State-Building In Africa: An Attempt at a Critical Survey of the Problems



A superficial comparison of the political regimes of African and European nations in terms of “strong”, “weak”, and “failed” states conventionally places most European states in the strong category, with many African states falling into the weak and failed category. This general schema has been developed by Jeffrey Herbst, among others, through decades of political science publications since 1986. Herbst is well-known for proposing that a fundamental reason for weak and failed states in Africa is the absence of a history of inter-state warfare, which Herbst points out was not the case in Europe. European states fought each other directly for centuries and developed enduring state organizations that are effective in taxation, governance, and military readiness. Herbst’s 1990 article “War & the State in Africa” summarizes the case:

“War in Europe played an important role in the consolidation of 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 and Herbst’s prognosis is that most states in Africa will remain weak or failed. However, a very different perspective is suggested by a critical knowledge of the shared history of Europe and Africa, that of the colonial exploitation of Africa by European states in partnership with the United States of America. That Herbst does not seem to consider this history strongly relevant – though he acknowledges it – is startling, given the centuries of political struggle within his homeland of the USA against the racial oppression of enslaved Africans and their descendants. The US economic and political system from well before its founding in 1776 up to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was profoundly enmeshed in the Trans-Atlantic system of slavery. Similarly, the growth of European political states was likewise enmeshed in the slave trade and an even more direct colonial domination of the continent’s people groups. To state the alternative premise as a leading question, perhaps the “strength” of European versus African states was deliberately intended by those European and their allied states?

This “postcolonial” perspective on African politics has been developed by many analysts, such as Pal Ahluwalia, who has labeled the perspective articulated by Herbst and similar theorists as “Afro-Pessimism.” He summarizes his critique in his 2001 book, Politics and Post-Colonial Theory: African Inflections as follows:

The ascendancy of Afro-pessimism … has a tendency to homogenise the ‘African tragedy’, concluding that Africa has neither the political will nor the capacity to deal with its problems. The African condition, it is claimed, is largely of Africa’s own making, and therefore there is little or no hope for improvement. Afro-pessimism resonates in metropolitan centres where, in the aftermath of the Cold War, both former colonial powers and the United States are seeking ways to disengage themselves from Africa. This is a convenient way for the West to wash its hands of a problem that is largely of its making. Since at least the fifteenth century, Africa has been raped and plundered, first through the slave trade and then by formal colonisation. The assertion that Africa has gained full independence and that the transfer of power from coloniser to colonised is complete is one that is challenged by the post-colonial approach of this book.

Herbst intends his theory to suggest possible directions that African nations might pursue towards creating stronger states, drawing lessons from European history. 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? As much as Herbst might imagine that the histories of Europe and Africa were separable like so many petri dishes in which isolated organisms grow, cross-contamination is systemic and ineradicable when pursuing the messy business of human politics. Political science is ultimately also politics, by other means.

As another pole of analysis, the work of Paul Collier in his book The Bottom Billion (2008) will be examined. Collier might be considered a more hopeful “Afro-Realist” contrasted to Herbst’s Afro-pessimism, though not an optimist. Collier identifies four “traps” that he argues keep African nations in the world’s “bottom billion” from improving their economic development. These 4 traps are “Conflict,” “Natural Resources,” “Landlocked with Bad Neighbors,” and “Bad Governance in a Small State.”  Thus, the core of the analysis undertaken from this point will move through contrasting and comparing the claims of Herbst, Ahluwalia, and Collier. The goal of the analysis will be to critically evaluate state-building as a proposed solution to the well-known – albeit less well truly understood – problems of African societies.


The European Model: Herbst

Herbst identifies two features of European political development that are missing in Africa prior to the arrival of European colonizers, effective taxation and nationalism. Both of these political characteristics were propelled into effectiveness by inter-state warfare. Herbst (1990)  writes of European state taxation,

The permanent requirement to mobilize human and material resources for military purposes [i.e., taxation] intensified tendencies toward the monopolization of power and the elaboration of auxiliary institutions of social control.

On nationalism he writes,

In Europe there was an almost symbiotic relationship between the state’s extractive capacity and nationalism: war increased both as the population was convinced by external threat that they should pay more to the state, and as, at the same time, the population united around common symbols and memories that were important components of nationalism.

