I came to African Politics in an unconventional manner. In the early 1990s I backpacked around Africa for sixteen months. I was most affected by my experiences in Zaire, where I spent three months in the interior and witnessed some of the effects of a failed State. I saw highways that had decayed into mud traps, banks with no currency, and an economy so decimated that urban workers were forced to ‘return’ to the bush to grow crops to sell in Kinshasa with no knowledge of how to live do so. I found myself asking: How could a State just crumble away? I wanted to understand how to place what I had seen: what was ‘African,’ what was ‘colonial heritage,’ and what was ‘neo-imperialism.’ When I began graduate studies at the University of Chicago, I found myself drawn to all courses on Africa – an interest that has stayed with me ever since.
More generally, my approach to research has been shaped by a diverse set of experiences. My exposure to different disciplines (with my undergraduate studies in philosophy and my interdisciplinary Masters studies) and extensive travels solidified my conviction that the evolution of political systems must be understood in terms of the cultural and institutional contexts in which they develop. However, as my knowledge of African politics evolved, I came to see that institutional analyses were not effectively accounting for different political outcomes in the region. I have since tried to develop an approach that draws upon both historical institutionalism as well as analyses of leadership and agency.
With all of these influences, my research interests cross a number of areas, including political institutions, political leadership, comparative political economy, nationalism and ethnic conflict, military institutionalization, decentralization, and state building.