Saturday, 24 October 2009

The "failed state" in Africa (by Nkanyiso Sibanda)


From the Failed States Index[1] for 2009, it is evident that countries characterized by famine, gross Human Rights violations, disputed elections and poverty were either certified or re-certified as ‘Failed States.’ Over the past couple of decades, a variety of euphemistic neologisms have been created to explain certain anarchic and dysfunctional situations in countries such as Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Zimbabwe and many other peripheral third world (mostly African) countries.

A ‘failed state’ is most readily identified by the existence of rampant corruption and criminality in the state apparatus, massive human rights violations, rigged elections, predatory elites with protracted monopoly on power, an absence of the rule of law, severe ethnic divisions and sectarianism, deep economic crises and a significant refugee problem caused by political persecution, among other factors (Gebremariam, 2008). They are often ravaged by ethnic and or religious conflict, civil unrest, corruption, violent crime, state repression, high levels of poverty, disputed and violent elections, inequality and disease; the majority of the population often has no respect for the government; forces of law and order often do not extend throughout the entire territory (Jones, 2008).

For an African, whose country is ranked second in the failed states index for 2009, it is worthwhile to investigate if the ‘failed state’ concept is a valid analytical approach in discussing a variety of African countries’ security situations. These states are also afflicted by chronic, deep-rooted and heightened levels of political and social instability and protracted economic decline. The approach to the discussion here will be of a critical nature. I will argue that the term ‘failed state’ is infact quite misleading when it comes to the discussion of a variety of African countries’ security situations. It is ‘…simply a Western construction whose basis is the atomistic social ontology. It isolates the object from the wider social and historical contexts and presents it as the atomistic agents within global capitalism’ (Dolek, 2008). The ‘failed state’ ideology ignores the colonial processes that plundered (and continues to do so) Africa’s resources, divided Africa’s peoples along ethnic, religious and other grounds, resulting in what exists now on the African continent. I will also show that the ‘analytical and explanatory basis of the concept is profoundly flawed’ (Jones, 2008).

I will begin my discussion by tracing the origins of the term ‘state.’ The universally accepted Weberian definition will be used to define a state. This is because conception of the state is essential in order to understand and unalyse ‘state failure’. The discourse on failed states, for the most part, rests on the idea of ‘statehood’; it juxtaposes ‘successful’ (without ever explicitly using that term) and ‘failed’ states, bringing the two into sharp contrast, thereby highlighting the defining characteristics of the latter (Huria, 2008).

Focus will then shift to the term ‘failed state,’ tracing its rise to prominence to the end of the cold war while the September 9/11 attacks only catapulted its recognition. The discussion will show that there is not one universally accepted definition of ‘failed state.’ The spotlight to the African context will follow and the historical colonial processes that shaped the African continent will be highlighted. Emphasis here will be on the exploitation of Africa’s wealth by the colonizers and the division of Africa’s peoples along ethnic, religious and other lines. The legacy of such mineral exploitation and division of Africa’s people by the colonizers is manifested by the poverty and insurgencies that so plague the African continent today. The weapons used in these insurgencies come from some former colonial powers in the West, who later label such poverty stricken war torn countries as ‘failed states’.

In the conclusion, I will mark that the ‘failed state’ is nothing but a fallacy, constructed by the core first world countries. The analytical and explanatory basis of the concept is significantly blemished. The current challenges facing the so called ‘failed states’ in Africa were architectured by colonizers and coming up with the term ‘failed state’ is simply a way of legitimizing first world countries’ interest and intervention in Africa. While it is true that Africans have to move from continually blaming the former colonizers for their problems today, the profound effects of colonization and the way it was done can not be overlooked.

