Call for proposals: Law professionals and legal practices on the African continent. Colonial legacies and dynamics of internationalization

Call-for-proposalsGuest Editors: Sara Dezalay (Goethe Universität) and George H. Karekwaivanane (Cambridge University)


Abstracts (one page) should be sent to Sara Dezalay ( and George H. Karekwaivanane ( by June 13, 2014. Accepted proposals (notified by July, 2 2014) should be submitted to the coordinators by October 30, 2014 to be reviewed by the editorial board of the journal. Articles can be written in French or English (the journal will then translate the accepted articles in French). Publication of the special issue, with the articles accepted by the editorial board: June 2015.


Recent decades have witnessed a striking increase in the mobilizations of law in contemporary African politics. Driven by internal political developments and external dynamics, the democratic turn and the promotion of “civil society” have contributed to the transformation of politics to the extent that the law has become an increasingly important resource in political and social struggles, notably with the multiplication of law-oriented non-governmental organisations  (Comaroff & Comaroff 2006). However, predominant accounts of this post-Cold war “turn to law” tend to disconnect these global transformations both from the domestic politics and the longer historical processes of state formation in which they are embedded. Moreover, the roles played by lawyers in these processes – and the correlate transformation of legal professions – remain, largely, a blind spot. Indeed, the wealth of scholarship on legal professions in Europe, North America, Latin America and more recently South-East Asia, contrasts with the dearth of research on lawyers on the African continent and their contributions to the formation of the state and these unfolding transformations (with few exceptions: Gobe, 2013; Halliday, Karpik and Feeley 2012).

This thematic issue of Politique africaine aims at shedding light on the roles played by legal professions in processes of state formation and contemporary transformations of politics in Africa. Two dimensions seem of particular relevance. It is, on the one hand, the historicity of legal professions and particularly the impact of colonial legacies on their structuration. Underlying, on the other hand, the roles of legal professions in the formation of the state and current transformations of politics involves studying them in light of two dynamics: that of the national spaces of power – political, social, economic – to which they are articulated, as well as current processes of legal globalization, such as the promotion of the rule of law or international criminal prosecutions, that contribute to the transformation of legal practices and institutions and their relations to politics.

The recent surge of interest in law and empires has underlined the specificities of, and variations in, colonial legal systems in African settings (e.g. Ibhawoh 2013; Benton 2002; 2013). It has also prompted interrogations as to the ways the legacies of colonial rule continue to shape legal systems, legal professions and the relations between lawyers and the state. The mobilization of law and legal institutions for political and violent purposes in some contexts underlines in particular the impact of such legacies on the articulation between law and politics and furthermore on the relations between lawyers and the state. These practices of “lawfare” (Comaroff, 2001) underscore in particular the specific stakes of legal professionalization and autonomy in contexts of authoritarianism and/or institutional collapse. On the other hand, current dynamics of legal globalization – including the growth of international criminal tribunals and the criminalization of state and armed violence – are contributing to opening multiple legal and judicial avenues of contention (Sikkink 2011).  How are these dynamics of legal globalization articulated with colonial legacies (Dezalay & Garth, 2010) and with what impact on the role of lawyers in these processes? Are these dynamics, in turn, affected by the development of African countries as more or less “extraverted” societies (Bayart, 2000)?

This issue aims at exploring such questions by focusing on lawyers and legal professionals and their varied roles as legal intermediaries, transnational brokers and moral entrepreneurs, among others. It is driven by the objective of contributing to a comparative study of legal professions in Africa by drawing on a range of disciplinary approaches, including law, history, anthropology, political sociology or international relations. Given the emphasis on former British colonies in the existing literature, studies focusing on former French, Portuguese and Belgian colonies, among others, would be particularly timely. We would also welcome a diverse range of methodologies and scales of analysis, including country or institutional case studies or research tracking the transnational diffusion of legal ideas, practices, agents and institutions.

