in Postindependent Africa
Sub-Saharan Africa’s postindependent political experience has been largely a disappointing one. While there are a few exceptions, most African states have experienced broadly based economic stagnation or decline; generalized state weakness, fragmentation, or failure; military interventionism; poor governance and abuse of power by political leaders including personalistic and neopatrimonial rule; at times serious and violent communal conflict (ethnic, religious, regional); and, in some cases, long and violent civil wars and insurgencies.
The challenge for political scientists is to discern the recurring factors that underlie these manifestations of political failure. For example, many patterns of government that seemed important in the early postindependent era have been found to have little explanatory value. Much was made in the 1960s and 1970s of the differences between single-party mobilization regimes, and apparently “democratic,” competitive party systems; between socialist versus capitalist private-enterprise economies; and the differences stemming from Anglophone versus Francophone colonial rule. Yet, after several decades of history, it is clear that these once seemingly important differences have little to no association with African states’ dysfunctions. Just about every type of political and economic “system” has experienced many or all of these problems.
Factors explaining Africa’s situation still remain. While there is varying emphasis in the literature on several underlying factors, there is general convergence on several of them. These include:
- Initial state weakness and distortions deriving from the colonial heritage. This includes geographic artificiality; states made of multiple and fragmented ethnic groups; underdeveloped and distorted governance institutions; the organizational, normative, and spatial incongruence between states and indigenous historical and traditional political institutions; weak structures of accountability; the legacy of colonial legal and institutional systems focused on top-down control; poverty, economic weakness, and vulnerability to the world economy; and African states’ acceptance by world institutions as sovereign states and governments without actually meeting historic norms of sovereignty.
- Mobilization of ethnic, regional, and religious identities in order to compete for limited resources, and by elites to take and hold political power. Generally these identities were latent in the precolonial era. Colonial policies and practices stimulated their emergence as active identities, and postcolonial politics generally stimulated their further development to where they have become problematic for the contemporary state.
- Early establishment of regimes that survived economically by collecting rents. These were taken from the agricultural and extractive industries. They paralleled political leaders’ early maneuvers to dominate political and economic space and ensure that rent-generating peoples and regions were unable to challenge the governments through democratic or other institutionalized mechanisms. This also coincided with the strength of inheritance elites who received power at independence, and their establishment of lucrative lifestyles that could only survive by continued extraction of rents from rural areas and extractive industries. Also occurring were lucrative income streams from natural resources that incentivized violent rebellions, insurgencies, and criminal enterprises that the state could not suppress, as well as spillovers from regional conflictions based on these resources.
These patterns contributed to one another and created what became a near “perfect storm” for many African governments. This resulted in political, economic, and social decline for most of Africa’s peoples.
Initial State Weakness
Most African states achieved independence within ten years of the colonial powers’ decision to grant it to them. A few received it within a mere few months of those decisions. As a result of this and other factors, African states were generally unprepared for effective governance. Colonialism left many other challenges for these new states as well.
The institutional legacy of colonial rule was one particular challenge. Colonial regimes were essentially governments of military occupation. Colonial policy, at least until the late 1940s, was exploitative and minimalist; colonial powers sought to extract the maximum economic advantage from their colonial possessions with the least expenditure of resources. As a result, colonial states were developed only to produce and export goods of value to the colonizing powers. This led to distorted economies and infrastructure, such that the colonial states were highly specialized in a few, low value-added products such as cocoa, coffee, tea, pyrethrums, sisal and cotton, and raw minerals. They played little role in any value-adding processes. These left the independent states with narrowly based and internationally vulnerable economies, which generated relatively little wealth to stimulate domestic economic growth or to fund the state and its programs. It also left the state with a highly underdeveloped and extraction-focused internal transportation infrastructure, which hindered domestic and intra African trade, and therefore economic growth. These factors, among others, reinforced deep poverty among most of Africa’s peoples. They weakened the states’ economic base, while the large sunk costs invested in them made it difficult to move to more broadly based, internationally resilient, and remunerative economies. State capacity was thereby reduced.
Other problems deriving from the legacy of the colonial state exacerbated the economic weaknesses. These included underdeveloped structures of accountability and interest articulation as well as weak bureaucracies. Civil society was underdeveloped, hindered by the economic underdevelopment caused by colonial mercantilist policies as well as the conscious policies of colonial governments to keep it weak. Small voluntary organizations were fragmented across many localities, while the independent governments easily co-opted or suppressed the few professional organizations and labor unions that did exist.