In his lecture, ‘Politics as a Vocation,’ Weber (1919) defined a “state” as a territorial entity which claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, which it may nonetheless elect to delegate as it sees fit. Although primeval, this definition is accepted and used in modern day academic discourses to define and understand what a state is. Weber (1919) emphasizes four aspects of the modern state: territoriality; monopoly of the means of physical violence; legitimacy and impersonal bureaucracy with emphasis on the judicial. Without social institutions claiming a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a given territory, Weber argues, a condition of anarchy would quickly ensue and it will be doubtful whether a state exists or not. In raising the question of why the dominated obey, Weber draws attention to an elementary activity of the state, the endeavor to legitimate the structure of domination. Today, while most Western states fit Weber’s influential definition of the state, in some other parts of the world, states do not fit this definition (Jackson and Rosberg, 1982:19).


Although the rhetorical and policy adoption of the term ‘failed state’ happened with the end of the cold war, the concept has been around for quite a long time (Boas et al, 2005). The term ‘failed state’ is just a most recent in a long list of modifiers that have been used to describe or attempt to explain why states residing outside of the geographical core of Western Europe and North America do not function as expected (Boas et al, 2005). The concept became popular with the end of the cold war and more especially with the September 9/11 attacks. Even as the foremost murmurs concerning the so-called ‘failed state’ began to be audible around the time of the Clinton administration, this notion was brought to the fore by Robert Kaplan’s 1994 article, ‘The Coming Anarchy.’ The article sought to warn Western governments of the approaching ‘threats’ to global security from the ‘regressive’ developments in West Africa and most of the developing world – “the withering away of central governments, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease, and the growing pervasiveness of war” (Huria, 2008).

Madeline Albright, the then Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, coined the concept and it appeared in the US National Security Strategy Report submitted to Congress by Bill Clinton in May 1997, A National Security Strategy for a New Century. The case of Somalia, where the national state wholly ceased to exist, played a crucial role in shaping analysts’ thinking about states and state “failure” (Call, 2006). As an analytical concept however, it remains surprisingly elusive, and attempts to explain the phenomena remain unclear at best (Gourevitch, 2005). Dolek (2008) notes that there has emerged a lot of literature on ‘the failed state’ which literature produces diverse categories of polities about peripheral countries. These include 'weak state', 'rouge state', 'collapsed state', 'collapsing state', 'disintegrating state', 'captured state', 'quasi-state' among others. These all depart from the Weberian conception of an ideal state. These definitions about the ‘failed state’ are made with reference to 'successful counterparts' existing in the rich, industrialized, powerful core countries.

What, exactly, is a failed state?
Scholars of the phenomenon do not all seem to have the same thing in mind when using the term ‘failed state.’ Many definitions consist of numerous examples and these have no clear statement of principle to show what they have in common. When one looks at the vocabulary produced to define the notion of 'state failure', it can easily be understood that there is neither a single term to refer to such phenomenon nor a single definition for the concept in question (Dolek, 2008). More theoretically-developed definitions are typically brief, or avow ideology that seems to lead to the conclusion that a state has failed in certain respects, but not necessarily across the board.

While there is no single definition of failed states, an assessment of the current literature and usage of the term however reveals certain common assertions in all the available definitions. The phrase has been used to describe a regime or government that is incapable of meeting the most elementary functions of governance (Gebremariam, 2008). Other synonyms for the term ‘failed state’ include ‘weak state,’ ‘fragile state,’ ‘collapsed state,’ ‘rogue state’ among others. Jones (2008) refers to a ‘failed state’ as one which is unable to perform a set of functions taken to be characteristic and definitive of what constitutes a properly functioning state: to maintain secure boundaries, ensure the protection and security of all the population, provide public goods and effective governance, maintain law and order throughout the territory.

Robert (2008) presents ‘failed states’ as: states that are tense, conflicted and dangerous. They generally share the following characteristics: a rise in criminal and political violence; a loss of control over their borders; rising ethnic, religious and linguistic hostilities; civil war; the use of terror against their own citizens; weak institutions; a deteriorated or insufficient infrastructure; an inability to collect taxes without undue coercion; high levels of infant mortality and declining life expectancy; the end of regular schooling opportunities; declining levels of GDP per capita; escalating inflation; a widespread preference for non-national currencies and basic food shortages leading to starvation. Somalia tops the list of ‘failed states’ for 2009, followed closely by many other African countries.

