News & Blog

New project: Africa's Infrastructure Globalities

Rethinking the Political Geographies of Economic Hubs from the Global South

New funding awarded!

This project will offer a novel understanding of how emerging powers challenge traditional theory and practice of international relations: through taking infrastructure sites and practices as starting point.

Chinese and Brazilian companies are now the most important bilateral investors in Africa. They apply existing rules, but also introduce new practices of governance and business-society relations that compete with Western norms. However, the nature and impact of these emerging new practices is little understood. 

Funded through an ERC Starting Grant this new 5-year project will research how models and experiences of actors from the Global South (i.e., Africa, Asia, Latin America) redefine the governance of economic hubs globally.

The INFRAGLOB team will

  • analyse the ideas driving Chinese and Brazilian management of large-scale port and mining projects,
  • conduct multi-sited ethnographic research in Mozambique, Tanzania, Brazil and China to establish how these concepts are enacted, negotiated and disregarded in practice,
  • research how this is affected by transnational mobilisation and infrastructure controversies across the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic,
  • establish how these new actors and practices change existing attempts of globally regulating transnational business, by tracing change through transnational communities of practice in the case of UN guidelines for business and in social safeguard regulations of multilateral banks.
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Double Panel on Hubs, Gateways and the Respacing of Africa, ECAS 2017

The largest conference on Africa in Europe is organised every two years by the Africa Europe Group of Interdisciplinary Studies (AEGIS). This year it was held in Basel and we were invited with a double panel. It brought together researchon how new port, road and rail infrastructure developments currently re-cast Africa’s engagement with transnational politics and the global economy. We explored the implications of new economic infrastructures for political power and participation from specific localities across the continent. Contributions included:

Tangier (Morocco) as a Transregional Transport Hub: Multi-Level Visions and Multi-Actor
Steffen Wippel (Philipps-Universität Marburg)
‘We want to look just like other airports’: Somaliland’s Hargeisa Egal International Airport as a gateway to recognition. Tobias Gandrup (University of Antwerp)
The many faces of gateway politics. Controversies over the port of Dar es Salaam (and Bagamoyo). Jana Hönke (University of Groningen) + Ivan Cuesta-Fernandez (University of Edinburgh)
Great Wall of Lagos: West Africa’s future ‘gateway’. Elizabeth Cobbett (University of East Anglia)

Enacting the Logistical Region in East Africa. Kevin Donovan (University of Michigan)
Zambia/DRC border, distance and reach of regional, international, corporate and state power
Hélène Blaszkiewicz (Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3)
Fresh from the Field - Trucking and Stoppage on the Walvis Bay - Ndola - Lubumbashi Corridor
Wolfgang Zeller (University of Edinburgh)

Special Issue "New Political Geographies of Conflict and Resistance"

This new special issue presents the results of a one year research seminar conducted with excellent students of the MA Peace and Conflict Studies run by the Conflict Research Centre, University of Marburg in Germany. It isavailable open access from the IReflect website.

The governance of transnational supply chains and large economic projects put traditional ideas about political space into question, as does the movement of refugees and migrants. Among the crucial issues are who governs where, who should be governing, and how is inclusion in political communities and access to rights decided. Despite a comprehensive discourse of global responsibility for fighting violent crime and human rights abuses, the practice of such responsibility is a different matter. And virtual mobility enabled through the internet and social media shape conflict and resistance across state boundaries in new ways.

The special issue therefore addresses three core questions. First, how can shifting political geographies, for which binary categorisations such as local/global, inside/outside and online/offline have proven unhelpful, be described and conceptualized? And how can critical political geography, Together, the articles contribute to better understand and rethink new political geographies of conflict and resistance. ethnographic and practice-theoretical approaches, contentious politics, and peace and conflict studies offer alternatives? Second, what are the violent contradictions of multifaceted political geographies today, in particular with regards to the coexistence of a state-based international order with too often ineffective, selective and Eurocentric global governance institutions? Third, what are alternative, emancipatory spaces and practices that emerge in everyday practice?

The introduction reviews the literature on political geography in International Relations, conceptualises how to think political spatialities as process and practice, and introduces the methodological building blocks of the special issue. The research papers are based on original theoretical and empirical work. They deal with the production of stateless people in Myanmar and their ‚expulsion‘ into physical and social margins (Valeria Hänsel); the broken promises of an international responsibility to protect in the case of the political economy of human trafficking, torture and extortion of Eritrean refugees on the Sinai, and the alternative structures of support and protection that have emerged in the diaspora (Lucia Heisterkamp); the spatial imaginaries and experiences of refugees along the Balkan route, exploring the potential of participatory counter-mapping (David Scheuing); the ‘in-between-space‘ of on- and offline resistance, investigated through the case of a resistance movement against mineral extraction in Wirikuta, Mexico (Alexandra Engelsdorfer), and the making of autonomous spaces and emancipatory politics in El Alto, Bolivia (Matthias Krams).


New Publication: A topolographical approach to infrastructure

Economic infrastructure hubs, such as ports, are crucial sites for exploring new political geographies. In such environments, mobilities are enabled and rigidly channelled premised on the stasis of the port-as-checkpoint. Such nodes are part of an ever-growing political geography of zones that requires more attention. This article proposes a ‘topolographical’ approach – a combined heuristic drawing from political topography and topology – to comprehend more fully the transformations in the political geographies of large-scale infrastructures. The cardinal nature of the port of Dar es Salaam makes it a crucial site through which to illustrate the purchase of this framework. The topographical analysis puts forward the port of Dar as ‘archipelago of global territories’, within which heterogeneous actors claim graduated authority. Drawing on topology, the article shows what is folded into the port, constantly shaping not only who governs but, more importantly, how power and authority are exercised. It will be shown how imaginaries of the port - as gateway, seamless space, and modernity ‘from scratch’ - as much as new technological devices work to produce historically and geographically distinct political geographies, and indeed bring new ones into being.

The article is by Jana Hoenke and Ivan Cuesta-Fernandez and forthcoming in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. It builds on fieldwork in and around the port of Dar es Salaam,  Tanzania.

