Caveat: This is a sweeping generalisation, that tries to pick on the middle ground of similarities. I have taken account of the extremes such as Somalia which is the classic failed state, and more stable polities like Mauritius. It is notable that African states have often score highly on the Fragile/Failed States Index. 


The Argument for the Failed African State

States were ostensibly created to maintain the security of those who live within that state, when its peoples’ security is not observed the state would be said to have failed; the failure to protect human rights is a malfunction of state, for example.

According to Kaufmann and Kraay the crux of good governance is ‘a capable state that is accountable to citizens and operating under the rule of law.’ The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank encourage good governance that can be achieved through accountability, political stability, adherence to the rule of law, government effectiveness, ability to promote private sector development, transparency and eradication of corruption. Secondly, a state is said to fail or be collapsed ‘when it no longer performs the functions attributed to it.’ According to these definitions as well as the Fragile/Failed States Index mentioned above, many African states would be properly classified as failed.

The concept of state failure is a matter of functional collapse, i.e. state malfunction or non-function, when a state is not able to perform the fundamental functions attributed to it. This proposition, however, fails to take account the nature of the post-colonial state in Africa. What is not addressed, based on the same criteria, is whether African states are actually states. Coupled with what could be seen as a relaxation of the traditional criteria for statehood at decolonization, the emergence of the additional criteria has resulted in some post-colonial states to be classified as failed states. What that means is while failure is clearly proven, statehood is not. This is a fallacy of logic based on a false premise.



The Creation of States in International Law

The classical criteria for statehood is listed in Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention 1933 as follows: permanent population; defined territory; government; capacity to enter into relations, i.e. independence.  Some additional suggested criteria include: the protection of human rights; external recognition; and effectiveness.

In fact, of the classical criteria of statehood, recognition and territory are the only conditions clearly attained by African states; in the case of territory, even though this is usually clearly defined it is not completely accepted by those within those territories. According to Kreijen state attainment in Africa was achieved by a ‘legal trick’ which involved the abandonment of ‘effectiveness.’ Therefore, according to his theory, African states were created and recognised outside the classical method of creating states which led to inefficient pseudo-states which inevitably failed.  Somewhere between the fleeting transition from colonies to states, there was a legal and political mishap.  The disintegration of governmental control reduces the strength of the peoples’ allegiance to a state, and in fact the belief in citizenship and the rights and duties it entails become a hollow confidence forcing people to re-align along religious or ethnic lines. In actuality, a state never really existed and there was nothing to pledge allegiance to.

Even though Kreijen’s theory works from logical historical premises to achieve a seemingly rational conclusion, nevertheless he accepts African states as states, though inevitably failed. He posits therefore that what was not in existence can be created by relaxed rules and engendered by recognition. Therefore, while he asserts that the states are not states stricto sensu, he suggests that they were created as ineffective states doomed to failure. This theory operates from the conception that state failure induced the reduced allegiance to the state, it does not consider the fact that there was lack of allegiance to the state by the citizens and the government; that by attributing that same allegiance to the ethno-linguistic or ethno-religious group rather than to the state, the state disintegrated before it was integrated. Furthermore, from Langford’s definition of a failed state, as a sovereign entity, that can no longer perform the functions of statehood, suffers from the same presupposition. The problem is that the states never performed the functions of statehood prior to decolonisation, and have had difficulty in doing so thereafter. The classification of African states becomes increasingly problematic. The definition of a failed state is only convincing because we all accept, at a very fundamental level and without evidence that African states are states, because we say they are. Conceptually and logically, we have no reason to do so.

The lack of effectiveness that Kreijen adduced to African states is exhibited by the following signs:

  1. The central government’s authority is weak and doubtful,
  2. Government is ineffectual and riddled with corruption,
  3. There is segmentation of the community and society into various publics and political allegiance is divided along those segments.

Mazrui described the failure of the African state as being characterised by lack of sovereign control over territory; ineffective revenue extraction, inability to maintain national infrastructure or provide social services or maintain law and order.

Africa’s Future?

Nevertheless, despite the theoretical and/or overt ineffectiveness of African states, any attempt to effectively and legally question their statehood would be met with opposition internally and externally. They have existed and trade and been admitted into the UN. In other words, they are externally functioning as states.  On the other hand, the inherent problems of questionable statehood are exhibited by the inadequacy of their internal functions which results in underdevelopment, instability and insecurity. They exist in sufferance and while not possessed of effectiveness, the states have title to territory. This itself was an expedient step in decolonisation. Title to territory enables the sale of natural resources.

Ironically, a state which is completely effective but was created by means unaccepted by international law would not be recognised as a state (Somaliland). Conversely, because some states were created by an acceptable means – decolonisation – though largely ineffective, they are protected by the cloak of externally imputed sovereignty. The conception of state has become rigid in policy and theory while it remains fluid in actuality.

Therefore, the responsibility for the creating African states, ideologically lies with the African people. The people need to take charge of their own destiny. States should be built from the grassroots, not imposed. The international community suggests democracy as a means to ensure human security. While encouraging people to vote is commendable, a populace whose understanding of democracy is limited to political participation as only achievable by voting, will not ensure a credible democratic process. Governments that only have to convince the international community that elections were ‘free and fair’, will not be constrained to ensure the security of the people is protected. We often confuse democracy with the mechanisms used to evidence it. The desire and impetus to achieve an equal and just society has always been a part of African polities. Pre-colonial polities only ‘failed’ due to the forces of invasion and occupation.

The immobility of ideology about African statehood, identity and community allegiance needs to be confronted, but this can only be done efficiently, when the need for it is realised, from within. On all spheres, local, national and international, there needs to be an attitudinal and paradigmatic alteration that eschews conceptual stagnation and focuses on human security. Human security involves a paradigm shift. We need to change the ‘focus of security to the ability of individuals to live, rather than states to exist.’ Human security is a mechanism ‘to protect the vital core of all human lives in ways that enhances human freedoms and human fulfilment.’ In other words, it is paramount that African people are allowed to live free fulfilled lives. Subdivisions into states, or similar entities, is Africa’s business and her peoples’. Not anyone else’s.



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African woman, lawyer, teacher, poet and researcher. Singer of songs, writer of words, very occasional dancer of dances. I seek new ways of interpreting the African experience within our consciousness to challenge static ideology.

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