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Back to Mozambique 20 years later: is optimism overblown?

By Eric Cezne

During my first field trip to Mozambique in May and June this year, it was clear that the country has been through quite some change since I left as a kid nearly 20 years ago.  Back then in the early 90s, my parents were there working in development cooperation and aid projects – at a time when the notion of expats acting as ‘capacity builders’ was (even more ) widespread across Africa. Located on the Southeastern corner of the African continent,  Mozambique has since seen the end of a more than a decade long civil war (1977-1992), experienced a UN peacekeeping force on the ground (1992-1994), and, by the early 2000s, was deemed an African ‘success story’ by organizations such as the UN and the World Bank. Corroborating these favorable assessments, the country has held elections on a regular basis, the economy has grown, and landmines have been totally cleared as of 2015. More recently,  Mozambique is amid what many call the ‘new-scramble’ for Africa as new mineral (and profit)hungry global players, especially China, but also other emerging economies such as Brazil and India, have ventured into the continent in search of  business opportunities and diplomatic influence.  And this new geopolitical trend, and how it plays out in Mozambique, is the theme of my own PhD research here at the University of Groningen.

A different country

Whether the works of karma or not, my PhD has brought me back to Mozambique several years later. From whatever flash of memory, my parents’ own accounts and pictures I could recall, Maputo – where we lived – was a decaying capital, deprived not only from basic urban infrastructure, but also scarce of several goods, from pharmaceutical products to alimentary items. While Maputo was relatively stable and safe during the civil war, travels to the Mozambican countryside could only be done in military convoys. In our privileged condition as expats, I remember we would regularly take the 3-hour drive – at the time one of the few safe routes – to Nelspruit in South Africa to buy supplies or to simply visit the doctor.  The Polana Hotel –  located in a stylish colonial building – was pretty much the only meeting, lodging and dinning point for affluent foreigners on trips to Mozambique.

When I landed at Maputo International Airport in May  2018, I was confronted with a relatively new, spacious and comfortable terminal building –built by the Chinese. It was also visible that the rest of the Mozambican capital was a different city . Nowadays, as the Al Jazeera has described:  “it’s a brasher, noisier, with more cars, lots of construction, and many new businesses”. Supermarket chains from Dutch SPAR, to Indian Lulu Hypermarket , to South African Shoprite are all to be found in Maputo and other major Mozambican cities. Besides the traditional Hotel Polana (now newly renovated by… the Chinese!), other hotel chains such as Radisson and enormous Chinese-owned Glória Hotel – located along Maputo’s upscale coastal Marginal Avenue – are there to welcome wealthy visitors and to host international conferences (ironically, many of which discussing Mozambique’s development issues).  When quickly glancing through Maputo’s skyline upon landing, a 3-kilometer bridge under construction connecting Maputo to Katembe – a district across the Maputo Bay – immediately catches the eye. Financed and constructed by the Chinese, it illustrates better than anything else China’s vigorous and resolute presence in the country.

View of Maputo’s skyline upon landing. Photo: Eric Cezne/ May 2018

View of Maputo’s skyline upon landing. Photo: Eric Cezne/ May 2018

The extractive boom

Up north, the provinces of Cabo Delgado and Tete are perhaps the best examples of Mozambique’s recent transformation. New discoveries of large natural gas reserves off the coast of Cabo Delgado coupled with coal mining in Tete have led to much optimism : an economic and development breakthrough, as suggested by my interlocutors at the Mozambican Confederation of Economic Associations. While in the early 90s, many Mozambican refugees have fled to neighboring Malawi and Zimbabwe, I have  met many Malawians and Zimbabweans that now do the reverse in search of better economic prospects in what they consider the mining and gas Eldorado of Southern Africa.

 As a result, the prospect of tremendous gain from the extractable resources has attracted external capital and foreign companies alike. And triggered a construction boom in infrastructure – much of it of course designed and built to support the extractive industries. A quick look on a detailed map of Mozambique reveals how much of the railway infrastructure is geared towards the export of minerals. Labelled as ‘corridors’, these infrastructures usually link a mineral-rich hinterland to a port on the Indian Ocean, with little to no transversal integration between the corridors.

