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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.

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.

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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