In contrast, Herbst (1990) characterizes the typical African government’s taxation practices thus,

Government revenue poses a major problem for all African states and many others in the Third World. These states are desperately short of revenue to fund even minimal state services (e.g., pay nurses’ salaries, buy books for schools, supply transport for agricultural extension services) that their populations have long been promised. In addition to these recurrent costs, Third World countries are in need of more extensive and more efficient tax systems because the process of development requires large expenditures on infrastructure to promote economic activity throughout the country and to handle the ramifications of development, especially the large expenses incurred by urbanizing countries.

Herbst connects this endemic poverty of African states with their lack of inter-state warfare. In other words, if African governments don’t ramp up to militarily seize power in other nations, they will be doomed to poverty and failure. Herbst notes that most inter-state military actions in Africa since independence have been carried out to preserve social order in troubled nations, and routinely act to preserve colonial borders. To the contrary, annexation played a strong role in European political developments as more successful states toppled foreign governments and annexed their territories. While Herbst hesitates to actually advocate wide-scale inter-state warfare and annexation by strong African governments of weaker nations, his logic makes it hard to reach any other conclusion.

However, approaching the comparison of European states with African states by emphasizing colonial incursion makes it clear that Herbst’s approach insufficiently takes into account that European states colonized Africa using military force supported by taxation. European incursions into Africa were conducted to extract resources and export slaves. African national borders established during colonialism were drawn specifically to embody colonial interests, rather than any ethnic or territorial imperatives of African peoples. Existing African societies at the time of colonization often did fight against the European colonizers, to little avail. European military dominance emerged from the history that Herbst considers paradigmatic, but this raises the question of whether such a history is better viewed not as a model, but as a warning? It might be tempting to therefore reject the very project of state-building in Africa as yet a further legacy of colonialism itself. Perhaps Africa can make a radical departure from the political trajectory laid out from its domination by Europe and create a new political developmental path? However, it seems more plausible that Europe and other “strong states” will continue to exert influences on the African situation that will continue to work themselves out only through conflict and struggle.


Postcolonial Critique: Ahluwalia

To explore a different take on the question of African state-building, the work of Ahluwalia (2001) approaches the subject in terms of postcolonial analysis. He begins with the fact that African states are not “native” to Africa, but also not simply European imports.

“…the African state is itself the product of transculturation. The institution of the nation-state is one which has European roots and origins, and one which was introduced into Africa. The state in Africa, however, has been inflected over time. Whilst retaining its linkages to its European past, most clearly manifested in the project of colonisation, the state in Africa is constantly evolving. In short, through the process of hybridisation and transculturation, the African state has been and continues to be inflected locally.”

Ahluwalia situates the question of the state in Africa within a narrative of internal and external challenges. In contrast to Herbst’s approach that artificially isolates the states of Africa and Europe, Ahluwalia emphasizes how continuing “neocolonial” influences frustrate the project of state-building in Africa. For example,

the African state today is entrapped within a discourse of power whereby foreign institutions and agencies map out its future. In this new configuration, it is the World Bank, the IMF and a host of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which determine and dictate fundamental policy. They are, in many respects, the new ‘colonial administrators’.

Ahluwalia also characterizes the problems of the one-party state, failure of African socialism, neopatrimonialism, historic interruption of organic African society, and the demands of a developmental logic in Africa. Although Ahluwalia does not offer a solution or the beginnings of a new “African strategy” in the light of the failures of recent attempts, he clears the ground of some of the problematic assumptions that underlie Herbst’s pessimism.

Ahluwalia (2001) points out how nearly all newly independent African nations adopted a form of one-party state, often at the expense of narrowing the pluralism that actually existed under colonialism. Competition for political power was claimed to not be authentically African. However, the absence of a cohesive national culture in most cases resulted in an artificial unity. Privileged elites within former colonial regimes imposed their visions of what was best for all citizens. A central nexus of institutional power was formed on the remains of colonial administration without robust attempts to enfranchise subordinate sectors of the populace.

One-party states after independence were immediately faced with the economic degradation carried out by colonialism. The economies of Africa had been structured to export their most profitable outputs to foreign markets, leaving very little domestic infrastructure to sustain society after the end of direct colonization. This gave rise to several attempts to create African socialism. Taking lessons from the industrialization of Russia, China, Cuba, and other nations under Communist regimes, African socialist regimes also sought to adapt some of the social democratic institutions of Europe to their situations. The results were meager at best and as an aggressive ideology of free market policies within international finance became dominant, African socialism was systematically starved of resources and suffered a similar fate as the official communist states in the 1990s.

