Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2019-2020 (archived)

Module HIST45230: Elections in Africa: a cultural and political history, c. 1950-2016

Department: History

HIST45230: Elections in Africa: a cultural and political history, c. 1950-2016

Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Available in 2019/20 Module Cap None.


  • None


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • To develop students’ interpretative skills and analytical abilities through use of a range of primary sources relating to the recent and contemporary history of elections in Africa
  • To develop students’ understanding of, and critical engagement with, secondary literature on elections in Africa from a range of disciplines – history, political science, anthropology
  • To develop students’ critical engagement with a wider literature on state and society in Africa through a focus on election history


  • Since the late 1940s, elections have played a central part in interventions intended to reform state and society in Africa. Late-colonial schemes of political change foregrounded elections as a tool for teaching a new kind of citizenship – initially in an attempt to prolong colonial rule, and then in an effort to manage the consequences of independence. After independence, despite the proliferation of coups and the widespread turn to single-party rule, the idea of elections remained central to visions of state legitimacy and development: even where people were offered no actual choices in terms of policy or national leadership, they were routinely expected – and sometimes marshalled – to take part in electoral displays which cast them as good citizens and their rulers as modern nation-builders. The return of multi-party elections to much of the continent in the 1990s reflected a belief – within Africa, as well as among the western donor nations which helped fund and redesign electoral processes – that the casting of the secret ballot might hold the secret to creating new kinds of accountability and good governance, transforming society and economies across the continent.
  • This module will explore the history of elections over this period, and encourage students to ask why elections have persistently been seen as such an important tool of modern stateness, and to consider what effects they have actually had in changing society, or the nature of government. A reactive wave of sceptical literature has suggested that elections in Africa have been no more than ethnic censuses, or have cast the whole process as a comical and irrelevant performance which lies awkwardly over a reality of neopatrimonial politics which resists any attempts to change. Students will consider these arguments, and will be encouraged to read critically across a literature which is often constrained by disciplinary boundaries, and to use a range of historical sources, from official correspondence to observers’ reports to the documents and other material stuff of the electoral process itself. Through this, the module will develop students’ abilities to use the historians’ skills of close reading and attention to context and empirical detail, while ensuring that they are able to engage effectively with the theoretical insights, and the concern to understand cultural specificity and difference, which mark the work of anthropologists and political scientists in this field. The nature of the African state, and its relationship to society, are very much live topics of debate with historical and other Africanist scholarship; the module will use elections to provide a particular historical focus through which students can engage with those debates.
  • The module will begin with a discussion of a wider, non-Africanist historical scholarship on elections, intended to encourage students to consider the value of comparative work, and to alert them to the ways in which such studies themselves have affected the ideas and behaviour of those involved in African elections. The sessions will then proceed chronologically; looking at late-colonial elections; elections at the time of independence; the role of referenda and of ‘elections without choice’ in post-colonial Africa; at the ‘second liberation’ of the early 1990s and then at the rise of what has been called ‘electoral authoritarianism’. Students will be introduced to particular case studies from around the continent, and given the opportunity to discuss primary material associated with these. There will also be two thematic sessions; one on the material culture of elections (from posters to ballot boxes) and one on the rise of election observation, which has come to be a highly formalised – and perhaps formulaic – aspect of any elections in Africa.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • advanced knowledge and understanding of aspects of the history of elections in modern Africa
  • a knowledge and understanding of aspects of the advanced historiography of elections, and of relevant interdisciplinary literature
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Subject specific skills for this module can be viewed at: http://www.dur.ac.uk/history.internal/local/PGModuleProformaMap/
Key Skills:
  • Key skills for this module can be viewed at: http://www.dur.ac.uk/history.internal/local/PGModuleProformaMap/

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • Student learning is facilitated by a range of teaching methods.
  • Seminars and group discussion require students to reflect on and discuss: their prior knowledge and experience; set reading of secondary and, where appropriate, primary readings; information provided during the session. They provide a forum in which to assess and comment critically on the findings of others, defend their conclusions in a reasoned setting, and advance their knowledge and understanding of modern African elections, and of elections the comparative study of elections more widely
  • Structured reading requires students to focus on set materials integral to the knowledge and understanding of the module. It specifically enables the acquisition of detailed knowledge and skills which will be discussed in other areas of the teaching and learning experience
  • Assessment is by means of a 5000 word essay which requires the acquisition and application of advanced knowledge and understanding of aspects of the history and historiography of modern African elections, and of relevant theoretical and comparative approaches from other disciplines. Essays require a sustained and coherent argument in defence of a hypothesis, and must be presented in a clearly written and structured form, and with appropriate apparatus.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Seminars 10 Weekly in Term 1 2 hours 20
Reading and Preparation 280
Total 300

Summative Assessment

Component: Essay Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay 5000 words 100%

Formative Assessment:

Formative: 20 minute oral presentation; 2000-word primary source commentary

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University