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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.