African socialism gave way to what some analysts characterized as neopatrimonial politics. These regimes were less bound by modern ideas of bureaucracy and legal rigor and acted in a more arbitrary manner often using a “strongman” leadership approach. While still a one-party state functionally, neopatrimonial states gave rise in many cases to a “competitive authoritarianism” characterized by high levels of civil violence and obstructive tactics while also utilizing competitive elections. In the worst cases, neopatrimonial states became failed states as warring factions destabilized all political institutions. Ahluwalia recognizes the salience of the neopatrimonial patrimonial accusation, but also considers it insufficient as a useful analysis.

Haunting the persistent struggles of African state politics is the specter of pre-colonial Africa. What might Africa have become had it been not invaded, enslaved, colonized, exploited, and depleted by European and American interruptions of its organic history? The charge of “Western imperialism” hangs over all contemporary attempts by NGOs and Western states to improve the situation in Africa. Some African regimes have turned to a sort of “Black Man’s burden” that aims to reclaim elements of the shattered pre-colonial civilizations as the basis for a new cultural renaissance that is distinctively African. This culturalist approach tends to issue appeals for a mass participation in a project of reclaiming agency as Africans over against Western civilization. Ahluwalia finds this approach suggestive of possible lines of cultural development but not a strongly political solution. Africa is now wholly enmeshed at multiple levels with non-African politics and asserting an organic African identity does not appear promising.

Ahluwalia locates a larger target plaguing African state politics, the global logic of “development.” Herbst’s attempt to compare European and African states suffers from a historical obtuseness that posits nations and states as organic entities that have a sort of biological destiny. His language of weak, strong, and failed states disconnects African states from the actual complexities of history and imposes a sort of medical symptomology on the challenges of African societies. One can almost imagine Dr. Herbst playing doctor with African states, “are you eating enough vegetables and getting enough exercise? You need them to grow into a strong healthy adult.”

Ahluwalia writes,

“As globalisation and cultural imperialism intensify, it is vital for the nation-states of Africa to consider the costs of a modernist project that celebrates economic development above all else. Certainly, tensions already are evident with the assertion of African values, albeit these values are being subsumed rapidly by the development conundrum.”

The post-colonial analysis of Ahluwalia helps immensely to clarify the African situation with a more empathic grasp of the human costs of colonialism and its aftermath, as well as the stakes in the question of African state-building. Herbst’s clinical approach sets European and African in isolation and never takes account of the real humanity they share in common. While political science aims at a clinical objectivity, that objectivity should never become an end in itself. Science is not a holistic human activity, but a practical tool for clarifying the means towards possible attainable ends. The situation of suffering in Africa has been paraded before Western eyes for decades now by mass media and a sort of compassion fatigue has degenerated into a callous disconnect. The challenges Africa faces are devastating, but ultimately human problems, not alien ones. Pessimism may be understandable, but paralyzes effective engagement. Romantic appeals to a lost past don’t get us very far, either. The way forward is difficult and only discernible with patient and honest dedication.

Pragmatic Strategizing: Collier

To flesh out at a more practical level the problems of African statehood, Paul Collier’s work on the “bottom billion” will provide key points for reflection. His “Four Traps” of African development don’t exhaust the challenges that Africa and her allies face in alleviating the suffering of that continent, but one must start somewhere. In contrast to some other proposals, Collier begins with a genuinely sympathetic stance that appeals to basic humanism. He writes,

This problem matters, and not just to the billion people who are living and dying in fourteenth-century conditions. It matters to us. The twenty-first-century world of material comfort, global travel, and economic interdependence will become increasingly vulnerable to these large islands of chaos. And it matters now. As the bottom billion diverges from an increasingly sophisticated world economy, integration will become harder, not easier.

Collier identifies the first trap that constitutes a “black hole” for ending poverty in the bottom billion as “Conflict” which he clarifies goes beyond conventional ever-present conflict. Collier finds that in the bottom billion, civil war is a particularly deadly trap. Civil wars are always costly and often leave legacies of ongoing suffering in their aftermath. In an impoverished nation, civil war is even more devastating than a more prosperous society such as the USA. Civil wars in a poor nation typically reverse any economic progress achieved in the period prior to war. Collier determines that the best opportunity for reversing the civil war’s devastation occurs in the aftermath of the civil war. While typically aid programs spend a few years in a nation after a civil war, Collier argues that at least a decade of extensive aid is necessary to really promote robust development after a civil war in a poor nation. Collier stresses that this massive aid program should not occur too soon and it should not be an influx of money, but rather resources like hospitals, schools, road-building, and other infrastructural projects.