Finally, newly independent governments inherited small and weak managerial and service bureaucracies that were usually understaffed with trained and experienced personnel. A pattern often developed where one or two well-qualified personnel were surrounded by many with minimal qualifications and were overwhelmed by the difficulty of getting anything done. In contrast, political leaders strengthened the relatively stronger police and security apparatuses they inherited, as well as their control over major industries. They used the legal and institutional tools of top-down ruler ship that they inherited from the colonial states to maintain their hold on power. Executive structures had been overdeveloped during colonialism, primarily to work as mechanisms of social, political, or economic control, and had administrative and police powers to manage the economy and to suppress media freedom, assembly, protest, and dissent. Moreover, legislative bodies were relatively new, weakly institutionalized. With inexperienced personnel leading them, they were vulnerable to the promises—and threats—of the executive. Legislative bodies quickly became rubber stamps for state leaders and structures for their members to pursue rents and other advantages. They never became effective structures of accountability and faded in relevance from the political arena. Lacking any institutionalized checks, the potential for government incompetence as well as abuse of power grew.
Africa’s independence movement parties, again, were far weaker organizationally than they seemed at independence, and eroded rapidly as independence was quickly granted to leaders who in reality had narrow power bases. Ambitious rural and regional party personnel flocked to the capitals seeking their fortunes and to help staff the new governments, and whatever institutional capacity parties had declined rapidly. Furthermore, there was generally little that had held the parties together beyond the incentive to comply with colonial requirements for democratic elections to achieve independence, and the desire to capture power. They were frequently led by a charismatic leader and integrated through patronclient relationships that did not extend beyond party cadres and a few key regional, religious, or ethnic influentials.
In general, these movements’ promise to the public was that economic opportunities would dramatically improve once independence was granted. They stood for little else, except as structures for some to grab and hold power. Their subsequent economic poor performance certainly eroded the legitimacy of the new governments. The early military coups reflected their unpopularity.
A less obvious, but perhaps no less important legacy of colonialism, is often referred to as Africa’s two publics. Peter Ekeh argues that there are two spheres of moral discourse in Africa. One surrounds the contemporary state and grew from the behavior of the colonial state. This was essentially amoral in its workings, at least regarding its African subjects. It was absolutist, accountable elsewhere (to the metropole), and acted only in its own interests. Africans learned to deal with it and its amorality by behaving in opportunistic ways. Ekeh argues that this absence of moral expectations was quickly transferred to the independent state, which Africans, generally with good reason, saw in largely the same light.
However, there is a second public sphere where Africans expect moral behavior. This includes historical and traditional political institutions, extended family, and community or ethnic associations. This hypothesis, which appears applicable to most African states, though in varying degrees, helps explain these states’ high levels of corruption, the largely opportunistic behavior toward them of their citizens, and their lack of effective and sustained penetration into social affairs. It partly accounts for the general weakness of African states, at least beyond their elites’ ability to hold power. In most cases these states lack legitimacy, are rife with opportunistic behavior that erodes resources, and are ineffective in “capturing” the citizenry. Many thus look elsewhere for more accountable and productive governance arrangements, such as in the economy of affection and in patron-client relationships, as observed by Goran Hyden.
Carl Rosberg and Robert Jackson developed another argument, in the 1980s, for the persistent ineffectiveness and fragility of Africa’s states. Jackson and Rosberg argued that the well-intentioned effort of the developed world to support newly independent states by redefining the term sovereignty led to unintended and quite negative consequences for those states. Historic criteria for recognizing governments emphasized a de facto definition of sovereignty, which expected governments to meet certain, minimal levels of performance regarding control of borders and maintenance of domestic law and order. However in the post–World War II (1939–1945) era, the concept of juridical sovereignty prevailed; it awarded recognition to a government merely because a colonial power had passed the title, regardless of its effective control of its space. Weak and ineffective states were given financial and other aid from the international community and were protected from secession and external challenge by the refusal of the international community to recognize any alteration in borders except by consent of the so-called sovereign state.
This system denied recognition to alternate but possibly more effective regimes such as developed in Katanga, Biafra, or recently in Somaliland. This introduced moral hazard for these political elites, where they were insulated and protected from the consequences of misrule, no matter how poor it was. Significantly ineffective, corrupt, and even abusive regimes such as Mobutu’s Congo, Amin’s Uganda, Moi’s Kenya, Taylor’s Liberia, Abacha’s Nigeria, and now Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, were recognized and sustained by their status as sovereign states and the support this brought from the international community. This was in spite of the substantial portions of their territory beyond their control, and that these were collapsing into famine and disease, and ruled solely through violence and terror.
Communal Fragmentation And Mobilization
African states also entered independence hobbled by high levels of social fragmentation. This followed lines of ethnicity, religion, and region. While most of the world’s contemporary states are multiethnic and multireligious, and many face regionalism as well, the majority of these states manage to maintain effective governance, economic progress, and largely peaceful relations among their citizens. However, a number of factors have made these differences a source of conflict in many, though certainly not all, African states, and contributed to state weakness and failure.