A01: Hubs, Gateways and Bottlenecks - Panel accepted for ECAS 2017

Our proposal for a panel on Hubs, Gateways and Bottlenecks - New Transport Infrastructures and Urbanities Respacing Africa has just been approved for the European Conference on African Studies 2017 in Basel. It is organised together with Wolfgang Zeller/AFRIGOS. Watch out for the call for papers: ECAS will open for individual paper submissions in a few days. We look forward to paper proposals for A01!

Presentation at States of Circulation workshop

Workhop on infrastructure and politics of circulation at the Danish Institute of International Studies, 3-4 November 2016. With Brenda Chalfin, Michael Watts, Luis Lobo-Guerrero, AFRIGOS and many others. Organised by Peer Schouten, Finn Stepputat (both DIIS) and Jan Bachmann (Global Studies, University of Gotenburg). Paper presented (Jana Hönke with Iván Cueasta- Fernandez):



Economic infrastructure hubs, such as ports, are crucial sites for exploring new political geographies. In such environments, mobilities are enabled and rigidly channelled premised on the stasis of the port- as-checkpoint. Such nodes are part of an ever-growing political geography of zones that requires more attention. To overcome the often overdrawn opposition between fixity and mobility, absolute and relative space, this article proposes a ‘topolographical’ approach a combined heuristic drawing from political topography and topology to comprehend more fully the transformations in the political geographies of large-scale infrastructures. The cardinal nature of the port of Dar es Salaam makes it a crucial site through which to illustrate the purchase of this framework. The topographical analysis puts forward the port of Dar as archipelago of global territories, within which heterogeneous actors claim authority. Through the lens of topology, the article shows what is folded into the port, constantly shaping not only who governs but, more importantly, how power and authority are exercised. It will be shown how imaginaries of the port - as gateway, seamless space, and modernity ‘from scratch’ - as much as new technological devices yield effects on political topographies, and indeed bring new ones into being. 


After the gold rush: exploration on the permanent mining frontier of Burkina Faso

By Muriel Côte, Postdoctoral Researcher, Dpt. Political Geography, University of Zürich


Burkina Faso became 4th African producer of gold in 2012, at the time of a global mining rush. Since then, gold production has become the main engine of the Burkinabè economy, largely driven by industrial projects undertaken by foreign mining companies.  The rush reminisces Ferguson’s extractive enclave economy, where foreign capital ‘hops from useful area to useful area, overlooking all places and peoples in between’ (Ferguson 2005). But what happens after the gold rush? In many places it is hard to tell yet because many projects are still ongoing. But in North Burkina where I have conducted most of my fieldwork, artisanal miners have reinvested the open pits left behind after an industrial project ended. The British company AMARA completed a project in a couple of years, and after reaching its extraction goals in 2014, the company hoped to a different place, developing new projects in neighbouring Ivory Coast and in Sierra Leone. When the company staff left, artisanal miners moved back in, they even found again the entrance accesses to the 100 meters deep shafts they had been digging since the 1980s, before AMARA evicted them.

Rather than a case of ‘failed enclave’ this story better fits what Watts (2012) has described for the oil complex as a permanent frontier of exploration and abandonment. Wondering about what happens after the gold rush took me back, somewhat counter intuitively, to exploration again, to artisanal exploration. Enclave extraction is not the end of the road, and in fact the process of ‘discovering’ ‘useful areas’ is part and parcel of securing enclaves, of making them investible. This is why here, and through the case of a particular enclave project in North Burkina, I want to reflect briefly on, and draw attention to, the territorialities of exploration.

AMARA’s pit reinvested by artisanal miners in Bakou, January 2016 (photo: Arne Gillis)

AMARA’s pit reinvested by artisanal miners in Bakou, January 2016 (photo: Arne Gillis)

Exploration appears benign at first sight because it is less physically intrusive, and less politically explosive than extraction, but it is in fact a fundamental moment of enclave-making. As Rubbers (2013, 9) notes, ‘’mining investments do not colonise a terra nullius; they are taken into a social space already structured by various fields of struggle and agency logics’. Exploration is one such ‘social space’ – and it is expanding. In 2001 only two exploration permits were granted in Burkina, while in 2012, 660 were held (ITIE 2014).

Map of exploration permits in Burkina Faso in 2014 (ITIE 2014)

Map of exploration permits in Burkina Faso in 2014 (ITIE 2014)

A first ‘field of struggle’ that structures the social space of exploration is the global virtual market place (Megret 2011). Mining companies are registered on specialised markets such as the Toronto Stock exchange (TSX) and TSX Venture Exchange in Canada, which facilitate the generation of liquidities necessary for large-scale mining investments. In order for large-scale mining projects to become investible, liquidities must be made available. The process typically stages relations between Juniors and Majors, a mining jargon to refer to companies that specialize respectively in exploration and extraction. Exploration reports provide geological promises represented as facts that, within a favourable conjuncture, become attractive to a Major. In the words of the chief executive of Kinross Gold’s, considered one of the largest Major companies, Juniors are like fishing lines in the sea, and “the more lines you have in the water, the more chance you have of catching a fish’.[1] In North Burkina, the Major AMARA was able to undertake an extraction project as a result of several years of exploration and web-based marketing by the Junior OREZONE. In 2012 OREZONE exchanged its 124 km2 permit to the Major CLUFF GOLD (later rebranded AMARA Mining) for the equivalent of 26.5 million dollars. The sale provided OREZONE with liquidities to further advance its extraction projects in Bomboré and Bondi a few hundred kilometres further south. Virtual information and asset exchange is key to the exploration playing field (Luning 2012). More specifically it could be argued that the virtual territoriality of exploration is precisely what makes enclaves investible.

