatted with locals and read through materials written by Mozambican and South African academics, it was readily apparent to me that they possessed far more precise and revelatory theories and insight into how local politics worked in their communities and countries.
    The uncomfortable premise behind the analysis in this article is what in my field we call geographical determinism, or spatial fetishism. How hard would it have been, having worked through all that literature, to add some politics, to explain the assumptions and interests that inform and follow from ‘Northern’ analysis?

    Isn’t it important to alert readers that by locating research within neopatrimonial analysis, for example, there is a massive amount of normative baggage that comes along with the framing, and that as Thandika Mkandawire showed in (the Northern journal) World Politics five years ago, such framing aids the forces of global and local neoliberal power? (It certainly has here in South Africa, where Jacob Zuma’s rule was simplified by so many rightwing local and global critics along these lines.) And if the implications of certain ‘Northern’ analysis can be more explicitly stated, why then not take up the ways these ideas hit us here in the political realm, and also how resistance has emerged, so that knowledge is being produced from below, across Africa, in myriad social struggles?

    After all, the most pernicious, racist version of neopatrimonialism that I’ve come across doesn’t emanate directly from France, but a few kms away from where I’m writing here in Melville, specifically the lads at the Brenthurst Foundation in Parktown (and not just a couple of white guys representing Oppenheimer interests, but a former Nigerian president too).

    And as another example, yesterday we lost (to Covid-19) a well-loved comrade skilled in applied research about Africa – Soren Ambrose – who mostly worked in Nairobi, though he certainly typed out many learned tracts while camping out in London and DC offices, and he had learned his ‘African studies’ in his home town of Chicago. His main employer over the last couple of decades was one of those do-good international NGOs that has unethically raised vast amounts of money in the North using pictures of impoverished African kids (although it moved its international headquarters from London and now enjoys a trendier Rosebank address here in Joburg). Soren’s prolific analysis didn’t appear enough in the local media (whether Kenyan or elsewhere on the continent). But if I ever needed the very latest, cutting-edge critique of the IMF’s ravaging of specific countries or its universalising structural adjustment impositions, it would be to Soren that I’d go first; he was always able to answer emails within six hours in spite of Nairobi’s power outages. And scholars, no matter where they’re located, appreciated his work, repeatedly citing it when needing to document the North’s and also increasingly the BRICS’ structural power and politricks.

    (Personally, not only what a reliable comrade, but what a convivial mensch he was. Soren married one of Kenya’s most brilliant, effective organisers of popular movements, Njoki Njehu; they got to know each other in the lefty Washington circuits during the 1990s, and they moved back to her home city a few years after the huge 50 Years is Enough! April 2000 protests against the World Bank that they were two of the central figures in organising. I met Soren first, in the Lacandan Jungle of Chiapas on a Zapatista-hosted solidarity tour in 1998; it turned out that we were both radicalised – in U.S. undergrad programmes – by South African poet/revolutionary Dennis Brutus, then based at Pitt. To me, Soren’s roots in northern academia – he dropped out of a Chicago PhD programme to pursue scholar-activism properly – and his citizenship papers were far less politically relevant than his ability to wittily, devastatingly put the North’s agenda into both global and local political context, his service to radical social movements in Africa and everywhere else, his successful tip-toeing along the sometimes fine line between reformist and non-reformist reforms when contending with imperialist institutions, and his tireless networking across a very influential range of people, to try to halt a mega-project one day, or change language in an NGO report the next, or publicise the cause of some resistance fighter the next, or dig out incriminating data or documents from multilateral institutions nearly every day, it seemed. He taught us so much. Hamba kahle, Soren Ambrose.)

    Anyhow, to me the Roape review process usually distinguishes the excellent journal from its peers by invoking political economy and differential power relations. In this case, there’s obviously excellent material from the author about Northern academia’s power over knowledge production, gate-keeping and the trials and tribulations of scholarly conformity. But by naming the problem as a geographical-locational one, devoid of material interests and loyalties, and of the deeper critique of the players’ discursive strategies, it left me wanting much more – about who wins and loses in all this, and why they say – and research – the things they do.