African states are almost without exception artificial creations. They are the remnants of agreements cobbled together among competing nineteenth-century imperial powers. As a result, at independence there was little holding together a state’s citizens beyond their shared experience under British, French, Belgium, Portuguese, or Spanish rule, and the arbitrary borders those powers had defined. The states were not organized around or based on communities that were particularly well integrated along normative, economic, historic, linguistic, social, or political grounds. This legacy also left in place national political institutions and civil law systems largely alien to the vast majority of Africa’s citizens. These operated in European languages most of the public did not know, and were in the hands of small inheritance elites who were more or less fluent in the alien languages and institutions. These groups captured control over the new state as the colonial powers departed but did not provide an effective unifying structure.
Nonetheless, Africa’s subnational divisions are best understood as latent ones where there are multiple communities and personal identities. These exist as potential lines of conflict among people who have usually lived in peace for many years, even centuries. They typically become overt, however, and mobilize people into conflict when access by one or more groups—ethnic, religious, regional—to critical resources seems threatened by other groups. The critical resources for survival in Africa are access to land, water, and state-controlled opportunities and resources. Conflicts have broken out when one group appears to monopolize or capture excessive amounts of one or more of these natural resources, or appears likely to capture control over the state and its resources to the exclusion of others. Recent conflict in Kenya can best be understood through this prism.
Land is usually regarded as the critical resource for survival for the large majority of poor Africans who still earn their living in agricultural or pastoral occupations. As Sara Berry has shown, land tenure rights are frequently ambiguous. Over several generations, persons from different groups have developed competing claims to plots of land, depending on more than one system of customary law, differing interpretation of those laws, and the actions of the state. Migrations of peoples into less well-settled areas have intensified this, as growing populations of home and stranger groups begin to compete intensely for the same land. Migratory pastoralists with historical and customary claims to land have had to compete for land and access to water which was once unclaimed or became subject to multiple and ambiguous traditional claims. Key natural resources that can be converted into income streams, such as diamonds, gold, or oil, play the same role, though for far fewer Africans.
Similarly, the state has controlled substantial resources— though fewer currently than in the past—such as employment in the modern economy; scholarships and access to higher education; location of schools, clinics, and roads; access to subsidized credit and foreign currency; tariff protections; directorships of the once numerous parastatal corporations. Also, the state can use its police powers at times to act in effect as the arbiter of land tenure and water rights issues, as well as to allocate shares of lucrative mineral resources.
This background of competition and conflict over land, water, valuable natural resources, and the potentially explosive consequences of control over the state and its powers sets the stage for communal conflict. Individual and community struggles to survive in harsh economic circumstances often mutate into perceived zero-sum conflicts. While these conflicts have frequently followed stereotypical ethnic lines, such as the conflicts among the Kikuyu and Kalinjin in Kenya over lands in the Great Rift Valley, or the Hausa and Southern Nigerian peoples’ conflicts over land rights in the Jos Plateau, they have also developed among community groups, such as the conflict between strangers and home peoples in Ife and Modakeke in Nigeria (who are all Yoruba); clan-based conflict among the Somali people; or so-called ethnic conflict among the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi. The latter is really caste conflict among people who share their same language, religion, and appearance.
In each case, the conflict has grown from competing claims for limited resources by individuals, into group conflict as similarly situated individuals mobilize along one identity, and join one another as allies in zero-sum competitions with others over these resources. These frequently turn into violent, negative-sum interactions. The enduring hostility between North and South in Nigeria essentially grows out of the competition over which region will capture the lucrative, oil-based rents controlled by the Nigerian state. These patterns developed over land, and now oil, in Sudan. Similar dynamics, even without oil, have recently sundered Ivory Coast effectively into two states.
Thus, poverty, limited resources, latent social fissures, and the state elites’ critical role in the distribution of resources and opportunities, all combine to develop and then sharpen conflict among diverse peoples. These conflicts in turn weaken, discredit, and in some cases destroy African states. Of course, were African states strongly institutionalized, they might have been able to manage, contain, and arbitrate these conflicts, as has happened in a few cases. However, their initial weakness and the strategic choices of their elites to pursue rents and economic and political control above all else pushed this beyond most states’ reach.
In many cases, the close alignment of ethnicity, region, religion, and economic opportunities intensified the differences. In West Africa, for example, coastal peoples were the first to make contact with the Christian missionaries and colonizing officials, and thus received the earliest education and career opportunities from European organizations. The hinterland frequently received late, little, or no exposure to these opportunities. Thus, coastal peoples were largely Christian, had experienced more economic investment and commerce, and had far more education. The hinterland peoples were largely Islamic, uneducated in European languages, and experienced little economic investment or opportunities. These fissures endure to this day and are part of the explanation for the civil war, which divided Ivory Coast in the early 2000s, the civil war in Liberia, the enduring conflict between North and South in Nigeria, and the cycles of coups experienced by Benin, Togo, and Congo (Brazzaville).