Passengers boarding train on the Beira Corridor.  While the railway is mainly used for the transport of coal, there are a few weekly regular passenger services. Photo: Eric Cezne/ June2018

Passengers boarding train on the Beira Corridor.  While the railway is mainly used for the transport of coal, there are a few weekly regular passenger services. Photo: Eric Cezne/ June2018

New guys on the scene

The strong presence of China – and of other emerging economies –  in Mozambique, but also in Africa more broadly, revolves largely around this infrastructure boom. There are three reasons for this. First, the 2008 financial crisis coupled with the re-shifting of Western assistance towards governance and social sector spending has created a void that came to be filled by other actors, especially in the realm of capital-intensive and risky undertakings such as infrastructure projects . Second, a favorable and converging scenario consisted of: the high-demand for natural resources in the emerging economies, on the one hand; and on the other, especially in post-conflict African states, the need to build and rehabilitate their infrastructures. And third, the fact that relations between the emerging economies and African countries are often promoted as carrying none of the neocolonial ties and hypocrisies associated to the West.  Illustrating this last point, China’s ambassador to Mozambique declared to a local business magazine:  “China and the African countries have had similar experiences of being economically controlled and of being treated unfairly [by the West]”.

In Mozambique, like in other parts of Africa, these new players – China most prominently – are similarly criticized on three fronts: (i) for unfairly exchanging infrastructure projects for generous concession deals on natural resources,  (ii) for the poor quality of works and the proliferation of ‘white elephants’, and (iii) for keeping a blind eye on human rights and governance issues. Yet, the greater importance of alternative players in Mozambique’s political economy, while not near to end the country’s aid dependency, has contributed towards a diversification of Mozambican foreign policy options away from over-reliance on the West. As recalled by a researcher, more diversity has empowered the country in its foreign and economic relations: through greater choice, there is now more bargaining power to negotiate agreements on better terms.

Maputo-Katembe bridge under construction. Photo: Eric Cezne/ May 2018

Maputo-Katembe bridge under construction. Photo: Eric Cezne/ May 2018

An economic and development breakthrough?

While my fieldwork impressions suggest at a first glance that a ‘new’ , ‘better’ and ‘empowered’  Mozambique has emerged, numerous conversations I had with chopela (tuk-tuk) drivers, shop owners, students and activists underscored that not everything was going right: Mozambique remains one of the poorest countries in the world, they would often tell me.  Cautious about Mozambique’s fairy tale narratives, these interlocutors would often point at a range of intertwining bottlenecks during the last years, especially: the highly concentrated (and corrupt) political system, the unrealistic assessments and broken promises connected to the country’s resource windfall, and the country’s deteriorating security situation.

To start, Mozambique has been ruled by a single party since its independence from Portugal in 1975. The FRELIMO ‘party-state’, how it is often described by scholars, is dominant at all levels of power: it controls the presidency, local governance apparatuses, public institutions, investments, aid flows, and has parliamentary majority. The overall weakness and erosion of checks and balances allows FRELIMO to govern almost unchallenged and, as a result, corruption emerges as a defining feature of governance and of the businesses environment in Mozambique. The advance of more players coupled with more financing opportunities and investments have similarly led to debt scandals, and have set the stage for more and ‘improved’ kickback and embezzlement schemes. Corruption is, of course, prevalent across all political systems and, to make justice, ameliorating efforts have been put in place in Mozambique. Yet, when travelling through the country, the consequences of corruption were visible to me at all levels of society: through the poor quality of most public services, when passing through security and customs at an airport, or when requesting access to fieldwork sites.

The prospect of enormous gain from the extractive projects has also frustrated many. From a macro-economic perspective, the possibility of resource and revenue mismanagement, the downfall of commodity prices, and the often prohibitive technological and financing requirements mean that extraction has not yet taken off in several places. For the average Mozambicans, the export of commodities has led to limited positive impact in poverty levels and job creation – most of which of a temporary nature.  And not least, the maximization of corporate transfer of surplus abroad through fiscal benefits, the absence of capital control mechanisms, and elite capture of the little surplus that remains in the country has contributed to reinforce, rather than to challenge, Mozambique’s economic and social vulnerability. An already far too common story when it comes to extractive dynamics across the Global South.

And finally, an ongoing fear relates to the possibility of the return of a full-blown armed conflict between the government and RENAMO, formerly the rebel party during the civil war and nowadays a major opposition force. In light of Mozambique’s concentration of power and ‘winner-takes-all’ politics,  there has been an outbreak of violence and a series of clashes between RENAMO and government forces  as of 2013. Promises to decentralize and to increase RENAMO’s access to the ‘spoils of power’ has led to a declaration of ceasefire in the end of 2016. Although the ceasefire has held until nowadays, imminent instability is just ‘around the corner’. And to make things worse, in the past few months emerging Islamist militant groups – with alleged links to Somali Al-Shabaab  –  raided several villages in gas-rich northern Mozambique, causing panic among residents and apprehension for the newly established energy companies.  Mozambique’s worsening security situation is especially tangible during times of recession and authoritarianism – as political standoffs and grievances tend to dangerously break into violence .

Is optimism overblown?

