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Playing with rules in authoritarian situations - Perspectives from Cameroon and Ethiopia

Call for contributions for the issue 35 (2018-2)
Deadline for submission of proposals: 15 December 2017

Consulter cet appel à contributions en français

Coordinators of this issue: Marie Morelle ( and Sabine Planel (

A situated perspective of the authoritarian situation

This special issue intends to gather case studies whose approach of authoritarianism has adopted the political analytical shift ‘from below’ initiated by J.F. Bayart (1984). It aims at breaking with political classifications that seek to detail the nature of political regimes (Linz 2000), even though they could be characterized by hybridism or reveal similarities with more democratic situations (Dabène, Geisser, Massardier, 2008). This issue favors analyses of localised and concrete practices, at the grassroots of political systems (Rowell, 2006). Following works mainly developed in the field of political science, we adopt a perspective on the authoritarian situation that enlightens its historicity and capacity to evolve within specific contexts; its ways of renewing or reinventing itself (Benin, Vairel, 2011); the individual practices, rationalities or perceptions embedded within political patterns (Hilgers, Mazzocchetti, 2010; Hibou, 2011).

Such approaches aim to restore the materiality of the authoritarian systems and advocate for a closer analysis of the elements of context that feed into state domination, such as: the adjustment of elites, especially during political transitions; the seizure of power and control over resources; the coalitions of private and public stakeholders; the patronage system or corruption, and so on. All these elements play a significant part in authoritarian machineries. Since this issue intends to focus on the materiality of authoritarianism, it also considers a rarely examined dimension: its relations to space (Planel, 2015). In this issue we expect to gather insights from various social sciences, and we privilege contributions integrating situated approaches of authoritarian practices and strategies that may avoid, bypass or accept the authoritarian exercise of power.

Norms and rules in authoritarian situations

As we consider authoritarianism as an exercise of State domination, we intend to focus on state institutions without renouncing to a more relational conception of power. As developed by Fassin et al. (2013: 14) for example, we examine the state as « a materialized and situated reality, that is both embodied by individuals and inscribed into times », and into a space produced by a state and assimilated by a range of stakeholders.

One of the main task of this issue is to detail the practices of State domination. We then aim at gathering analyses of various case studies where resistance and consent, laissez-faire and manipulation, approval and coping constantly interfere and blur the political intent of social, political or institutional stakeholders. Furthermore, this issue aims at considering the normative rules of the authoritarian machinery, be they voiced or silent. In order to shed light on this range of State domination practices, we favor ground-based papers mainly exploiting ethnographic fieldwork material.

Within authoritarian realities, it is also of great importance to consider the legislative framework. Do groups or individuals, whether they exercise or bear domination, possess room for manœuvre regarding the law? How to consider regimes of exemption that frequently go with authoritarian realities? What are the main characteristics of daily encounters between citizens and public agents? Where do they occur? Do they occur in border areas, popular districts or working places? The issue then addresses the question of to what extent and for whom the law can be infringed and negotiated at the same time (Morelle, Jacquot et al., 2016). During these potential compromises, do stakeholders mobilize, implicitly or not, social or ethics norms to defy the law? In the end, a careful consideration of the state situation (Bierschenk, Olivier de Sardan, 2014) proves necessary to understand authoritarian realities, on the condition that state forms of domination (Hibou, 1999a) and categories of action remain opened.

Settings of power from Cameroon and Ethiopia

In order to take into careful consideration the materiality of authoritarianism, this issue aims at collecting in-depth analyses of authoritarian situations. A regional perspective that would multiply case studies does not fit with our goals. On the contrary, we invite authors to observe case studies and their historical contexts, in close link to each of their analytical tradition. Nevertheless, the issue does not restrict its scope to one single national context, as it is frequently done, and intends to think beyond the structural impact of specific state building processes. It rather invites to cross-read Cameroonian and Ethiopian cases.

Literature describes the institutionalization of Ethiopian powers as very important, in stark contrast to the nature of Cameroonian state, which is defined as neo-patrimonialist and clientelistic. Their difference is constantly debated amongst political scientists (Bayart, 1985; Médard, 1990). We consider that the relationship to state domination changes and that domination itself evolves. In Ethiopia, the interface between state and society gets blurred – as it is obviously witnessed by recent popular mobilizations. Depending on local contexts, this relationship produces different impacts. On the one side, state domination strengthens (Abbink and Hagman, 2013), whereas on the other resisting strategies silently burgeon (Di Nunzio, 2014). In Cameroon, the direction is uncertain and fluctuates between hegemony and coercion (Bayart, 2008). In our point of view, the strengh ot the state then relies in its ability to be absent, to favor hidden discourses, not to legiferate even though sometimes it can efficently forbide and punish through “judicial tricks” (Nkot, 2005). The repressive system that is expanding in the northern and English-speaking areas of Cameroon seems to confirm this idea. In Ethiopia, the state asserts developmentalist policies (Dessalegn Rahmato et al., 2014) a model where economic agenda remains entirely designed by state power, whereas for Cameroon academics have developed the “theory of discharge” (Hibou, 1999b ; Mbembe, 1996). In other words, Cameroonian regime seems to maintain « an organized chaos », when Ethiopia appears as a situation of order.

This issue however, does not intend to compare Ethiopia and Cameroon as such, searching similarities or difference between the two political regimes. Grounded in fieldworks conducted in one of the two countries, analyses that will contribute to the issue will study territorialized processes (Jacquot, 2007) that frame authoritarian situations. The core of this issue is neither Ethiopia nor Cameroon, but it will rather concentrate on some specific settings of power at the basis of authoritarian contexts.