Exploration concessions included in Orezone's SEGA project zone (Orezone 2010)

Exploration concessions included in Orezone's SEGA project zone (Orezone 2010)


But gold also gets discovered from the ground, and who does actually discover gold? A Second ‘field of struggle’ that structures the social space of exploration is the concession, both as a site and a relation. Mining exploration concessions are sites populated by small-scale miners and Juniors where typically, the first tip off the latter. In the case of the same AMARA project, the Canadian Junior OREZONE that acquired an exploration permit in 2001 did not repress illegal small-scale mining on its exploration permit. When I discussed this situation in 2011 with a chief geologist working for OREZONE, I was told that (political) concessions must be made to small-scale miners: ‘you cannot put a policemen behind every small-scale shaft, and anyway, the presence of small-scale miners is a good sign for us, it means there is gold, they show us where to dig’. Small-scale miners I conducted research with on this same permit in 2011 and 2012 indeed complained that the Canadians were ‘following them’, systematically closing down their shafts soon after they proved promising. Below is a map drawn by these small-scale miners, where each green sticker represents an artisanal shaft covered up by the Canadian company to undertake exploratory drillings in the same spots. For extractive enclaves to be built, ‘useful areas’ must be discovered, and Juniors must know where to dig. For Juniors to know where to dig, exploration concessions cannot be cordoned off, but instead strategic forms of engagement must take place. The politics of underground access within porous exploration concessions makes these sites another key piece of the territoriality of exploration.


A map of shafts in Bakou indicating those closed by OREZONE, April 2011 (photo: Muriel Côte)

A map of shafts in Bakou indicating those closed by OREZONE, April 2011 (photo: Muriel Côte)

Asking about what happens after the gold rush shines a different light on extractive enclaves. Firstly it shines a light on the frontier dimension of enclave economy, and to the fact that extraction is not the end of the road but part of a recursive process. In this recursive dynamics, exploration is as important a step as extraction in the conditions under which enclaves are secured, in the sense of being made investible. Secondly, looking at extractive enclaves from the point of view of exploration dynamics bring to light new territorialities to those envisaged through the lenses of security and extraction. The political economics of exploration accounts a great deal for the conditions under which extractive enclaves become secured, but a lot of this plays out through the virtual territoriality of the stock and share market places. Another territoriality of exploration is in the porosity of concessions. Extractive enclaves draw attention to the imperative of cordoning off extraction areas, making them impenetrable on the ground, an impermeability that is strategically reflected on maps with neat boundaries, as many rhetorical assurances of excluding competing claimants; but what allows outright exclusion and dislocation under extraction are strategic forms of engagement with competing claimants under exploration. In the case presented above it is precisely the porosity of concessionary boundaries that allow a Junior to be tipped off about the location of ore deposits, which may further become attractive to potential enclave makers. Understanding political topographies of extraction includes piecing together the territorialities of speculative concessionary politics. The virtual and porous territorialities of exploration are also key dimensions that make enclaves im/possible, and that shape the frontiers of global capitalism.


AMARA gold mine in Bakou, Burkina Faso (photo: Muriel Côte, December 2014)

AMARA gold mine in Bakou, Burkina Faso (photo: Muriel Côte, December 2014)


Ferguson, J. 2005. "Seeing like an oil company: Space, security, and global capital in neoliberal Africa."  American Anthropologist 107:377–382.

ITIE. 2014. Rapport de conciliation des paiements des sociétés minières a l'état et des recettes perçues par l'état desdites sociétés pour l'exercice 2012. Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso: Initiative pour la Transparence dans les Industries Extractives, ITIE.

Luning, Sabine W.J. 2012. "Processing promises of gold: A minefield of company-community relations in Burkina Faso."  Africa Today 58 (3):23-39.

Megret, Q. 2011. "De l’inscription en bourse à l’exploration en brousse: La double vie d’une multinationale minière junior."  Carnets de geographes 2.

Orezone. 2010. Technical report of the mineral resource estimation of the SEGA (Tiba) gold project. Ottawa: Orezone.

Rubbers, B. 2013. "Les sociétés Africaines face aux investissements miniers."  Politique Africaine 131 (3):5-25.

Watts, M. 2012. "A tale of two gulfs: Life, death and dispossession along two oil frontiers."  American Quarterly 64 (3):437-467.


[1] Financial Times, January 14th 2014,

Another Angola? Civil society protests against gas extraction in Mozambique


By Kate Symons (Geography, University of Edinburgh)


In June 2015, a civil society coalition took US oil and gas company Anadarko to court in Mozambique over the planned relocation of around 5,000 people on the Afungi Peninsula, in the north of the country.  The “new scramble for Africa” described by Carmody (2011:1) is in full swing in Mozambique, fuelled by mega-projects in coal, industry and agri-business. This is the uneven development of late capitalism embodied in securitised enclaves of giant coal projects, and enormous tracts of land transferred from peasant farmers to trans-national agri-business in contested land deals. The case of Anadarko versus civil society is the latest example of growing contestation against what is increasingly perceived as land grabbing by corporate and state interests.

In 2012, Anadarko and partners discovered 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the coastal waters of Cabo Delgado, reported as “enough fuel to build the world’s second-largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant”.

Location of gas finds off the coast of Northern Mozambique

Location of gas finds off the coast of Northern Mozambique


This find is set to transform Mozambique into a major exporter of LNG. Anadarko has proposed a large hyper-modern LNG plant, comprising extraction unit, gas pipelines, processing, storage and marine export facilities, accommodation for several hundreds of workers, an airport and administration quarters on a 7,000 acre facility site on the Afungi Peninsula.

Areas operated by foreign oil and gas companies Anadarko and ENI

Areas operated by foreign oil and gas companies Anadarko and ENI

Media reports suggest this will be “the largest private investment in Mozambican history”, estimated at US$20 billion. However, the plans include the resettlement of multiple communities and have been deeply contested. Activists and communities allege that government officials failed to follow legal procedures, that public consultation had not been adequate, that communities were denied fair compensation for loss of land access, that community representative signatures were falsified on minutes of meetings that were later cited by Anadarko as proving consent for the proposals, and that Anadarko and local state police harassed activists and paralegals (including the arrest and detention of prominent activist Alda Salomão). These allegations run counter to Anadarko’s claims to be running a legitimate resettlement process, and demonstrate the level of mistrust between communities and the LNG project.

