The nation outside the state: transnational diasporas in the African state system

Project description

The purpose of this project was to explore the politics of four African diasporas – Angola, Eritrea, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe – during the Cold War and the contemporary era. We wanted to understand how complex transnational political networks of organisations and actors form within these diasporas, and their role in shaping the African state system through their influence on both domestic politics and inter-state politics. Drawing on existing work in political theory, comparative politics, and international relations, the project examined the mobilisation of political exile groups. It explored how such groups contest the state from without, and in so doing become central to shaping the politics and international relations of Africa throughout the colonial, Cold War, and post-Cold War periods.

The project examined the role of exile as an independent variable in a range of important questions in the Comparative Politics and International Relations literature on Africa. In so doing it explored ways in which the African state system can be reconceptualised to take into account the role that transnational identity groups – and their interaction with states and the state system – have historically played in African politics, both while in exile and upon their return. The project had important implications for reconceiving conventional assumptions about the applicability of the Westphalian state system to understand African politics, highlighting the range of contexts in which the most relevant politics for African states has often taken place outside the territory of those states. It thereby potentially engaged in re-theorising the main referent unit of study in International Relations as ‘the nation’ in ways that may be distinct from ‘the state’.

The project addressed two core gaps. First, it explained the mobilisation of exiled political groups as a process of contestation within the exiled community. Second, it explained the impact of those groups on the incumbent regime as a process of contestation between those mobilised exiled groups and the homeland state. The only appropriate methodology for examining micro-processes was in-depth qualitative research. With that in mind, the project explored eight episodes of exile in the recent history of four nations:

  • Rwanda (1959-1994 and post-1994);
  • Zimbabwe (1964-1980 and post-1997);
  • Angola (1961-1975 and 1975-2002); and
  • Eritrea (1952-1991 and post-1991).

Photograph: Will Jones

Project lead

Alexander Betts, Oxford Department of International Development

Other researcher

Will Jones, Refugee Studies Centre

Project-related outputs

> Journal articles
> Working papers
> Conferences and workshops