Papers should focus on some of the following themes, per se or in relation to one another:

  • Spatialised apparatus of control over populations and/or resources (enclosure of public spaces, land reforms, natural parks, detention camps or prisons, etc.);

  • Convergences and alliances between economical and political stakeholders that lead to economical, social and political rentier status;

  • Malleability and hybridism of norms (legal, professional, bureaucratic) that inform daily life of public institutions;

  • Mobilizations and hidden forms of resistance

We invite each author to pay attention to the social as well as the political dimensions of their case studies, but also to consider the control, access and uses of various spaces, especially at infra-national scales.


Proposal of papers must be sent to Marie Morelle ( and Sabine Planel ( for 15 December 2017 at the latest.

  • Reception of final papers: May 2018,

  • Online publication: June 2018


ABBINK Jon, HAGMANN Tobias (dir.). 2013, Reconfiguring Ethiopia: the politics of authoritarian reform, Routledge, London

BAYART Jean-François, 1984, « Le politique par le bas en situation autoritaire », Esprit, juin 1984, pp.142-154

BAYART Jean-François. 1985, L’Etat au Cameroun. Paris, Presses de la Fondation nationale des Sciences politiques. Paris.

BAYART Jean-François. 2008, « Hégémonie et coercition en Afrique subsaharienne. La “politique de la chicotte”. » Politique africaine 2 (110): 123‑52.

BAYART Jean-François. 2008, « Le concept de situation thermidorienne: régimes néo-révolutionnaires et libéralisation économique », Questions de recherche, n°24, CERI Sciences Po, Paris.

BAYART Jean-François, MBEMBE Achille, et TOULABOR Comi, 1992, Le politique par le bas en Afrique noire. Contributions à une problématique de la démocratie. Karthala. Paris.

BEININ Joel, VAIREL Frederic 2011, Social movements, mobilization and contestation in the Middle-East and North Africa, Stanford University Press, Stanford.

DESSALEGN Rahmato et al., Reflections on Development in Ethiopia. New Trends, Sustainability and Challenges. Forum for Social Studies. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. Addis-Abeba.

DABÈNE Olivier, GEISSER Vincent, MASSARDIER Gilles (dir.), 2008, Autoritarismes démocratiques et démocraties autoritaires au XXIe siècle, La Découverte, Paris.

DI NUNZIO Marco, 2014, “Do not cross the red line. The 2010 general elections, dissent and political mobilization in urban Ethiopia, African Affairs, 113 (452): 409-430

DOBRY Michel, 2005, « « Penser=classer ? » Entretien avec André Loez, Gérard Noiriel & Philippe Olivera », Genèses, n°59, pp. 151-165.

FASSIN Didier, BOUAGGA Yasmine, COUTANT Isabelle, EIDELIMAN Jean-Sébastien, FERNANDEZ Fabrice, FISCHER Nicolas, KOBELINSKY Carolina, MAKAREMI Chowra, MAZOUZ Sarah, ROUX Sébastien, 2013, Juger, réprimer, accompagner. Essai sur la morale de l’Etat. Seuil. Paris.

HIBOU Béatrice, 1999a, « De la privatisation des économies à la privatisation des États. Une analyse de la formation continue de l’État », in Hibou, B. La privatisation des États, sous la direction de Béatrice Hibou, Paris, Karthala, p. 11-67.

HIBOU Béatrice, 1999b, « La “décharge”, nouvel interventionnisme ». Politique africaine, 73: 6-15.

HIBOU Béatrice, 2011, Anatomie politique de la domination. La Découverte. Paris.

HILGERS M., MAZZOCCHETTI J., 2010, Révoltes et oppositions en contexte semi-autoritaire : le cas du Burkina Faso, Karthala, Paris.

JACQUOT Sébastien, 2007, Enjeux publics et privés du réinvestissement des espaces historiques centraux. Une étude comparée de Gênes, Valparaiso et Liverpool, thèse de doctorat, université d’Angers.

LINZ Juan José, 2000, Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder.

MBEMBE Achille, 1996, « La “chose” et ses doubles dans la caricature camerounaise ». Cahiers d’études africaines 36 (141-142): 143‑70.

MÉDARD Jean-François, 1990, « L’Etat patrimonialisé ». Politique africaine, 39: 25‑36.

MORELLE Marie, JACQUOT Sébastien, TADIÉ Jérôme, BAUTÈS Nicolas, BÉNIT-GBAFFOU Claire, MACCAGLIA Fabrizio, RIVELOIS Jean, SIERRA Alexis, 2016, « L’informalité politique en ville. 8 chercheurs et 9 villes face aux modes de gouvernement urbain », L’Espace Politique [En ligne], 29 | 2016-2, mis en ligne le 29 août 2016, consulté le 06 septembre 2016. URL :

NKOT Pierre Fabien, 2005, « Usages politiques du droit en Afrique. Le cas du Cameroun ». Bruylant. Bruxelles.

OLIVIER DE SARDAN, Jean-Pierre., Bierschenk Thomas (ed), 2014, States at Work. Dynamics of African Bureaucracies. Brill. Leiden.

PLANEL Sabine, 2015, “Espaces autoritaires, espaces (in)justes ?” Introduction au numéro thématique, Justice Spatiale/Spatial Justice, n°8,

PLANEL Sabine, 2015, “Authoritarian Spaces, (un)just spaces ? ?” Introduction au numéro thématique, Justice Spatiale/Spatial Justice, n°8,

ROWELL Jay, 2006, Le totalitarisme au concret : Le logement en RDA 1945-1989, Paris, Economica, coll. Etudes politiques, 336 p.

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