Book Review: The Handbook of Civil Society in Africa

The ‘Handbook of Civil Society in Africa’ is a timely contribution to the discussion on civil society on the continent. It presents a unique conceptualization of civil society within contemporary Africa. The aim of the book as noted by Obadare is to reflect on the diversity of African discourses on civil society and map the contours of thematic and regional analyses. The volume pays attention to the evolution of civil society in Africa and its applications across a variety of contexts and historical moments. Obadare notes that much of the angle of civil society analysis trends to be national as opposed to continental, with cross-national studies and comparisons remaining few. The chapters (with the exception of seven chapters in section two: Regional Perspectives) are said take the entire continent as their primary unit of analysis. The editor highlights that the civil society field has been largely dominated by non-government organisations (NGOs), community-based organisations (CSOs) and sundry formal organizations. In this volume there is a deliberate attempt to expand the range of issues and problems typically analysed using the language of civil society. The volume uniquely does this by incorporating contributions from a diversity of scholars (although not all writers come from African backgrounds but work extensively on Africa civil society issues). A distinct contribution of the book is that it moves away from the commonly understood conceptions of civil society within the Europe-American context to present civil society and its diversity within the African context.

Notwithstanding pertinent contributions on African civil society (and taking into account the volumes dedication to the core principle of difference and variety) it nevertheless would have been useful to have had some sort of analytical integration or confluence across most of the volume to map the more or less common elements that emerge amongst the diversity of texts themselves. The reader is simply left to make sense of what is presented. However, a unique contribution arising within the volume (besides the commonly understood notion of Western civil society acting against authoritarian regimes) is the self-reflection surrounding the limitations of African civil society itself for advancing democracy in Africa – from transparency and accountability of CSOs in Ghana, to co-option by CSOs into government in Uganda, divisions between secular and Islamic actors during the Arab spring, the cautiousness about over-romanticizing the positive contributions of African civil society, conflicts within Zimbabwean civil society and urban civics, civil society and conflict in West Africa, and CSO deficiencies in responding to HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa to name a few. Thus, the volume does a great job in describing the ‘forms and features of actually existing civil society’ on the continent. Excluding section two on regional perspectives, not all contributions are continental or cross national in focus such as for popular organisations in South Africa. Although there are key contributions to civil society emerging from the non-formal civil society level such as from civil societies in Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria; religious groupings across Africa; CSOs and the state in East Africa; unorganized civil society in Southern Africa, and sexual struggles in Africa amongst others, literature is at times dominated by organized civil society such as NGOs in Africa – surrounding well-known themes such as NGO accountability or NGOs in partnership for development. Despite some of these minor points, the book is fairly well organised and rich in its contribution towards understanding African civil society. It will no doubt be a valuable resource to academics, students, think-tank organisations and anyone wanting to understand contemporary debates on African civil society.

(2015) The Journal of Modern African Studies, 53, pp 131-132. doi:10.1017/S0022278X15000051

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