The controversy culminated in a legal challenge heard in the national courts in June 2015. Though the case found that Anadarko’s land rights were legitimate, activists still claimed this as a significant victory. One told me: “What we have now is the locals sabotaging things. So there’s no shortcuts here, sorry!” Significant material benefits were gained as a direct result of this contestation. Anadarko offered a large resettlement package of $180m USD to affected communities, US$36,000 for every villager, along with greater consultation and commitment to support local jobs and businesses. However, the government has responded with increasing authoritarianism, characterising activists as unpatriotic and against development (as one activist put it, they are framed as “working against development, fighting against those fighting poverty”). According to a local organisation, the harassment of activists continues and community dissatisfaction is reportedly growing over the perceived imposition of state and company will against local needs.  

This episode reveals several things about protest against capitalist projects in 21st Century Mozambique.

1.       There are new opportunities to protest

Many things have conspired to produce the particular form of engagement between the state, Anadarko and Afungi communities. Gas flows along similar physical and capital networks to oil. Oil is known for producing enclaves and clientelism in Africa. Donors and activists are explicitly drawing on this history - Mozambique becoming “another Angola”, as one donor put it to me, must be avoided. Consequently, new entrants into the LNG market are subject to greater scrutiny. In addition, Mozambique has a strong land law which protects informal community rights (although, like many laws in Mozambique this has often been stronger on paper than in practice). The scrutiny of natural resources, combined with strong legal protection for community rights, and the material support of donors who want civil society to be a watchdog for the extractives sector has created an opportunity for activists to mobilise international discourses of liberal governmentality. They have deliberately spoken in the language of rights, transparency and legal process, proactively using social and mainstream media and liberal legal institutions to highlight the gap between the commitments of the state and Anadarko against their actions.

2.       Forms of protest are rooted in the past

Mozambicans have often had to be persuaded into adopting and exercising (performing?) civil rights. They were not afforded many democratic opportunities by the Portuguese, and the revolutionary Frelimo government had to work hard to construct a notion of national consciousness – as one former government minister put it to me, “we were building a state out of a colony”. This language of persuasion is often reflected in the engagement between communities and their civil society spokespeople, who go to great lengths to convince local people of their rights, claiming to be acting in the communities’ own interests. Additionally, the central role of donors in driving this transparency agenda can be traced to Mozambique’s post-conflict dependence on external aid.

3.       Visions for development in Mozambique are contested

The legitimacy of mega-project development is being fought around ideas of the ‘national interest’. Those who oppose the LNG plant are painted as unpatriotic, an accusation also used to disparage protesters elsewhere in Mozambique (despite Frelimo government members accused of acting in their own rather than the national interest in early negotiations with Anadarko). This presents dilemmas for donors, who support civil society in acting as a watchdog for the extractive industry whilst also supporting extractives, and civil society, as they are sometimes accused of manipulating communities to drive their own anti-government, pro-democracy agendas.

Civil society is certainly growing in importance, capability and visibility. But, given that the LNG plant is going ahead, is this really victory? Have communities effectively been bought off? Gas extraction in Mozambique is becoming increasingly urgent due to competition from Iran, and it appears companies are willing to do whatever it takes to secure community compliance.


This blog post draws on Kate Symons' forthcoming paper 'Transnational spaces, hybrid governance and civil society contestation in Mozambique’s gas boom', published in the Extractive Industries & Society journal.

Spatialising the state in Africa


By Rony Emmenegger, University of Zurich (Department of Geography) and Davide Chinigò, University of Bologna (Department of Political and Social Sciences)


The state in Africa is in a constant process of reconfiguration and continues to constitute a conceptual challenge for its analysts. Since the early post-colonial era, the obvious mismatch between the complex empirical realities and the classical conceptual tools at hand for the study of state power and authority has been thought-provoking. Also stimulating has been a growing discomfort with normative models of the state and particularly the Weberian ideal-type that for long dominated the analysis of power dynamics in Africa. Recent years have further witnessed a growing interest in conceptualizations of the African state with the aim at capturing the complexity of increasingly globalised and localised dynamics in a variety of settings. Acknowledging and advancing this existing body of literature, we call for a spatially sensitive conceptualization of the state and for spatialising the state in Africa.

Over the past decades, the analytical focus has shifted towards a more sociological reading of the state. Contrasting its depiction as an independent and socially detached entity, the state has rather been characterized from the perspective of its multiple and constantly changing relationships with society, its embedded-ness as well as their interconnectedness and mutual interdependence. Rather than in isolation, such a reading of the state entails the analysis of the state in more diffuse fields of power relations, arenas of encounters and complex sets of social practices and processes (Bierschenk/Olivier de Sardan 1997; Hagmann/Péclard 2010; Krohn Hansen/Nustad 2005). In a similar vein, Mitchell (1991: 78) has called for the analysis of the “political processes through which the uncertain yet powerful distinction between state and society is produced” and continues to be powerful. The conceptual departure from the taken-for-granted state-society boundary, nevertheless, continues to acknowledge its significance in social and political processes. Framed in Mitchell’s terms, the state should be regarded as a “structural effect” of specific societal dynamics and as a structure produced internally, while appearing to be external and distinct from society. Such an approach puts emphasis on the analysis of the political and historical processes through which the boundary between the state and society is produced and negotiated. A socially embedded reading of the state more generally allows the analysis of a multiplicity of moments in which the state is produced and refashioned in its symbolic and material form.

Thus, sociological readings have significantly advanced our understanding of the state through its conceptualization beyond simplistic or statist understandings that have often derived from normative concepts in the past. Nevertheless, its preoccupation with the social production of the state hardly grasps how the state gets socially and historically consolidated. As such, breaking the state open within its particular social embedding leaves us with two major shortcomings. First, it tells us little about how the state gets socially aggregated beyond simply being a subjective manifestation and the narrow perceptions of the actors that are involved in specific contexts. Such a tendency towards descriptive empiricism, however, often constitutes the analytical lens through which the state and state-society relationships are conceptualized and understood. Second, a mere focus on uncertain and constantly mutating boundaries between state and society downplays historical continuities and path dependencies of yet contingent processes of state formation. As a result, it leaves us in the dark about processes through which the state assumes a variety of symbolic and material forms and consolidates both in stable and rather fragile empirical settings.