According to Huria (2008), euphemistically called failing, fragile, weak, quasi, or crisis states, ‘failed states’ are states whose governments are believed to have weakened to such an extent that they are unable to provide basic public goods like territorial control, education and healthcare, and legitimate institutions to their people. She further writes, most accounts of failed states center on the ‘erosion of state capacity’ or their inability to perform the basic functions of state responsibility like ensuring peace and stability, effective governance, territorial control, and economic sustainability (Huria, 2008).

‘Failed states’ are seen as those that are mired in or at a risk of conflict and instability; where the persistence of violence causes state structures to become ineffectual. Says Wyler (2007), “countries can also be hampered by poor governance, corruption, and inadequate provisions of fundamental public services to its citizens; may lack effective control of their territory, military, or law enforcement – providing space where instability can fester (for instance the Pakistan-Afghanistan border); and are usually also among the poorest countries in the world, including Bangladesh and many in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Those that support the ‘failed state’ theory argue that for a state to be recognized as (a successful) one, it has to conform to the Weberian model of a state. This means that it has to maintain a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within its borders. “When this is broken (e.g., through the dominant presence of warlords, militias, or terrorism), the very existence of the state becomes dubious, and the state becomes a failed state” (Chomsky, 2006:17). According to Zartman, (1995:5), state failure occurs when "... the basic functions of the state are no longer performed" in a proper way. State failure is a label that encompasses a range of severe political conflicts and regime crises exemplified by macro-societal events such as those that occurred in Somalia, Bosnia, Liberia, and Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire) in the 1990s (Marshall, 2007).

“What is more, there have been developed even more radial approaches to the 'state failure' by utilizing the terminology of psychoanalysis. Largely found with the thesis of 'New Barbarism', these approaches defend the view that the 'state failure' occurs as a result of the internal cultural/racial characteristics embedded in the African countries. As opposed to the ideal Western ones, the failed states represent the 'abnormal' or 'deficient' polities that are irrational, violent and even barbaric. This simply means that the 'state failure' occurs due to the existence of a 'serious illness' or 'mental or physical disorder' that should be cured by the intervention of a doctor, i.e. the Western countries. In other words, those 'failed states' are in a serious condition of mass trauma which should be treated through a whole-scale intervention. This kind of intervention, perceives the "... recipient populations as irrational and emotionally immature and therefore implicitly incapable of determining their lives without outside professional intervention” (Dolek, 2008).

Before Australia’s intervention in the Solomon Islands in 2003, Prime Minister John Howard said: “We know that a failed state in our region, on our own doorstep, will jeopardize our own security. The best thing we can do is to take remedial action and to take it now. . . . I recognize that the action we are proposing represents a very significant change in the way we address our regional responsibilities and relationships” (ABC Online, 2003). Evidently, the term has been used by some core countries to intervene in the affairs of poor third world countries.


Literature on ‘failed states’ has grown rapidly and the term is widely used to characterize certain third world countries faced with ‘serious’ social, economic and political challenges. However, the analytical and explanatory basis of the concept is profoundly flawed (Jones, 2008:181). The concept presents problems when it comes to the manner of characterizing and explaining the nature and production of conditions leading to the label of ‘failed state.’

The discourse on failed states has come in for criticism from various countries in the South. The term and the discourse are both seen by many as another of the several pretexts employed by the West, particularly the US, to intervene (militarily or otherwise) in the affairs of the Third World (Huria, 2008). According to Jones (2008), an adequate critique of the ‘failed state’ ideology reveals and emphasizes the term’s role in legitimizing intervention by outside forces. These pretexts, have changed from ‘rogue states’, ‘spreading democracy’, ‘regime change’, and the ‘war against narcotics’, to the current discourse on ‘failed states’ (Huria, 2008).

The idea underpinning most of the ‘failed state’ discourse is that states in the developing world are incompetent and, therefore, incapable of governing themselves. This is evidenced by the conflicts that so plague them as well as the anarchy and lack of respect for the law. The conflicts in these countries are not seen as conflicts between legitimate actors in the political realm, but regarded as chaos and anarchy that ‘impartial’ third parties, namely western states, can ‘fix’ with their policies (Gourevitch 2005).