We suggest four interrelated lines of inquiry that remain largely open, focusing on (1) colonial legacies and their contemporary impacts on the structure of legal professions; (2) the roles of lawyers in the diffusion of current dynamics of legal globalization and their bearings on legal sectors and practices on the continent; (3) the historical evolution of legal professions and; (4) the engagements between lawyers and society and dynamics of protest.

1. The first investigates the impact of colonial legacies on the structure of legal professions and more broadly the roles played by lawyers in the post-colonial trajectories of African states. Despite the fact that lawyers played central roles as “authorized interpreters” of the law and intermediaries in legal struggles in Africa, they have received very limited attention in the historical and anthropological literature. There is a need to update this literature, broaden its analytical focus, and bring it into dialogue with the wider literature on law in colonial and post-colonial Africa. We suggest this can be done through systematic empirical work that examines different colonial regimes in Africa and their relation to a) the structure of the legal field and b) the role of lawyers in the construction and contestation of state power and legitimacy. Is there any co-relation between French, British, Belgian or Portuguese rule in colonial Africa and particular professional orientations amongst lawyers?  Alternatively, what role did the nature of colonial rule e.g. settler versus non-settler states play? What implications does the nature of the colonial legal system and legal profession have for the post-colonial trajectory of African states and the role of lawyers?  Have lawyers managed to redefine their role in post-colonial politics and society? If so, how has this shift been justified and negotiated?

2. The second line of inquiry focuses on the roles of lawyers and the transformation of legal practices, institutions and systems under the influence of current processes of “juridification”, in particular the diffusion, at the local level, of dynamics of legal globalization. The promotion of the rule of law and democracy as a handbook for “good governance” since the 1990s or moves towards the criminalization of state and armed violence via the International criminal court are illustrations of a wider process of juridification of politics understood as the displacement towards the law of political and social stakes and struggles. The wealth of scholarship focused particularly on the diffusion of these new global norms contributes, however, largely to two series of blind spots that we wish to contribute to fill. On the one hand, for instance, there is little research on the impact on African legal professions and systems of the internalization of international criminal law rules and prosecutions for international crimes (see Nouwen 2013, for an exception). Studies focusing on international criminal prosecutions per se, in particular through an ethnography of trials, could be timely to contribute to an understanding of the political, social and legal effects, at the local level, of the judicial narratives produced by international tribunals. Above all, our aim here is to underline that accounting for these processes of juridification necessarily implies a study of the roles played by lawyers, including through the opening of new spaces of legal practices and expertise. The themes and empirical foci remain largely open. For example, the new “rush for Africa” in the global competition for minerals and energy resources has been paired with a growth of legal proceedings, predominantly through arbitration. How is this impacting legal practice on the continent? Moreover, how are these concurrent dynamics – international criminal law on the one hand, and business law on the other, articulated?

3. Thirdly, the literature on professions (the legal profession included) has moved away from the weaknesses of the functionalist perspective and its celebration of “the virtues of professional communities” with good cause. Such moves have included studying the characteristics of legal professions as historically related to polarizations between power, economics and knowledge in the construction and legitimation of state power (Gobe, 2013; Dezalay & Garth, 2011; see also Bourdieu, 2012). Recent research on modalities of activism and protests, particularly in former Francophone colonies, is highlighting the transformation of the “international” as a resource to contest state politics (Siméant, 2013) and the impact of internationalization and professionalization processes on legal professions and institutions modelled by a colonial and post-colonial legacy of “lawfare” (Dezalay, 2013). Possible avenues for empirical research could include examining the evolution of legal professions and their organization in different colonial and post-colonial settings; tracing the evolution and transformation of legal education; or exploring the transformation of professionalization patterns under the influence of external dynamics.