Against this backdrop, we argue that a spatially sensitive conceptualization of the state provides a fruitful starting point for overcoming these limitations. Our call for spatialising the state in Africa arises from the insight that the state is as much embedded in social relationships as it is embedded in space. We see the advantage of considering space in the analysis of the state to be twofold. On the one hand, it brings into consideration a wide range of spatial concepts that enable the analysis of the particular spatial settings and situations in which the state or state-society relations are produced, embedded and negotiated. Spatial concepts allow the analysis of a particular set of social relations as well as a wide range of flows of people, capital and ideas through which state and state-society relations are reconfigured in a wider web of connections and interlinkages. On the other hand, it acknowledges that the state and space are inextricably related and that space is even constitutive for the operation of state power. To be precise, our call for spatialising the state does not simply require a consideration of how space is appropriated and controlled but more fundamentally how is constructed, negotiated or contested. It is in this sense that we see the negotiation of state-society relations as inevitably working through boundary making, inclusion and exclusion as well as the fixation of citizens in space, places and territories. This, however, not only involves the establishment of state-society relations but also the production of overlapping spaces in which these relations can be symbolically and materially stabilized, fixed and consolidated.

Acknowledging that the state operates through space and assumes various symbolic and material forms marks a first step towards its successful problematization. In this sense, a variety of practices and processes leave symbolic and material traces in the landscapes, where they accumulate and come to divide the rural and the urban or the public and the private stratifying and setting the scene for everyday encounters and interactions. Thus, state-society relations get fixed and consolidated in the landscape that comes to form particular reifications, naturalizations or normalizations of the state, society and their historical relation. In this sense, the resulting spatial orders are expressions of power relations that are grounded in multiple spatial and historical trajectories and that consolidate in specific views of history and configurations of space. In turn, such spatial configurations and spatialised histories set the broader conditions in which the state-society relations are produced and negotiated again with significant symbolic and material consequences. An attempt to spatialise the state in Africa, therefore, further requires a more nuanced understandings of how political repertoires – through which histories are constantly written and re-written – are discursively legitimated, materialize and manifest in collective choices, and engender dynamics of social, economic and political exclusion and inclusion that are central to the negotiation of state-society relations.

As a starting point for spatialising the state, we focus on the role of place and territory in shaping processes of transformation and in mediating power relations. Such a joint analysis of place and territory allows an understanding of the state-society relationship in relational terms and in terms of their spatial consolidation. It puts under scrutiny the practices and processes through which state-society relations are spatially embedded, have emerged along particular trajectories and have consolidated in specific historical contexts. Our point of departure is to engage with the spatial dimension of the state along such spatial and historical trajectories. Of empirical interest, are specifically its most contested dimensions and those contested political spaces where the state is said to be in formation. Examples can include politicized identities, the constitution and dissolution of authority structures as well as ongoing resource struggles. It can further include power dynamics manifesting from mobility and control over mobility, processes of social and economic inclusion and exclusion framed around the politics of belonging, overlapping authority structures resulting from armed conflicts as well as the increasing role of environmental knowledge in shaping access and distribution of resources.


This blog post was originally conceived as a concept note that the two authors wrote for the panel ‘Spatialising the State in Africa’ held at the 6th European Conference on African Studies (ECAS), Paris, on 8-10 July 2015.



Bierschenk, Thomas, and Olivier de Sardan (1997): "Local Powers and a Distant State in Rural Central African Republic." Journal of Modern African Studies 35, no. 3: 441-468.

Hagmann, Tobias, and Didier Péclard (2010): "Negotiating Statehood: Dynamics of Power and Domination in Africa." Development and Change 41, no. 4: 539-62.

Krohn-Hansen, Christian, and Knut G. Nustad (2005), eds. State Formation: Anthropological Perspectives. London: Pluto Press.

Mitchell, Timothy (1991). "The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics." The American Political Science Review 85, no. 1: 77-96.

Braai in the no-man’s land of Namibia and Zambia



This post was originally published in Paul Nugent's blog World of Borders and Wine and re-posted in CAS Postgrads from the Edge.

By Wolfgang Zeller


Would you greet the visitors on your doorstep with the words: “Welcome! My home is a gateway to my neighbours”?

It seems the town council of Katima Mulilo in Namibia’s Zambezi Region has officially and explicitly internalized the colonial logic that, in 1890 as part of the Anglo- German Heligoland- Zanzibar agreement, originally established the German “access corridor” to the Zambezi and, by logical extension, to the interior of southern Africa. The town council has a very concrete reason to endorse that view.


Bridge ribbon cut

Bridge ribbon cut


Opened in May 2004 and built with a bilateral German-Zambian development grant, the Katima Mulilo bridge across the Zambezi was the last missing link connecting the Namibian port of Walvis Bay with the mining areas of Zambia’s Copperbelt and the Katanga province of DRC via an uninterrupted 2600km asphalt road.





This road is one of four long-distance trans-boundary transport corridors converging on Walvis Bay. Developing the port into a major transport hub plugging the southern African region into the world of global commerce has for over a decade been a high official priority for the Namibian government and a wide variety of public and private interested parties organized, since 2001, in the Walvis Bay Corridor Group. Their agenda is well integrated with even larger-scale pronouncements by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the African Union (AU), donors and investors around the globe. Investment in transport infrastructure is currently big business and high politics across Africa. The present construction of an entirely new container terminal in the Walvis Bay harbour is but one small piece in the puzzle.


Walvis Bay enlargement, June 2015

Walvis Bay enlargement, June 2015


Big words and big numbers of ongoing or projected investments are easy to come by in the media coverage and policy literature. But “uninterrupted” and “trans-boundary” are relative terms.