While I have met a different  country, a Mozambique that has changed and accomplished positive things in recent years , travelling across the country and talking to Mozambicans have contributed to temper my initial optimism. Even at times when things are seemingly going smoothly on the surface, instability, insecurity and vulnerability may yet flare up in a country in which the rewards of development have been unequally distributed and have failed to resonate with the needs of the majority of its people. Yet, as a hopeful and optimistic Mozambican mining worker told me: “We are aware that there are a set of variables that would require decades till we have a concrete transformation, but I hope the conditions for my children in this country will be better”.


Eric Cezne is a PhD candidate at the International Relations & International Organization department of the University of Groningen. In his PhD, he looks at modalities of South–South cooperation and investments through large-scale infrastructure arrangements  in and around extractive and transport settings in northern Mozambique. Parallel to his PhD research, Eric coordinates the work package 'Brazil in Mozambique' of the ERC-funded 'Infrastructure Globalities: Rethinking the Political Geographies of Economic Hubs from the Global South' (INFRAGLOB), held by Dr. Jana Hönke at the University of Groningen.

INFRAGLOB/CIRR-IRSS Lecture: "Decolonising International Relations: African Visions of World Order"

Last Wednesday April 18th, INFRAGLOB and the Centre for International Relations Research hosted a lecture by Professor Rita Abrahamsen on African Visions of World Order.

In her talk, Rita Abrahamsen showed that as we fret about challenges to the current world order, we need to recognize the contributions of Africa and Pan-Africanism to the emergence of the liberal world order. That is; world order is/was also made by Southern/African actors, not just the hegemons. She will then argue that, somewhat counter-intuitively, Africa’s opposition to the International Criminal Court (ICC) can be seen as a continuation of the struggle for a more just, equitable world order rather than resistance to liberal multilateralism. At the same time, this opposition reveals longstanding tensions within Pan-Africanism, and its sovereignist and nativist expressions are in the current political climate potentially detrimental to the struggle for a more equal and democratic world order.

Speaker: Rita Abrahamsen, Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and Director of the Centre for International Policy Studies (CIPS), University of Ottawa.

Rita Abrahamsen

First INFRAGLOB event: Spaces of Conflict, Security and Development

Workshop with John Heathershaw and the Centre of Advanced Studies of International Studies (CAIS), Exeter, 7 March 2018

Due to strike action we will relocate to an off-campus location. All panels will be held at Pinhoe Road Baptist Church, Pinhoe Road (more details here).

The workshop considers emerging global political practice in areas of conflict, security and development from a spatial perspective, both theoretically and empirically. Here is the programme:

Panel 1: Peacebuilding, territory and space, 12.00-1.30pm

Klejda Mulaj (Exeter): Reading International-led State Building: Wicked Problems, Eurocentrism, and Mimicry

Florian P. Kühn (Humboldt): Ambiguity and Peace - understanding conflict dynamics through poly-valence analysis

CHAIR: John Heathershaw (Exeter)

Lunch / coffee break 1.30-2.30pm

Panel 2: Emerging powers, economic development and new global spaces, 2.30-4.00pm

Jana Hönke (Groningen): Africa's ‘Infrastructure Globalities’: Rethinking the Political Geographies of Economic Hubs from the Global South

John Heathershaw & Catherine Owen (Exeter): Centred Discourse, Decentred Practice: The Everyday Production of 'Rising' Power in Central Asia

Oliver Hayakawa (Exeter): Globalization from below: some field notes from Chinese investment in the Palestinian occupied territories

CHAIR: Michael Pugh (Bradford)

Break 4.00-4.15pm

Wrap-Up 4.15-5.00pm

Discussion of future collaboration including on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, through the INFRAGLOB project and via the proposed Bristol UP book series Spaces of Conflict, Security and Development.

Mobilizing security and logistics through African ports


A new article published in Mobilities looks at ports as a key part of the logistical infrastructure of the global economy. It argues that both recent security and mobilities literatures are placing too much emphasis on supposedly all-encompassing global technologies to govern them. It uses a controversies approach to develop a greater sensitivity to the diversity in the global makings of mobility and security. By looking at the port of Dar es Salaam, it reveals how controversies result from variegated understandings of situated political economies and offer a unique window to reveal more diverse and contested landscapes than is suggested by the literature. Three controversies are analysed: 1) cargo security; 2) delays in dwell time; and 3) enhancing Dar port versus building a new port in Bagamoyo.

Reference: Jana Hönke & Ivan Cuesta-Fernandez (2018) Mobilising security and logistics through an African port: A controversies approach to infrastructure, Mobilities, 13:2, 246-260, DOI: 10.1080/17450101.2017.1417774

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.