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Abstract

This dissertation investigates the relationship between energy, the environment, and politics from the precolonial to the postcolonial periods in the Senegal Valley. By drawing on a wide range of methods and primary sources, including oral traditions, studies of climate history and archaeology, and archives in West Africa and France, it investigates the ways in which states used, stored, and deployed different forms of energy to broadcast and consolidate power. By chronicling Senegal’s transformation from a pre-industrial economy to a mixed energy economy, it shows that control over energy resources played an instrumental role in how precolonial African kings, French colonial officials, and postcolonial African leaders attempted to centralize and maintain power over time and space. In doing so, it argues that energy was not only central to maintaining state authority in Senegal, but it was also synonymous with political power. The dissertation makes three major contributions to the field of African history. First, the study of energy in Africa addresses a significant lacuna in Africanist scholarship. Studies of pre-industrial states and their various pathways to fossil fuel economies have focused overwhelmingly on Europe and North America. In general, scholars have approached the history of energy as a linear process of technological inventions and innovations. In doing so, they fail to account for the large populations of people—in Africa and elsewhere—that have vastly different experiences in the development and use of energy. Rather than focusing on energy use as a measure of technological and economic progress, this study interprets it as a fundamental practice of everyday life that served as a mechanism of political power over time and space. Second, the study of energy in Africa reconsiders the relationship between land and politics in the Senegal Valley. In general, scholars of African history associate state formation with the consolidation of people rather than land. Rather than deriving power from control over territory, which played a critical role in state-making in the West, African elites generated political power by extending control over people, and by accumulating dependents—such as slaves, wives, and clients. Yet, in examining how the states and polities of the Senegal Valley exploited fertile lands, including the grains they produced, I argue that political power did not depend solely on broadcasting authority over people. While the consolidation of people was a critical factor in state formation, the arid and unpredictable climate of the Senegal Valley made fertile lands a valuable political asset in their own right. To that end, I demonstrate that control of arable land played an overlooked but critically important role in state formation in the Senegal Valley. Third, this dissertation also serves as an environmental history of state-making in the Senegal Valley. While studies of the state in Africa have produced vastly different interpretations of how Africans and Europeans centralized political power, few historians have examined the role of Africa’s diverse environments in processes of state formation. By incorporating how ecological and climatic constraints shaped the way people used, stored, and distributed energy, this study also underscores how Africans and Europeans responded to periods of environmental change. Although scholars have noted that recurring droughts, crop failures, and famines in the Senegal Valley often threatened and weakened states over time, the potentially devastating role of ecological crises tends to overshadow the various ways that state actors responded to, and often benefitted from, periods of drought and scarcity. This study, therefore, shows how state actors and political elites developed flexible and adaptive systems of energy use that endured political change and fragmentation, droughts, and various forms of environmental decline and degradation. Finally, this dissertation examines the recent discovery of oil off the Senegalese coast, as well as the installation of new solar plants and windfarms, which have increased access to power and electricity for many rural households. These recent developments, then, have placed Senegal in an advantageous position to build a mixed energy economy that is not entirely beholden to oil and gas. By “leapfrogging,” or perhaps bypassing, the aging industrial infrastructure of the oil-rich economies of the West, Senegal’s path from an organic to mixed energy economy presents new possibilities for economic growth and prosperity.

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