When you are behind the wheel of a truck arriving in Katima Mulilo, potholes, 2 and 4-legged pedestrians, and red tape are what you need to deal with. The gateway has many locks and they do not all open easily.

Despite its appearance of permanence and continuity, infrastructure is never separate from the physical environment. Instead it must be understood as alive and part of the natural landscape. Prof. Andrew Barry recently pointed this out at the annual conference of the Centre of African Studies at Edinburgh University.


Elephant road sign

Elephant road sign


Elephants, people and cattle crossing or using the road for their own purposes are all aspects of this. 11 years after it was entirely rebuilt, the fast-growing potholes on the first 60km of highway between the Katima Mulilo bridge and Livingstone in Zambia illustrate another aspect: roads require ongoing maintenance. Lack of drainage and canals blocked by encroaching vegetation has left sections of the highway’s undercarriage waterlogged and consequently unstable for months during the rainy season.

While Zambian work crews are doing their best to fill in the holes with an – evidently inadequate and largely cosmetic – mix of cement and gravel, their colleagues on the Namibian side have asphalt to do the job and appear to be on top of the task to keep the weeds down.

This abnormal sized convoy of altogether 16 vehicles (4 oversize trailers & their “horses”, 1 tanker truck, 2 managers, 8 escort vehicles and 1 researcher) is hauling 4 Dutch-built electricity transformers weighing 110 tons each from Walvis Bay to the Kafue Gorge hydroelectric power plant in Zambia.


Convoy near WENELA

Convoy near WENELA


For the drivers the difference between the road surfaces in Namibia and Zambia is easily put in numbers: A breath-taking 50km/hour cruise down the smooth open road or a nerve-wrecking slalom at 10km/hour to avoid as many holes as possible, and a lot more hassle with the after-effect such conditions have on the 18 or more quadruple axles per trailer.

Physical infrastructure is but one aspect of the ever-changing landscape navigated by the core team of the convoy: Wynand Prinsloo (supervisor), Hentje Rupping (soon retired senior supervisor), Rudolf Rupping (driver, & Hentje’s son), Chris Dean (driver), Israel Mollo (driver), Teens Nhlapo (driver) and Cecil Ramasenya (gofer & handyman), all from South Africa. Dealing with border post bureaucracy, traffic police and the pen-pushers back in the head office of Mammoet Southern Africa (pty) ltd in Johannesburg is at least as much part of their job as their technical know-how to keep 4 X 200 tons of steel & rubber on the road and moving forward.


Paper work II

Paper work II


By the time I join the convoy they have been on the road non-stop for altogether 11 weeks. One week has passed while they were waiting at a lodge in Katima Mulilo for their head office to confirm that the Zambian parastatal electricity provider ZESCO has indeed transferred the final installment of 33 million Euros for the merchandise which Wynand & his team are about to take across the border into Zambia. Their predicament was my good luck: I had plenty of time to socialize with the truckers.

What does a South African with extra time on his hands do? Beach or borderland, he fires up the braai.


WENELA braai

WENELA braai


I took the above pictures as the convoy, finally with green light from the head office but now dealing with yet more border bureaucracy, was settling in to camp for a second night in the no-man’s land between the Namibian and Zambian checkpoints. In the very same place, the official speakers at the opening of the nearby Zambezi Bridge in 2004 had loudly proclaimed the prospect of a supposedly more efficient one-stop border post. It has so far remained a happy fiction.





Despite their close and friendly relations, both the Namibian and Zambian governments have, instead, in recent years invested in separate brand new shiny office buildings housing their separate immigration, customs, police and road authority desks.

The architects have done a fairly good job to provide for the needs of the administrators and regular-sized personal vehicles and trucks. My Mammoet friends are not so lucky.


Stone ramp

Stone ramp


Their oversized trailers barely fit through the gates and around the narrow corners of the border checkpoints. But, as the saying goes, the Boers make a plan.

But no Boer plan can help against the fact that the Zambian customs service has recently centralized its operations. Whereas before border customs stations were able to handle and process their local paperwork – albeit at their own chosen speed and often against unofficial or inflated fees – all procedures must now go through the national head office in Lusaka. They are supposedly working 24/7 but that’s the theory while in practice the electronic channels that should transport the customs documents between the central and frontline offices are just like some of the roads: potholes, inadequate bends, poorly maintained etc. So what used to take 2 days now takes 5, say my trucker friends. We wait and braai. Time to look around a bit.


Currency traders

Currency traders


The space between the checkpoints is bustling with the activities of currency traders, fuel smugglers and truck cleaners by day, while the working girls, gangs stealing diesel from the parked trucks, and private security personnel hired to prevent the latter are working the night shifts. The corridor route is space where many people live and try to make a living, and only few of these are long-distance transporters.

With the oversized cargo providing welcome shade, the white supervisors and drivers of “my” convoy are sharing the meat, beer and stories. We discuss how to best adulterate electrical equipment to cater for the needs of life on the road. The senior members of the team soon move into stories of their time spent in the area as young soldiers serving with the South African Defense Forces back in the 1970s and 80s, and the importance of their Christian faith to provide a moral compass for the hard life on the road. As the shadows from the steel hunks surrounding us grow longer the memories of the Voortrekkers are invoked.


Kazungula breakfast

Kazungula breakfast


Meanwhile, the black members of the team and their local female companions are gathering in their own separate circle, preparing Zambezi bream, cabbage and maize porridge and sharing their own stories in the shade of their own trucks. All members of the closely-knit team are well used to each other after years of life on the road together, but when making camp they do maintain that certain distance.

By the following morning all the paper work has finally been resolved. Before sunrise the diesel hearts are pumping hydraulic fluids through the veins of the monsters.


WENELA lock opening

WENELA lock opening


The escort vehicles (Zambian law requires two per abnormal truck) are blinking and buzzing around them like nervous insects. Then the man with the key to the highway finally appears. I ask Wynand: “Are you excited to get going again?” “No, I just want to go home to my family” comes his prompt reply.

