R. Harshe: Africa in World Affairs

Africa in World Affairs. Politics of Imperialism, the Cold War and Globalisation

Harshé, Rajen
London 2019: Routledge
256 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Lynn Schler, Department of Politics and Government, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Over the course of his long career, Rajen Harshé taught African history and politics to Indian students at several different institutions. He has been encouraged by the deep interest that his students displayed for learning about Africa, but also frustrated that there was a lack of texts available to him that provided a non-Western perspective on the processes of colonialism, decolonization, nation-building and globalization across the continent. His book, Africa in World Affairs: Politics of Imperialism, the Cold War and Globalisation, aims to construct a narrative of African history and politics across the twentieth century until the present that de-centers western biases and paradigms. Writing from what he describes as an Indian viewpoint, Harshé seeks to provide his students with a textbook that offers both a broad overview of Africa’s transition from colonialism to postcolonialism, Cold War influences on policies and processes, and the current state of relations with world powers including the USA, China, Russia and India. The work pivots between descriptions of broad processes and trends, and in-depth focuses on particular case studies. Harshé focuses on how leaders constructed international relations against the backdrop of ongoing hegemonic interventions from independence, through the Cold War, and into the current era of globalization and competition for dominance between the USA and China. Throughout the work, Harshé gives life to the various agendas and struggles that African leaders have faced in trying to establish their autonomy in the international scene, while constrained by weak institutions and a lack of resources.

The book includes an Introduction, seven chapters and a Conclusion. Chapter 1 provides the background for understanding the postcolonial era by reviewing the history of colonialism and decolonization in Africa. At the very start of the chapter, we see how Harshé’s “Indian” perspective plays a role in shaping the narrative. The chapter begins with a strong rejection of the stereotypes and biases that have constructed discourses and depictions of Africa and Africans in western histories and cultures. Harshé debunks myths of racial hierarchies that propelled European conquest of the continent and the “psycho-cultural violence that subjugated and enslaved the minds of the colonial subjects.” The chapter then reviews colonialism as an authoritarian and exploitive conquest of local societies that engendered various forms of resistance. Harshé describes the anti-colonial resistance and nationalist awakening that was led by western elites across the continent, and provides a detailed yet critical review of the intellectual leadership of the era, including Nkrumah, Nyerere, Fanon and Cabral. Chapter 2 provides a broad overview of Pan-Africanism, as an ideological and political movement. Harshé reviews leading thinkers and politicians and the milestones shaping Pan-Africanism across the twentieth century. Here too, Harshé’s unique perspective provides a fresh vantage point for viewing this immensely complex set of political and ideological movements. Thus, he claims that “all black peoples in any part of the world experience some form of racism at some point in their lives,” and “every other human being who suffers the onslaught of racism can identify with black peoples.” This chapters slips into some overly-romanticized appraisals of African cultures of peace and tolerance, in an effort to correct what he calls the “under-theorization” of non-white races in IR theory.

Chapter 3 and 4 each focus on processes of decolonization. Chapter 3 reviews the long struggle of South Africans against colonialism and apartheid. Chapter 4 focuses on relations between France and Africa, framed in the context of neo-colonialism. Harshé claims that the history of ties between France and Africa in the post-independence era provides an opportunity for discussing the significance and nature of decolonization in Africa. As France conceptualized its colonies as the continuation of the French nation oversees, the process of decolonization required the French to reimagine its relationship with its colonial subjects. According to Harshé, France’s continued influence in African economies and militaries reflects the limits of disengagement that actually took place with the start of independence. This chapter focuses on the cases studies of relations between France and Djibouti and Rwanda in order to provide a more focused examination of neo-colonial relations.

Chapters 5, 6 and 7 each focus on relations between Africa and the global powers of the USA, China and India. Chapter 5 looks at United States interventions in Africa, from the Cold War to the present. This chapter aims to “recast the notion of Empire,” by examining how the current trend of globalization should be seen as the latest stage in the history of imperialism, with the United States continually pressed to protect and promote its interests in Africa. Chapter 6 examines what is perhaps the most significant new development in Africa’s international relations since independence, and that is the growing presence and influence of China throughout the continent. The chapter provides a thorough overview of the major developments in Chinese history leading to the growing interest in Africa, and a broad description of the various aspects of current relations, including China’s economic, political and strategic agendas. This chapter concludes with a critique of China’s growing dominance over Africa, but refrains from using the term “neocolonialism to describe it.” Nonetheless, Harshé argues that China’s influence in Africa has been intrinsically asymmetrical, and he suggests that India can offer the continent more equitable relations. Chapter 7 thus examines relations between India and Africa, beginning with a brief review of the history of relations in the context of the Cold War, before launching into a description of “commonalities of interests.” This chapter more than any other of the book reflects the unique vantage point of an Indian perspective in the study of African international relations. While the chapter provides a fascinating overview of this under-studied history, there are points where one can identify a tendency to over-romanticize the depth and significance of the alliance between India and various African countries and interests. For example, Harshé claims that the “co-suffering” under European colonialism as a major binding force between India and Africa states – a claim that seems a bit overstated. Nonetheless, Harshé provides a vital correction to current histories of postcolonial interventions in Africa by describing in detail Indian involvement in events and movements that have been largely overlooked by western historians, including ties for cooperation in trade, security and development.

It is clear that Harshé’s work will be a great resource for his students looking for an introductory text on African international relations from the end of the colonial to the present. Adopting a broad scope, the book necessarily sacrifices detailed analysis in order to provide an overview of broader trends. At times, the broad approach towards “Africa” leads to overgeneralizations and simplifications that a narrower focus would have provided. Moreover, as seen above, the work at times ventures towards overly romanticized depictions, but these are largely limited to descriptions of ideological standpoints. In addition, the decision to adopt a country-based approach to examining relations between African states and international powers also has its drawbacks. The role and significance of international organizations and institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations get very little attention in this book, which seems at times a significant oversight for a book focused on African international relations. Another chapter focusing on the role of international institutions in shaping African international relations in the era of globalization would have corrected this. Nonetheless, Harshé’s work provides a fresh and underexplored perspective on African international relations, and it is written in a very accessible and clear fashion. It is thus easy to recommend this book to students interested in learning more about Africa’s many different journeys from colonialism, to independence and beyond.

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