International Relations dialogue and Sub-Saharan Africa: why the silence?

Emmeline Carr


Education. Photo Source: Javier Corbo via Flickr Creative Commons.

A search on Google Scholar using the search term ‘Middle East’ returns 3.5 million results; ‘North Africa’ 2.9 million; ‘Europe’ 4.7 million. In contrast, a search for ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ returns just 660,000, posing an important question for international relations scholars: why is there such a stark contrast between research focused on Sub-Saharan Africa, as opposed to research focused on other regions? What are the possible reasons for this discrepancy, and how can we overcome it?

Sub-Saharan Africa (UN definition) - Jcherlet via Wikimedia Commons

Sub-Saharan Africa (UN definition). Photo Source: Jcherlet via Wikimedia Commons.

Sub-Saharan Africa is perhaps the most nuanced and unique region in the world, as well as the least studied. The region accounts for the fastest population growth in the world, is home to some of the most sought after resources on the planet, and is the birthplace innumerable political controversies. Layers of cultural, religious, political and ethnic intricacies provide endless options for academic study; yet often Sub-Saharan Africa is treated as an afterthought, especially in relation to it’s volatile regional neighbor, MENA (Middle East and North Africa).

International Relations (IR) scholars are often criticized for their tendency to over-simplify issues in order to understand and theorize them. Most prominently, this critique is applied to the ‘security dilemma’ model, or to notions of a single common Islamic identity in post-9/11 writing. If we take a closer look at the focus of study, however, Sub-Saharan Africa is one piece of the puzzle that is regularly ignored, generalized, or handed over to the development sector without further thought. Arguably, one of the very few significant research attempts on Sub-Saharan Africa – aid relationships and subsequent effects – has only occurred because of a broader focus on China’s role in the world. This article seeks to provide a starting point for a more comprehensive research program and highlight a major blind spot in the discipline.

Why the silence? 

(a)       African IR would require an overhaul

A prominent argument in the debate over Sub-Saharan Africa and IR is that the traditional concepts and models are Western-centric and are therefore not applicable to the region. For example, Christopher Clapham argues that the state is not an appropriate starting point for the study of African IR because colonialism prevented naturally forming nations as in the case of Europe. As an alternative, Clapham suggests that African IR should be studied from the bottom-up, creating new vehicles for theory that are more contextual. Nevertheless, regardless of which side of the debate you stand, it still remains important that Sub-Saharan Africa is studied. For some scholars, this will mean new concepts; for others, it will mean an extension of existing ones. Focused debate over this issue holds the potential to be as fruitful and productive as other historical IR debates: it just needs a beginning.

(b)       Extent of cultural separation

The significant cultural and historic differences between Sub-Saharan Africa and other regions have lead to a lack of understanding with regard to the founding principles and values of African society. Without a proper understanding of these values, one cannot hope to build an accurate theory. However, the perceived vastness of cultural separation contributes to generalizations in theory. For example, Hegel stated that Africa is isolated from the world because of “primitiveness” and insularity [Bayart, p. 267]. In reality, Sub-Saharan African has been continually involved in the exchange of ideas with the rest of the world for centuries – from religious practices to technological innovation.

Globalization and increasing interconnectedness is changing this by slowly chipping away at incorrect perceptions of Sub-Saharan Africa, proving that “Africa is no longer the ‘distant abroad’ or the significant ‘other that it then was’ (in the 1990s/early 2000s) [Bach, p. 22]. Cultural separation is no longer a valid excuse for generalizations or misinformed stereotypes – and IR scholars are one of the many who have a responsibility (and the power) to change the way Africa is understood.

(c)       Timing of the debate

An alternative view is that African voices got left out because of the natural formation of the discipline. IR developed in the United States while Africa was at the height of colonial rule; the threat of Cold War nuclear attacks overshadowing the struggle for independence. While American scholarship remained almost singularly focused on realist power politics, the sense of European ‘ownership’ of the African continent closed down any spaces where debate could have occurred. As a result, an entire generation of African scholarship was buried, if not entirely crushed, under the weight of Western priorities. Just as Africa found the strength to defeat colonialism, it is vitally important for scholars to bridge the IR-Africa divide, such that the study of international relations is no longer perceived as a Western-centric, “hegemonic and exclusionary project” [Harman and Brown, p. 69].

(d)       African IR has not been afforded the opportunity to make a valuable contribution

Most importantly, African voices have enormous potential to initiate, contribute and shape this new debate. As Nkiwane argues, it is not that African scholars have little to contribute, but instead that “power dynamics within the discipline affect what is studied and why” [Nkiwane, p. 280]. Historically, Africa is treated as an example, not as a place for theory building. As Death writes:

“IR as a discipline tends to be characterized by higher levels of theoretical abstraction…there is a sense among IR scholars that there is an assumed division of labor in which places like Africa are seen as ‘the field’, a source of primary ‘data’, whilst the added value of theory building is done elsewhere” [Death, p. 1] 

Similarly, when academics do study Sub-Saharan African, there is a tendency to look at what is going wrong as opposed to what is going right. Innovation, peace-building efforts, and the implementation of democracy get lost in the media noise surrounding al-Shabaab, Ebola and the Pistorious murder trial. Full engagement in African IR, especially by the academic community in Sub-Saharan Africa has the potential to highlight lessons of both success and failure, and apply them to the present and the future.


This article has sought to explore potential reasons why International Relations scholars remain almost silent on matters of Sub-Saharan Africa. Perhaps intricacies make study too complex, or perhaps the foundations of Sub-Saharan African society run too deep for Western scholars to fully comprehend. Regardless of the reasoning, the study of the region is not just important; it is essential for the next generation of academics.

Examining Sub-Saharan Africa’s place in the global network is an essential part of IR dialogue because Africa is constantly changing – and its importance is certainly not diminishing. The rise of Sub-Saharan Africa in economic importance clearly demonstrates that “depictions of Africa as an anti-developmental and dispensable continent no longer hold” [Bach, p. 22]. IR affects individuals, nations and regions very differently, so the present silence on Sub-Saharan Africa is damaging the credibility of the field: how can we claim to be truly international when we are almost silent on an entire region? IR as a discipline needs to face the uncomfortable truth that African voices, experiences and lessons have been largely excluded from the debate. By acknowledging our weaknesses and subjectivities, IR can only be strengthened.

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