The DRC, Niger Delta, Sudan are classic examples of how external meddling by great powers can lead to and has infact led to the destabilization of the state. It is incorrect to treat states as isolated entities that alone are responsible for what goes on within their boundaries. This is because in today’s globalized world, states increasingly find themselves enmeshed in transnational structures that include among others, foreign economic actors and the aid system, to whom they become accountable (Huria, 2008). Decisions in these states are not made by state governments, but a host of other transnational actors also (Huria, 2008).

Mohammed Ayoob, in an attempt to explain the security predicament of the Third World, focuses his attention on the evolution of the modern nation-state. He argues that while European states developed into nation states over a period of four to seven centuries; countries in the global South are expected to complete this ‘nation-building’ process in the course of a few decades, “that too, by simultaneously undertaking all the stages of nation-building i.e. standardization, penetration, participation and distribution with all its inherently contradictory pulls and pressures. As a result, many Third World states with highly plural and diverse societies, are not yet politically and socially cohesive units” (Behera, 2002:19).

Many academics have also pointed out that the concept is not a very useful analytical tool since it is vague and imprecise and tends to place a wide range of dissimilar political crises into the same investigative category, (Gourevitch 2005:4). It is also described as a sort of catch-all framework. Practically every problem of governance that faces the developing world today is included in these criteria, including uneven economic development, deterioration of public services, demographic pressures, and human flight, among others (Huria, 2008). The term assumes that all states are alike, constituted and function the same way and this is infact not true (Boas et al, 2005). Contemporary states are the result of unique historical processes and while some may fail to provide an environment of human security, they may be efficient providers of regime security (Boas et al, 2005). Problems therefore emerge when the term is used to focus on the analysis of the state and its institutions when in many instances, power relations that matter for regime security are private and informalised (Boas et al, 2005).

Another of the weaknesses of the term ‘failed state’ is its failure to make recourse to the historical processes that resulted in the current ‘failed African states.’ Historical injustices, orchestrated by the colonizers, played a significant role in condemning African countries to poverty and underdevelopment which countries are now labeled by Western thinkers as ‘failed states.’ While some of the present day ‘failed states’ in Africa were being plundered and robbed of wealth by colonialists, present day ‘successful states’ were benefiting from such plunder and robbery. It is undeniable that the African continent has never recovered from the looting, plunder and partitioning based on race that it was subjected to during the colonial era (Mangorera, 2002). The colonizers made conscious and deliberate efforts to exacerbate Africa's isolation in the global economy. Africa became the source of resources for the growth of the ‘successful’ and rich colonizing countries. It was subjected to decades of imperial domination and unprecedented asset stripping, which significantly contributed to some of the ‘failed states’ such as Zimbabwe, and others that are seen today. Colonialism retarded Africa's growth. The colonialists amassed Africa’s wealth and built rich empires while the generality of the African states bore the brunt of poverty which resulted from such plunder.

The concept offers an ahistorical account of the weakening of states. It ignores the colonial processes that plundered (and continue to do so) Africa’s resources, divided Africa’s peoples along ethnic, religious and other grounds, resulting in what exists now on the African continent. The discourse glosses over the historical processes that might have led to their weakening like, for instance, their colonial legacy, great power intervention during the Cold War, and so on. It places the responsibility for state failure squarely on the shoulders of the state itself and ignores any external responsibility. A good example can be seen on the case of the DRC and in Sudan, where external interests in natural resources have led to the perpetuation of conflict in the two countries.

Africa is plagued by a plethora of wars that have ravaged the continent's resources, inevitably leading to dire poverty and humanitarian crises. Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Sudan, which have persistently had leading positions in the Failed States index, have been in war for many years. Angola was plunged into more than three decades of civil strife as Jonas Savimbi's rebel Unita movement and government forces fought to control the mineral rich country. A flourishing ‘diamond-for-guns’ market, a product of the rich and potent Western conglomerates, fuelled a war that stalled the development of one of Africa's potentially rich countries. The search for peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been agonizingly elusive (Mangorera, 2002). In Sierra Leone years of civil war left the country one of the poorest in the world. Burundi continued to be strife-torn for a long time and the Nelson Mandela-led peace initiative remained unachievable as the fragile peace agreements persistently collapsed. Insurgencies have been a key determinant of a failed state and in recent history, Africa has had more insurgencies than any other continent in the world, hence the reason why its countries make up most of the ‘failed states’ in the Failed States Index.