Collier’s next trap is natural resources. Regions with large reserves of oil, precious metals, and similar exports typically fall into a cycle of poverty, which Collier describes as,

… the surplus from natural resource exports significantly reduces growth. Economists term the excess of revenues over all costs including normal profit margins “rent,” and rents seem to be damaging. Over time, countries with large resource discoveries can end up poorer, with the lost growth more than offsetting the one-off gain in income provided by the rents.

Collier proposes that the natural resource trap be addressed by an international charter that sets rules on how both wealthy and poor nations are able to develop and use natural resources. His analysis claims that not only do poor nations with a wealth of oil or metals have problems turning this wealth into a domestically beneficial industry, the wealthy nations have incentives to extract these resources in a manner that exacerbates the negative outcomes. In the context of a growing global concern about climate change, it makes sense to demand international agreements take a hard look at how these natural resources are being developed, exported, and consumed.

The third trap Collier occurs when landlocked nations have bad neighbors. His stand-out example is Uganda whose economic development is deeply stagnated by being landlocked with neighbors that are also struggling to grow their own economies. Uganda cannot export its products easily since it neighbors have little in the way of efficient transport infrastructure to port cities that are key to international export. If a landlocked nation was rich in natural resources, it might escape this problem, since the demand for its exports would subsidize the costs of transport. But if not, stagnation would become endemic.

Collier’s prognosis is that the landlocked trap is largely reinforced by the bad neighbor problem. Until the neighboring nations of the struggling landlocked neighbors reach developmental thresholds sufficient to make interstate transportation infrastructure profitable, these poor nations will need to survive on massive imported aid merely to stem the hunger and destitution of thedr nations. Over time, raising the standard of living incrementally will make larger leaps towards developmental progress possible. If initiated in concert with appropriate aid in the bad neighbor nations aimed at making the changes that will lay the groundwork for addressing the landlocked problem, there is conceivably a future opening to a healthier developmental achievement.

Collier’s final trap is the one that is most directly relevant to the concerns of this paper, “Bad Governance.” This problem is the boogeyman upon which all the problems of Africa are often blamed. If only the people would rise up and create a new regime that was better at bolstering economic development, all would be well. Of course, this is precisely the rub. States, and the reform of bad states, are not created by fiat, nor by ideology alone, but by political forces that obey social logics that are not easily malleable. Collier’s work analyzes the internal problems of failing states and the costs of such failures to economic development. There is an inverse correlation, a weak or corrupt state may very well have little effect on a nation that is on a track of strong economic growth, such as Bangladesh. However, if a nation’s economy is struggling to grow at all, bad governance will nearly always exacerbate the collapsing economic situation.

Collier is quite optimistic about the strategic possibilities of correcting bad governance. He dismisses military intervention citing the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan. He examines nonmilitary aid and reaches the conclusion from case studies that in fact foreign aid to nations struggling with bad governance problems can be quite successful. Collier proposes setting up ex ante conditions upon aid to regimes that encourage public accountability. He sees this approach as the most likely alternative to the European history of inter-state warfare leading to strong states. By tying aid to accountable reforms in public transparency, the people of a struggling nation are given leverage to press for reforms.

Collier also proposes aid in the form of importing governance skills to states in the early stages of a turnaround from a weak or failing condition. Since corrupt regimes have often deformed civil service agencies and driven competent civil servants outside the nation altogether, rebuilding a body of competent civil servants requires a large amount of expertise and training, something which Collier believes aid agencies have done and could do more often quite effectively. He cautions against sending in technical assistance too early in the turnaround period, but soon enough that the window for an effective intervention is still open.

Reading Collier in contrast to Herbst and Ahluwalia emphasizes that Collier is a master of statistical analysis. Whereas Herbst seems stuck in his awe at the power of European political systems, and Ahluwalia spends his energy contesting Eurocentric political biases, Collier basically amasses numbers and tables. The result is that Collier provides the reader with a veritable smorgasbord of reform proposals and strategies. His optimism and sincerity are infectious and, well, charming. While we cannot do without a serious grasp of the historical legacy of European development and the impact of European colonialism on African politics, there seems to be little alternative to simply getting our hands a bit dirty and diving into a robust engagement with the political realities of the “African Tragedy,” a term that Ahluwalia quite rightly despises, but which nevertheless expresses a real truth that lies in the statistics Collier amasses in his focused analysis of the “Bottom Billion.”


