What is “Good” For Africa, Theoretically Speaking?

The whole world is my province until Africa is free.  – Marcus Garvey

(This essay originated as a class assignment in comparative politics. It is a polemical response to a 1990 article by Jeffrey Herbst. The class was asked to answer the question, “Is this a good theory?”)

If one adopts a simple distinction between the states of the African and European continents and asks what are the differences between these two regions in political terms, one theory offered has observed that in Europe there are a large number of “strong states” that are effective in taxation, governance, and military readiness. By contrast, in Africa there are a relatively large number of states that are “weak, failing, failed, or collapsed.” With this basic construct in place, Jeffrey Herbst’s 1990 article “War & the State in Africa” offers the following hypothesis:


“War in Europe played an important role in the consolidation many now-developed states: war caused the state to become more efficient in revenue collection; it forced leaders to dramatically improve administrative capabilities; it created a climate and important symbols around which a disparate population could unify. While there is little reason to believe that war would have exactly same domestic effects in Africa today as it did in Europe several centuries ago, it is important ask if developing countries can accomplish in times of peace what war enabled European countries to do. I conclude that they probably cannot because fundamental changes in economic structures and societal beliefs are difficult, if not impossible, to bring about when countries are not being disrupted or under severe external threat.


“I conclude that some [African] states will probably be unsuccessful in finding ways of building the state in times of peace and will therefore remain permanently weak. Accordingly, the international community will have to develop non-traditional policies for helping a new brand of states: those that will continue to exist but that will not develop. Other states, perceiving that peace locks them into a permanently weak position, may be tempted to use war as a means of resolving their otherwise intractable problems of state consolidation.”

In sum, a lack of inter-state warfare in Africa has led to weakened development of the political states on that continent. Political science as a discipline is somewhat problematic in this respect, as it attempts to create parsimonious, satisfying, falsifiable, and rich theories of human politics. Human politics is not easily reduced to cause and effect explanations due to the sheer number of causes, that is, human behaviors, and their complexity, such as intention, social conditions, collective agency, etc. that would lead a serious theorist aiming at causal reduction into statistical tesseracts of astronomical proportions, perhaps beyond the complexity of mapping the smallest galaxy. By this token, political science has to content itself usually with approximations, rather than rigorously lawlike theories.

That said, other considerations impact the theory at hand, suggested by a common knowledge of the shared history of Europe and Africa, that of colonial exploitation of Africa by European states. That Herbst does not seem to consider this history strongly (though he acknowledges it) relevant is startling, given the centuries of political struggle within his homeland of the United States against the racial oppression of formerly enslaved persons of African descent. The U.S. economic and political system from well before its founding in 1776 up to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was profoundly enmeshed in a racist system of slavery. Similarly, the growth of European political states was enmeshed in the slave trade and an even more direct colonial domination of the continent’s people groups. To put the alternative premise bluntly, perhaps the “strength” of European versus African states was deliberately intended by those European states?

Herbst intends his theory to suggest possible directions that African nations might pursue towards creating stronger states, such as pursuing wars. On the alternative premise, if the formation of strong states in Europe was bound up with the domination of Africa, does this suggest that Africa should now turn north and seek to dominate Europe? Recent clashes within Europe between populations of African immigrants and authorities of those exemplary “strong states” of Europe suggest that warfare is being carried on by other more social means, perhaps? Various radical movements and uprisings in Africa over the centuries suggest that Africans haven’t been as passive in state-building as Herbst implicitly projects, but that they have been outgunned by forces that intentionally prevented their success?

To attempt to remain properly – for a political scientist – theoretical and objective, this domination counter-theory also is subject to the canons of good theory: clarity of concepts, rich explanation, and verifiability. Of course, it is also subject to the persistent problematics of political science earlier mentioned. After all, the scientist is still a human being and treating humanity as a scientific object ultimately turns the clinical eye of science onto the scientist himself. Can such a science be entirely objective, when the very object of study is also in some sense intimately bound up with the observer? As much as a theorist might wish that the histories of Europe and Africa were separable like so many petri dishes in which bacteria grow, cross-contamination is systemic and ineradicable when pursuing the messy business of human politics. Political science is ultimately, also politics by other means.

That said, humans do have the potential to step outside their own embedded social position, and aim at sympathetic and truthful understanding of other societies. Clinical distance from the object of study is not an end in itself, but rather a limited – though necessary and helpful – tool, a step in a much larger process towards concrete truth and potentially effective action. Acting as a scientist is but one aspect of being a full human being. It may be obvious that this short essay is bound up with a moral outrage, a grief and sadness at the conditions of human suffering – in Africa and elsewhere – and the political forces that perpetuate them. Like a medical doctor who has dedicated her life to curing cancer, exploring the ravages of disease with clinical rigor isn’t the endpoint, but rather one necessary moment of a larger battle to gain a strategic clarity in order to achieve a greater good.

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