Jones (2008) writes –
The current condition of structural crisis in so many of Africa’s neocolonial states must be situated historically in the imperial history of global capitalism. An approach informed by global political economy directs attention to the interaction between local and global social forces and processes, understood in their historical specificity. This requires careful attention, first, to the political economy of the colonial social order in the context of colonial capitalism; second, to characteristic patterns of the postcolonial state, society and economy after independence, which tended in many cases, to give rise to factional struggles and authoritarian rule; third, to the ways in which such ‘internal’ social tensions and contradictions in the post-colonial state – the specific historical legacy of colonialism – have been reinforced by the global political economy, both the geopolitics of the Cold War and the contradictions of global capitalism.

African countries are the ones mostly and readily susceptible to the label of ‘failed states.’ This is evidenced by the way they dominate on the Failed States’ Index. The 'failure' of African states and the demise of territorial nationalism should come as no great surprise if one subscribes to 'primordialist' or 'ethno-symbolist' theories (Grooves, 2008). For thinkers such as Anthony Smith and John Armstrong, nations have their roots in a cultural basis of "cohesive power, historic primacy, symbols, myths, memories and values" which have persisted through time (Smith, 1991: 52). When colonialists and their administrations drew African borders, which borders frequently separated, subsumed or assumed indigenous identities- an overwhelming legacy remained. Post-colonial states such as Burundi, Rwanda, Nigeria and Kenya spanned a mosaic of ethnic groups which provided little cultural basis for a united nation; simultaneously, ethnic groups spanned the post-colonial states (Grooves, 2008). Nationalist leaders therefore had great difficulty maintaining the discursive energies mobilized during the struggle for independence because their territorial nationalism was inauthentic; it was not underpinned by a culturally-united ethnic community, but by a myriad of ethnic communities (Grooves, 2008).

After colonialism, attempts to build the nation were weak and susceptible to cooptation by ethnic groups as they strove to access state patronage. Various state leaders struggled to define homogenous, 'legible' identities through centrally planned administrative policies - in Tanzania, for example, Julius Nyerere attempted to move all rural inhabitants into villages as he sought to create a 'modern state'. However, such policies proved futile and often damaging (Scott, 1998). For thinkers such as Smith and Armstrong, whilst a culturally-underpinned nation might build a successful state, a state faces great difficulties if it is not underpinned by an authentic nation. The former President of Mozambique, Samora Machel, summed up a popular conclusion when he declared that "for the nation [and, one might presume by extension, the state] to live the tribe must die" (in Mamdani, 1996).

Drawing on the case of Kenya, Lonsdale (1994) forwards that far from being historically-rooted entities which have always existed; 'tribes'-and dynamics of ethnic competition-were largely a response to the new institutions and rules imposed by the colonial powers. For Bayart (2005:31), "the ways in which Africans have adopted the territorial frameworks handed down by the colonizing powers is one of the salient characteristics of the continent's recent history. The imported state was immediately taken over by autochthonous peoples" because it represented the obvious (and often only) means by which to access colonial power structures. The 'formation' and mobilization of ethnic identities thus represented a strategy by which to gain access to the state's resources and this has led to insurgencies and conflicts which are a feature of some of the ‘failed states’ in Africa.

The concept of state failure in Africa is descriptive, citing such traits as failure to perform basic functions such as education, security, or governance, usually due to fractious violence or extreme poverty as characteristic features. It does not give the historical and social processes through which these states have become 'weak,' hence failed, while others have gained 'strength' and become successful. Within the context of African 'failed states,’ there is neither reference to the colonial processes of subordination through which a neo-colonial dependent state structure has been inherited, nor is any critical attention paid towards the 'perpetuation' of the conditions of underdevelopment in the African continent especially with the introduction of neoliberal policies to those already weak African states. The role of historical injustices should be scrutinized when the ‘failed state in Africa’ is deliberated upon. However, it is not.