4. Our fourth focus is on the nature of the interaction between lawyers and the public, and the political and socio-cultural impact this has had. The need to understand the growing tendency of individuals and groups to frame popular social and political struggles in legal terms, or to adopt legal strategies, requires that attention be paid to the interactions between lawyers and “ordinary” people. Approaching lawyers as intermediaries and adopting the idea of “translation” (Merry 2006) – both at the level of language and concepts –, opens up useful avenues through which to examine the interactions between lawyers and society, as well as the outcomes of such interactions.  Some of the questions requiring scholarly attention may include: how have lawyers related to the public and with what impact?  How are lawyers perceived by society?  What kinds of strategies have they used in translation and with what limitations? Have lawyers been involved in specific political or cultural projects and to what end?  This line of inquiry also explores the relation of lawyers to “social movements” and dynamics of protest (Agrikoliansky 2010). For instance, what roles have lawyers played in the “Arab spring” revolutions and their repercussions in North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa? Beyond focusing on opportunities for legal activism in “democracies” versus “authoritarian” regimes (Abel 1998), what are the factors that enable social movements to “seize the law”?

Indicative Bibliography

R. Abel, « Speaking law to power. Occasions for cause lawyering », in A. Sarat, S.-A. Scheingold (dir.), Cause Lawyering. Political Commitments and Professional Responsibilities, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998.
E. Agrikoliansky, « Les usages protestataires du droit », in E. Agrikoliansky et al., Penser les mouvements sociaux, Paris, La Découverte « Recherches », 2010, p. 225-243.
J.-F. Bayart, « L’Afrique dans le monde : une histoire d’extraversion », Critique internationale, n° 5, 1999, p. 97-120.
L. Benton et R. Ross (dir.), Legal pluralism and Empires, 1500-1850, New York, New York University Press, 2013.
L. Benton, Law and colonial cultures. Legal regimes in World history, 1400-1900, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
P. Bourdieu, Sur l’État. Cours au Collège de France (1989-1992), Paris, Le Seuil, 2012.
J. Comaroff et J. Comaroff (dir.), Law and Disorder in the Postcolony, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2006.
J. L. Comaroff, « Colonialism, Culture, and the Law: A Foreword », Law and Social Inquiry, vol. 26, n° 2, printemps 2001, p. 305-314.
S. Dezalay, « Between lawfare and extraversion. The structuration of the legal field in Burundi under the prism of the articulation between international and national markets of legal expertise », Atelier de travail ‘Professions juridiques et leur internationalisation dans les dispositifs de paix’, Programme IRENE sur les professionnels internationaux de la paix, Institut des Sciences sociales du Politique – CNRS / Université Paris Ouest Nanterre, décembre 2013.
Y. Dezalay and B. G. Garth, Asian Legal Revivals: Lawyers in the Shadow of Empire, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Y. Dezalay and B. G. Garth, « State Politics and Legal Markets », Comparative Sociology, 10, 2011, p. 38–66.
E. Gobe, Les avocats en Tunisie de la colonisation à la révolution (1883-2011). Sociohistoire d’une profession politique, Paris, IRMC-Karthala, 2013.
T. Halliday, L. Karpik, M. M. feeley (dir.), Fates of Political Liberalism in the British Post-Colony. The Politics of the Legal Complex, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012.
B. Ibhawoh, Imperial Justice. Africans in Empire’s Court, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013.
S.E. Merry, « Transnational Human Rights and Local Activism: mapping the middle », American Anthropologist vol. 108, n°1, 2006, p.  38-51.
S. Nouwen, Complementarity in the Line of Fire. The Catalysing Effect of the International Criminal Court in Uganda and Sudan, Cambridge University Press, 2014.
K. Sikkink, The justice cascade: how human rights prosecutions are changing world politics, The Norton Series in World Politics, 2011.
J. Siméant, « Committing to Internationalisation: Careers of African Participants at the World Social Forum », Social Movement Studies, vol. 12, n° 3, 2013, p. 245-263.

Citer ce billet
Fabrice Melka (2014, 7 mai). Call for proposals: Law professionals and legal practices on the African continent. Colonial legacies and dynamics of internationalization. Politique africaine. Consulté le 22 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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