Minutes later, the convoy very carefully crawls across the Zambezi bridge, one truck at a time.


Zambezi Mammoet crossing

Zambezi Mammoet crossing


But as soon as they reach the other side they come to a full stop.


ZESCO cable lift

ZESCO cable lift


The mechanics from ZESCO, supposed to lift some power cables that are hanging too low for the tall cargo to pass, are nowhere to be seen. 16 vehicles, 4 of them far too wide to pass, are stuck in the middle of High Street in the border town of Sesheke and absolutely nothing is moving. Wynand has been working the phone for days to avoid precisely this scenario. But it’s too early in the morning to get angry. With a dry grin he comments “If we don’t move nothing here moves. That’s not my problem”. Except it will be his problem later on.

The ZESCO team eventually arrives at a leisurely speed to lift the cables. We start rolling again at 50km/h. Then the potholes start. The convoy ends up spending the night by the roadside half way to Livingstone, only half the distance Wynand an his team had hoped to accomplish that day.





Abnormal sized trucks are only allowed on the road during daylight hours. A Cape-to-Cairo cyclist adventurer has overtaken the convoy several times during the day and ends up pitching his tent in the safe proximity of the Mammoet convoy.

How long the rest of the journey may still take is uncertain. Once the convoy reaches Kafue, they must wait for the hydraulic lifts needed to unload the cargo to arrive. Those are currently stuck at Beitbridge on the South Africa-Zimbabwe border. And among the truckers of Southern Africa that border is famous for being very, very slow. At least the fishing is good in Kafue. And then they will braai.

The Walvis Bay Corridor Group is promoting the Walvis Bay Ndola Lubumbashi Corridor as an integrated transport route to unlock the economic potential of southern Africa. They market the promise of unrestrained movement of goods. What I have learned during those days on the road and crossing the Namibia-Zambia border with the Mammoet convoy is just how wide a variety of reasons there is for stoppage.

“Red tape” is just a word that masks a huge variety of administrative steps involving both state representatives in frontline and distant central offices, and corporate actors on the road as well as back in the headquarters of the transport operators and their customers. “Poor infrastructure” is just a word which masks a huge variety of hands-on problems, from deteriorating road surfaces and tight corners to low power cables. All of these constantly evolve, sometimes for the better and sometimes the opposite. There are patterns and seasonality but no matter how well prepared and seasoned Wyand and his drivers are, they constantly need to try and anticipate the unepected. In most cases “the unexpected”, when it finally occurs, means the wheels stop turning. Living on the corridor road appears to be very much about living with the absence of movement. The braai and the fishing rod, the smart phone and, for some, the bible are essential tools to keep going.


Living on the road, my friend

Was going to keep you free and clean

Now you wear your skin like iron

And your breath’s as hard as kerosene


From Pancho & Lefty by Townes van Zandt


The author is a Senior Research Fellow on the African Governance and Space (AFRIGOS) project. Starting in January 2016, AFRIGOS will examine transport corridors, border towns and port cities in four regions of Africa. The project is funded by the European Research Council’s Advanced Grant scheme. Prof. Paul Nugent is the Principal Investigator of AFRIGOS.


Truck wreck

Truck wreck

Who governs African ports, and how? A tale of topographies AND topologies

By Ivan Cuesta-Fernandez


Ask a physicist how distant Edinburgh is from Glasgow and he/she will confidently produce a figure in kilometers. Ask a political geographer and you may be confronted with a disheartening reply: what is distance? The New Political Topographies conference last May, hosted by the Centre of African Studies in Edinburgh, convened not a few scholars of the what-is-distance breed. It was hardly surprising therefore that intricate questions surfaced every so often. As eager fellows of the what-is-distance brotherhood, Jana Hönke and I also contributed our little grain of sand to the mess conference. Thus our paper asked: which analytical road to go down to apprehend how African ports are governed? Topographies or topologies?

Queried about how ports are governed, many political geographers would cheer up with relief and provide a confident answer. Ports are operated as territorial spaces and, as such, enforcing the rule over goods and people within their premises involves a twofold mechanism: exclusive jurisdiction by a handful of public agencies, and securitization of access. Only under that premise can cargo be inspected, appraised and taxed - the ultimate goal of state authority in African ports, as well as in ports anywhere. For many a political geographer, hence, scrutinizing the ways in which power is exerted locally – that is, a topographical approach - is the obvious analytical choice. Political topography tends to imagine ports as enclaves – like, say, mines – in order to disclose how intensively and extensively port authorities wield power.

Inspecting second-hand cars in the port of Dar es Salaam. Source: TICTS.

The archetypical ‘what-is-distance political geographer’, though, might feel unimpressed by the hasty reply of his/her colleague. He/she would probably point instead to the fact that African port authorities have seen their arms twisted by, when not enthusiastically embraced themselves, a transnational utopia of unhindered logistical flows. Over the last decade the volumes of minerals and raw agricultural produce shipped eastwards from Durban, Dar es Salaam or Mombasa have multiplied. At the same time, mammoth vessels have become a common sight in African harbors. They carry cheap plastic homeware from China for the Mama Biasharas of East Africa as well as fancy smartphones for the rising upper class. Ports around the continent, since long the interface of extensively internationalized economies, have felt compelled to accommodate to a new paradigm of logistical expansion. According to a globalized logistics mantra, African customs and port authorities must now conceive of performance as a blend of revenue targets and expeditious cargo clearing. Accordingly, speed, dwell times and mobility have become the words of the day in the administrative jargon. Likewise, that jargon has also been colonized by fresh representations; bureaucratic imaginaries of ports as checkpoints have given way to representations of the latter as maritime gateways. Consequently, territorial strategies of taxation and securitization have muted in parallel. They have done so as a response to ideals – still to be accomplished – of seamless connections between ports, their hinterlands and nodes of consumption that remain distant in space yet not in time anymore. Unsurprisingly, for transport geographers, mobility as well as topological accounts of authority unrelated to physical closeness, have gained prominence vis-à-vis topographical perspectives centered upon authority over enclosed spaces. What-is-distance political geographers have felt vindicated.