According to Boas et al (2005), another weakness of the term, predicated as it is, on the existence of the prototypical state, is built on a faulty assumption of uniformity in state organization, structure and behavior. To say something has ‘failed’ is a normative judgement that is only helpful and meaningful in comparison to something else; in this case, that something else is the existence of a Westernized, ‘healthy’ state that, unfortunately, has little relevance to most of the states in question because it has never existed there (Boas et al, 2005). Comparing ‘failed’ African states is to neglect history, demography, culture and economics and their relationship to regional dynamics and patterns.

The concept of ‘failed state’ has been produced as such to categorically represent post-cold war polities. The category of the ‘failed state’ and associated terminology is thus widely used in the characterization of specific conditions of crisis in the Third World (Gruffyd, 2008:3). It is a label that encompasses a range of severe political conflicts and regime crises as exemplified by macro-societal events such as those that occurred in Somalia, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s (Liu, 2005). That the concept lacks a precise definition means there is a multitude of definitions based on goals and interests of whoever is defining the concept at the time. It has been used by some core countries to justify intervention (military, humanitarian and other types) and invasion of some of the countries thus labeled, ‘failed states.’

The concept falls short of a functional analytical and explanatory phenomenon for understanding African states in crises. According to Liu (2005), in the third world peripheral countries, the notion of ‘failed states’ is problematic since many third world states collapsed after decolonization simply because they were Western constructs in the first place. Gourevitch (2005) asserts that the concept is fundamentally flawed, both as conceptual category and as explanation. This flawed nature of the concept can not be solved by more precise definitions and clearer explanatory theories. It does not however mean that there is no truth in the ‘failed state’ theory. Rather, the characteristic flaws of failed state discourse reveal a truth, but it is a truth about Western political thinking and not third world political reality (Gourevitch, 2005). “‘Failed states’ as such do not exist. Rather, they manifest the inability to give meaning to third world political conflicts and disenchantment with its own state institutions” (Gourevitch, 2005). It is a representation that enables certain policies which serve the economic, political and security interests of those who employ it.

States in the developing world are relatively new entrants into the international system, and it is only natural that they face challenges in the process of state building (Huria, 2008). The present discourse on failed states is an attempt by the West to make sense of the challenges that states in the South are grappling with. While state weakness is a reality in Africa; there is need for a debate and a set of criteria that are more holistic than existing ones – recognizing that ground realities in the ‘Third World’ are vastly different from those in the West; and that are willing to take into account the disparate histories and socio-economic backgrounds of these states to develop more apposite policy solutions to deal with state weakness (Huria, 2008).

The failure to refer to the historical and social processes, through which these states have become 'weak,' hence failed, while others have gained 'strength' and become successful is a material overlook when the term is used. While specific combinations of local, regional and international forces and conditions have led to devastating social crises in Africa, none of these outcomes can be explained through the prism of ‘state failure’ (Jones, 2008). One of the most important methodological flaws of the ‘failed state’ discourse is its inability to identify historically specific social forms and conditions, and their global relations. By offering a beguilingly simple, richly descriptive, pseudo-analytical approach, the ‘failed state’ discourse obfuscates the historical social relations of crisis while legitimizing the reproduction of imperial social relations (Jones, 2008). For the term to bear much water, it is peremptory to refer to the colonial processes of subordination through which a neo-colonial dependent state structure was inherited. Attention should be paid towards the 'perpetuation' of the conditions of underdevelopment in the African continent, particularly the neoliberal policies that were introduced to those already weak African states (for example, the Economic and Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) in Zimbabwe).
Therefore, “'failed state' is about nothing, but a mere construction on the basis of the atomistic social ontology which isolates the object from the wider social and historical contexts and presents it as the atomistic agents within global capitalism” (Dolek, 2008).


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