Conclusions or More Questions?

Like many of my generation, I was raised on what might be derisively labeled, “famine porn.” We North Americans were children of a privileged society while most of the world languished in poverty and suffering. Some theorists even lay the blame for anorexia nervosa upon the ubiquitous imagery of starving children with distended bellies colliding with the fragile body images of teenage females. In my case, I became sensitized over my teens and early adult life to the question of poverty and racism, and Africa was the object of my deep internal sadness at the fate of humanity. A world divided into rich and poor has always seemed an obscenity, a failure of our species to use our capacities for cooperation and empathy to their fullest potential.

But, a stubborn perception of the problems of Africa being as intractable as they were tragic has only gradually turned into something resembling a realistic hope. Perhaps the long shadows of pain might be receding. Economists tell us that most African nations are growing quite well, though Collier’s work reminds that there are still “hard problems” among the poorest nations of the continent. Our analysis here has focused on these cases most closely and it is helpful to zoom out to a wider focus and recognize that Africa is not a monolith of political catastrophe. Our review has tended to approach the problems of state-building in terms of comparison between two continents, one in the north and one mostly in the south. However, we live on a much larger planet and our survey has barely glimpsed some of these larger contextual considerations.

Collier and Ahluwalia do take up the grand question of globalization, yet our approach did not take us very directly to considering that larger context. The study we’ve undertaken has clarified the conditions in Africa, but at the end of the exercise the question of the future still looms uncertainly. The history of Europe and Africa and their intertwined politics did not occur in a vacuum. Combined, these two continents do not constitute even half of the planet. While North America, especially the USA, do figure quite directly in the history we’ve viewed, human history goes much further back than even Europe itself. Some theorists today are venturing into an even larger global picture that takes in the history of societies before Europe and its familiar states were formed. Some detect a pattern within this long view; others see a panoply of distinct histories with incongruent features that resist assimilating human history into one large metanarrative.

While the past may seem murky, the likely future seems less so. The aggressive European incursion into Africa was in some sense only the opening gambit in the emergence of an intercontinental reality. Whereas, before colonialism, Europe and Asia and Africa and the Americas were all relatively self-contained geographies, today we are increasingly aware of a growing interconnectedness. Technology is one major driving force of this awareness, as are the economic and political events that are routinely flashed around most of the entire globe in a matter of microseconds. While such images may barely penetrate into the troubled regions of the bottom billion, Collier’s pragmatic strategies make it plausible that even these regions will one day be directly connected to the new global infosphere and world order. The growth of cellular telephone technology, even in these poor nations, is a reasonable indicator of where things are going.

If the upshot of the postcolonial analysis of Ahluwalia was that Africa’s tragedy was not of its own making, but rather the outcome of a deadly parasitic attack from the north, then we have reason to throw into question a commonplace certainty that the “European (and American) Model” of politics represents the final form of human society. The founding of the United Nations after World War 2 suggested that the victors of that conflict were acutely aware that politics was now global on a scale never before glimpsed and that we were compelled to face the horizons of that newly enlarged perspective.

If the sort of modern democratic (polyarchic) states we accept as routine in the northern hemisphere were really just the product of a specific historical trajectory and not somehow inscribed into human nature itself, perhaps we can discard a too simple expectation that Africa must repeat our model in every one of its colonially defined territories? The poverty and famine that drives many Westerners to guilt and anxiety is still very real and simple human decency compels us to care, if only from a distance. But, as capitalism reaches its global limits and democracies appear in unlikely places like Tunisia, one can foresee perhaps only dimly that a new era may be just over that horizon of globalization. Marxists have often predicted that capitalist republics would be revolutionized into socialist democracies which would then give way to stateless communism. Marxism being the bastard child of European politics gets some things right, but on the African question it has seemed just as myopic. African attempts at socialism came to the same ignoble end as the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. However, the persistence of China in claiming the mantle of communism long after it has adopted market reforms, suggests that just as the historical past resists simple schemes for linear organic continuity, the future may be far stranger than we can imagine. We can only hope that this strange future will also be a world where the “bottom billion” is a meaningless statistic. Simple human sympathy can hope for nothing less.


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