Undeniably what-is-distance political geographers have much to say about how ports are governed. However, we still see a value in conventional notions that claim, for instance, that taxation in ports remains to a large extent a territorial affair. Why not exploring then a métissage of geographical sensibilities? Our paper tries to do so, and thereby advocates for a ‘topolographist’ approach cutting across topographies and topologies. The paper explores the fertile intersection of two processes: the production of territoriality and the topologies of proximity/distance in and around ports. Such an intersection lies at the core of a relentless respacing of Africa in which ports as well as cognate large-scale infrastructures play a chief role.

This article has offered a roadmap for the study of ports and large infrastructures in Africa. Future posts in this series will delve deeper into how infrastructures are reshaping the political geographies of the African continent. In particular, we will present the insights obtained from a ‘topolographist’ exploratory analysis of the port of Dar es Salaam, its vicinities and the broader East African region. By doing so we expect to contribute to the chorus of narratives accounting for how global and local economic forces are attempting to redraw African geographies according to their own convenience.

Prof. Rita Abrahamsen to deliver keynote address at May conference

Prof. Rita Abrahamsen, from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, will deliver a keynote address at our CAS Annual International Conference 'New Political Topographies: Trans-boundary Flows, Power and Legitimation in Africa and Beyond', to be held 28-29 May in Edinburgh.

Accruing an in-depth expertise in African politics, security and development, security privatization and postcolonial theory, prof. Abrahamsen is the author of acclaimed works such as Disciplining Democracy: Development Discourse and the Good Governance Agenda in Africa (2000) and, more recently, Security Beyond the State: Private Security in International Politics (co-authored, 2011). Other publications have appeared in leading journals including African Affairs, Alternatives, International Political Sociology, Journal of Modern African Studies, Political Studies, Third World Quarterly and Review of African Political Economy. She was joint-editor of African Affairs from 2009 to 2014.

For full details on the conference programme, click here.


Professor Andrew Barry to deliver keynote address at May conference

Prof. Andrew Barry, University College London, will deliver one of the keynote addresses at our CAS Annual International Conference 'New Political Topographies: Trans-boundary Flows, Power and Legitimation in Africa and Beyond', to be held 28-29 May in Edinburgh.

Prof. Barry has published on the relevance of materials and technologies in political and economic life. His recent ‘Material Politics: Disputes along the Pipeline’ (2013), interrogates the way in which the production of information about materials enables the activity of materials to be managed and monitored, while also generating the conditions within which controversies can proliferate over the quality and sources of the information produced. Prof. Barry has developed the idea of the ‘political situation’, central to his book Material Politics (2012, 2013) and nurtures a keen interest in the practice of geopolitics. He is also researching on the manner in which energy has been theorised in human geography, developing from Isabelle Stengers’ analysis of cosmopolitics, and in the politics of the idea of the Anthropocene and, more broadly, the geopolitics of the carbon economy.

Download the full programme here.

Our speakers for the New Political Topographies conference

(Adapted from a post on the Edinburgh Politics & IR Blog, by Kathy Dodworth)

We have set up an excellent panel of speakers for our New Political Topographies conference, to be held 28-29 May.

The conference’s two keynotes will speak directly to the theme of the shifting political landscape. Rita Abrahamsen’s extensive work on conflict and security actors in Africa demonstrates not how ‘public’ governance has been rendered irrelevant, but rather reconstituted with new players. Andrew Barry, a political geographer with a background in natural sciences, has ‘interrogated’ at length where the social, material and political meet and what repercussions this has for scientific enquiry more broadly. His most recent book explores the shifting constellation of political actors around the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. Such research sets the scene for the conference, welcoming contributions that interrogate new and contested forms of ‘public’ authority, as well as how state and non-state actors legitimate such authority in the changing global landscape.

Speakers from a range of disciplinary backgrounds will develop these themes further in presenting recent empirical research from Africa and beyond. Finn Stepputat will present new research on transboundary Somali trade networks, in line with his ‘Global Political Ethnography’ on how new actors and technologies are changing policy regimes. Jana Hönke with Iván Cuesta Fernandez will present some early findings from their new project on emerging political geographies around large-scale economic infrastructures, particularly mines and ports. On a slightly different theme, looking at the conditions of non-state political authority, Kathy Dodworh will present on the material, discursive and political components of the legitimacy of NGOs in the increasingly crowded marketplace in Tanzania. Other eminent scholars from Edinburgh’s Centre for African Studies and Politics and IR will confirm their contribution on related themes in due course. 

P.S. We are happy to confirm that Brenda Chalfin will also present in the conference. Dr. Chalfin is well known for her ethnographical work on the neoliberal frontier in Ghana, that looks at changes in state sovereignty from the vantage point of borders, checkpoints and custom offices.

New Political Topographies? No rest for the curious

Chambishi Copper Mine via Zambia Reports

Chambishi Copper Mine via Zambia Reports

(Originally posted on the Edinburgh Politics and IR Blog, by Kathy Dodworth)

The contours of economic and political power don’t sit still.

Burgeoning levels of Foreign Direct Investment in sub-Saharan Africa’s  large scale infrastructural works reveal the shifting constellations of actors across the continent. New roads, ports and pipelines are in development from the Guinean coast to the (once) sleepy towns of Mtwara and Bagamoyo in Tanzania.

Rising BRIC powers are particularly identified with such developments, with China alone involved in projects in over 30 African countries, notably Angola, South Sudan, Zambia and the DRC. The proliferation of foreign business and investment within these economic zones has inevitably altered the configuration of power and authority. Some commentators go so far as to deem the Chambishi copper region in Zambia a Chinese ‘enclave’. These dynamics, however, are not solely externally driven nor purely extractive.

Intra-African trade and investment continues to rise and the investment portfolio continues to diversify. Indeed, transboundary flows in Africa are as likely to be found in informal, localized networks of exchange as in the formal economy.

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