    What did Fanon lament once, in Toward the African Revolution? Ah, here’s the quote: “For my part the deeper I enter into the cultures and the political circles, the surer I am that the great danger that threatens Africa is the absence of ideology.”

    Keep it coming,

    PS, to put my money where my mouth is, when giving three very brief – 10-15 min each – intro lectures to mainly South African petit-bourgeois civil servants (links below), I found that the most appreciated framing was to gaze not only upwards at elites, but also downwards too, to assess both the structural and cultural conditions behind the social anger that generates so many protests against the political status quo in so many countries. And that task would certainly require drawing upon an UNRISD(Geneva)/LSE(London)-based critic – Mkandawire – for help in debunking Joburg analysts whose conception of African politics is grounded in what they perceive as the Big Man’s “primordial lust for wealth and power along crude racial, tribal, party, and familial lines” (as Brenthurst’s ideologue put it in his own version of “Why Africa is Poor”).

    21 – ‘Africa Rising’ and Africans uprising (
    22 – Africa’s structure-culture debate (
    23 – Africa’s neoliberal revival (

  3. I like this – perhaps because I agree with the author. All my students knew was my intense dislike of the term neo-patrimonial. If it is ‘patrimonial’ it is redundant and/or misused or ‘lazy’ (GPW) See Pitcher et al African Studies Review 50.2.2009 (cited in Williams, 2nd ed., State and Society Nigeria 2019) Apologies for self-advertisement. Neo-patrimonialism is not Weber (patrimonialism is a form of ‘domination/ ‘rule’) not ‘political economy’ (Smith/ Ricardo) and certainly not Marx… It borrows from ‘neo-classical’, not a respectable terminology, … ‘Prebend’ (Joseph) is much more apposite for Nigeria (ZA ?)

  4. The scale of academic production is a function of the scale of industrialisation and the tax take per head to fund it. High income countries have far larger academies and more academic production capacity than low income countries. That will not change by exhortation to the wealthy and powerful to ‘include the voices’ of academics from low income countries in their knowledge production, from Africa or anywhere else. It will change when African countries have the tax take and political will to fund their own academies to produce their own political economy knowledge, in the way China and India now do, or Brazil and South Africa to a lesser extent do. The academies of the former colonisers in Europe, or the USA, can carry on with their knowledge production about India and China, or Africa, but so what. They no longer frame the debates in India or China about Indian or Chinese political economies. Research in India or China (in Chinese) on Europe and the USA goes on without having to make its way into debates in Europe or the USA to be valid. Whether or not patrimonialism, or neo-patrimonialism are useful analytic categories in Europe, China or African political economies should not depend who is doing the analysis, but on the quality of the research and evidence from particular locations that demonstrates whether the terms help understand observed political practices or otherwise but I agree with your point about over generalisation from single case national studies. While African countries do not fund academic production much it will remain other, mainly high income countries, that do. I think that work remains useful even if compromised by the power relation. That said if it is published in Han Chinese, it will not have much of an audience in Africa, Europe or the USA. I wonder how much is produced about Africa in Indian and Chinese universities. Anyway it is obvious, simply by comparing academic production capacity in South Africa with any of its neighbours, that because South Africa has industrialised more and has a bigger tax take to fund its higher education sector, it produces the academics and funds their places of work and funds their research about South Africa or other parts of Africa. That’s not to say European and US universities and African studies departments should not support more African students, lobby to get more funds to CODESRIA or be reflective about the effect of the absence of African academics in Euro-American African Studies in the way you high light. I think that makes your work detailing the % of Africans really useful. But that said being from Mozambique or Tamil Nadu or Italy or Shanghai does not inherently improve the quality or radical potential of any academic output about continents and regions as diverse as Africa, India, Europe or China written by a Mozambican, Tamil, Italian or Shanghainese.


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