GV4F9      Half Unit
The Challenges of Governance and Conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa

This information is for the 2017/18 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Chelsea Johnson


This course is available on the MSc in Comparative Politics, MSc in Conflict Studies and MSc in Women, Peace and Security. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

This course is capped at two groups. The deadline for applications is 1pm, Friday 29 September 2017.  You will be informed of the outcome by 12 noon, Monday 2 October 2017.

Course content

The course is organized around a set of ten ‘big’ normative and empirical questions that have confronted the continent’s leaders and peoples and engaged scholars and policy-makers since the end of colonial rule.  Specifically:

Q1. What has been the legacy of colonial rule and where does the responsibility of Africa's own leaders for both the continent's misfortunes and achievements begin?  Q2. Should we always see clientelism and patrimonialism as antithetical to building a modern state, strong institutions, and the rule of law? Q3. What have been the effects of promoting liberal democracy in sub-Saharan Africa and how seriously should we take alternative indigenous models of governance? Q4. Are Africa's civil wars primarily attributable to the relative feasibility of rebellion against the state or are they tied to societal grievances? Q5. Why may Africa’s wealth of natural resources be seen as both a curse and blessing? Q6. Is it simply trite to say aid, particularly the western neoliberal model, has hurt Africa more than it has helped? Q7. Should the international community assume a responsibility to protect when confronted with massive human rights violations or does intervention in the continent’s conflicts in fact do more harm?  Q8. Should the re-orientation of some African states towards non-western partners such as China and India be viewed as a positive shift? Q9. Should we take 'Islamist' violence - Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, and Al Shabaab - in SSA more seriously than other forms of political violence?  Q10.  What has been the significance of Rwanda's genocide for the engagement of the international community with the continent?

Linking all of these questions is an underlying inquiry into what assures the political and social stability of some sub-Saharan states but threatens ordered rule in others. Which of the myriad explanations proffered - natural resource abundance, high ethnic diversity, poor geography, weak state capacity, arbitrary borders, inter-group inequalities, and general poverty – best account for sub-Saharan Africa's high incidence of civil wars and communal violence? The overarching goal of the course is to equip students who work or seek to work in the policy-making arena with both an understanding of the major theories and an appreciation of the limits of extant empirical research relating to each of these questions so that they may look critically yet constructively at current strategies for meeting the challenges of governance on the continent. The course will tackle each of these questions through country case studies selected from the major country groupings to minimize the risk of students forming a regionally-skewed perspective on a diverse continent. The course will also draw on a range of methodological approaches - quantitative, historical, and qualitative - though students will not need any prior specialized training.


15 hours of lectures and 20 hours of seminars in the LT. 1 hour and 30 minutes of lectures and 2 hours of seminars in the ST.

There will be a reading week in week 6 of the LT for private study and assessment preparation.


Formative coursework

Students will be required to complete one formative essay (1,500 words).

Indicative reading

Rodney, W. (1981). How Europe underdeveloped Africa. Washington, D.C., Howard University Press, Hyden, Goran. African Politics in Comparative Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006; Bratton, M. & Van de Walle N., Democratic Experiments in Africa, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1997; Jackson, R. and Rosberg C., Personal Rule: Theory and Practice in Africa, Comparative Politics 16:4, 1984. Posner D., Institutions and Ethnic Politics in Africa, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005; Clapham C., Africa and the International System, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1996; Englebert P., State Legitimacy and Development in Africa Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2000; Rotberg R, and Gisselquist R., The Index of African Governance, Cambridge, World Peace Foundation, 2009; Herbst J., States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000; Bates R., Markets and States in Tropical Africa, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.


Exam (100%, duration: 2 hours) in the main exam period.

Key facts

Department: Government

Total students 2016/17: 27

Average class size 2016/17: 14

Controlled access 2016/17: Yes

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Leadership
  • Team working