“Lawyering imperial encounters. Negotiating Africa’s relationship with the world economy” – 5 October 2023


In the past fifteen years, the formidable stakes of Africa’s geological wealth have positioned the continent as the global economy’s last frontier. Cobalt, a core component of lithium-ion batteries and rare earths, a critical feature of wind turbines, are the green gold of the energy transition. These resources are also found in two countries best-known for the violence of their colonial and postcolonial trajectories, the Congo and Burundi. Is the new Scramble for Africa ushering in a brighter, more just future – away from the geological scandals of the past? To be sure, the intensely competitive Far West-like rush into the continent, pitting the US and China along with old European imperial métropoles, looks like a repeat of the past, except with a twist: the formidable judicialization of the international scene in the past thirty years, that have transformed domestic and global politics into legal battlefields. Is the seemingly endless pull of inter/national law to solve geopolitical problems a siren’s call? Or can legal change transform the status quo? Lawyering imperial encounters argues that responding to this question requires us to depart from the current historiographic obsession with either imperial legacies, or the 1980s’ neoliberal turn. Law constitutes a powerful entry-point to track the variables that shape, transform and justify the relationship between the African South and the world economy –provided that we look for the state in places we are not used to finding it, the legal field, and for law in the articulation, over time, between political change, and capitalist accumulation. I call these relationships imperial encounters, that is symbolic, institutional, and professional spaces of real connections that offer a vista into histories that are connected not only due to their reciprocal embeddedness in imperial legacies but because they reflect transformations of state power and relations between political power, knowledge, and finance. The exceptionality of the trajectory of the Great Lakes region since the Berlin Congress in 1885 provides a formidable point of departure for this research agenda. Not only as the epitome of scholarly imperial entanglements. Not even as a region that has been at the heart of the three Scrambles for Africa, in the 19th century, the Cold war – and the present. But because looking at the legal intermediaries – be they lawyers, merchants, local chiefs, corporations or international financial institutions – that are renegotiating the region’s relationship with capitalism underscores that the past matters, in a messy, haphazard way. And attending to the past relationships that shape over time the nexus between law, politics and capitalist accumulation is the only way out: to enable us, to breathe better, without suffocating what has become the lung of the global economy.

Sara Dezalay is Associate Professor, soon to be Professor, of Political Science at ESPOL, Université catholique de Lille.