The Anthropology Department's Amanda Poole co-organized and chaired a roundtable titled “The Fragility of the Strong and the Resilience of the Weak: Lessons On the Nature of the State from A Closer Examination of the Horn of Africa” at the 58th annual meeting of the African Studies Association, held in San Diego November 19–22, 2015.
The roundtable featured seven scholars from varied disciplines whose work addresses state society relations in the Horn of Africa. Poole organized the session with Jennifer Riggan, a political and educational anthropologist at Arcadia University.
The Horn of Africa defies conventional theories of governance and the nation-state. This region includes the newest and the oldest states in Africa, one of the most infamous dictatorships and its most renowned stateless society. Shared across these states are elements of authoritarianism and elements of informality that seem to undermine state institutions. What can this varied, dramatic and volatile region tell us about the state in Africa?
This interdisciplinary roundtable proposed that an examination of the state in the Horn of Africa illuminates the paradoxes of the state in Africa overall. Lacking popular legitimacy and populations that imagine their state as benevolent or competent, states with the institutional strength to do so often turn to coercion and violence in order to produce and promote state power. State violence, however, further delegitimizes the state, necessitating further coercion. Meanwhile, as the state recedes, informal, extra-state entities arise to play the role of the state and provide social services and security for their populations. These informal entities may be seen as more legitimate than the state, but they too often turn to violence and fail to mobilize varied publics around a shared political project.
The roundtable explored how what might appear to be strong state institutions actually produce vulnerabilities for the state as tendencies towards coercion lead to illegitimacy and fragility. Roundtable participants explored how informal processes arise to compensate for these weaknesses. The state in the Horn of Africa illuminates how control and disorder, formality and informality mutually produce each other and constitute the state. By exploring these phenomenon historically and ethnographically the roundtable explored new theoretical possibilities for understanding the state in Africa and the changing contours of political legitimacy.
Department of Anthropology