At times, political elites competing for power, or to hold on to power, have consciously intensified these divisions, and the fears that accompany them, to mobilize popular support. Nigeria’s cycles of political violence can be explained by this, as can violence in Liberia, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Chad, and other states. While each of these tragedies followed its own script, their core dynamics are remarkably similar: competing political elites consciously intensified and manipulated latent fears of economic or political domination by other groups as a strategy to take or hold power, resulting in intensified violence.
As already noted, African states have been ineffective, weak, and at times fragile for many years. A key way these governments and their ruling coalitions survived in spite of this, and a major incentive for rulers to stay in power, was their ability to generate, consume, and artfully distribute rents they captured from their economies, and from aid from international organizations. Rents became the dominant currency of politics, displacing policy, program, performance, accountability, and, eventually, most legitimacy the governments might have had or developed. Where rents were inadequate, or funds ran short, governments used thuggery, intimidation, violence, and even murder to maintain their hold on power. Zimbabwe today is an example of this.
It is a reasonable to infer that the overall economic weakness of these societies both weakened economic and civil society and made them more vulnerable to the appeal of state-controlled resources. Offering few comparable economic opportunities outside politics, it also increased the incentives for those who held power to be ruthless in their actions to continue to hold that power. While many leaders moved to single-party systems to internalize the competition for shares of state resources, even two and multi-party systems presented the same dynamics: winning coalitions denied resources to those outside of them, and allocated resources such as rents through patron-clientage to those whose support they needed.
Military regimes behaved much the same way. Not incidentally, patron-clientage substituted political considerations for efficiency or effectiveness in development programs, in location and management of state-owned industries, and in production of public goods. It increased corruption and waste, further delegitimizing the state, and slowed or reversed economic growth. This led to an even poorer and less effective state. This strategy extracted wealth from the public and from international organizations, and turned it into private goods for key members of that coalition. This was a far more lucrative strategy for the elite to hold power than to try to win general public support by expending vast amounts of state resources, trying to produce public goods to serve the population in general, resulting in little is left to the elite for personal consumption. The outcome is apparent at various times in many African states: Economic decline occurs as rent extraction reduces the incentive for production and depletes capital in productive industries. Then the state is more aggressive in capturing what it can from declining sectors and industries. This eventually leads to economic collapse and, at times, armed conflict. As early as 1962, René Dumont noted the growing cost of the burgeoning African state and argued it could not be sustained. However, the inheritance elites were economically and socially dependent on sustaining the extraction of rent.
Robert Bates, in his classic 1981 work, revealed the rent based dynamic through which small political elites captured vast sums by manipulating the price paid for cocoa to producers in Ghana. Allocations of undervalued hard currency and of opportunities in the “modern economy” were ways economic rents were distributed to the coalition that governed Ghana. Bates noted this would likely destroy the economic foundations of the Ghanaian state, but it was pursued nonetheless because the rents were so lucrative to the small group who captured them that the threat of economic and political collapse paled in comparison. In recent work, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and his colleagues explain the dynamic that develops when a small and unaccountable group captures a state, and finds it highly profitable to transfer the wealth it generates to itself. The group needs to stifle broad-based discontent generated by the consequences of this economically destructive strategy, and thus it suppresses dissent through a variety of mechanisms such as single-party systems, co-optation of opponents, show charges and trials for dissidents, establishment of presidencies for life, rigged elections, and suppression of electoral challenges through violence and intimidation.
In many cases, factions of the military, as a subgroup of the elite, seized power directly if they felt threatened with marginalization or to ensure a larger share of rents for themselves. Most of the states functioned primarily to extract and distribute rents from the people and overseas aid organizations to members of a ruling class—clearly underlying both the poor performance and the survival of the African state. State elites were unconcerned with producing public goods, but determined to hold on to power one way or another, as it alone was their source of economic security and social reproduction. This led frequently to shadow or soft states, which had little presence beyond the capitals and a few urban areas to extract rents from their peoples.
A final dimension of the crisis in rents faced by many African states grows from the combination of state weakness and the opportunity to capture extremely profitable rents from raw materials such as diamonds, gold, oil, timber, and the like. As Reno shows, several African states have faced stubborn and violent insurgencies incentivized by income streams won by capturing control of these resources. This dynamic can explain lengthy and bloody civil wars in Angola, Congo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. In the case of Liberia, Charles Taylor used his control over diamond mining areas to seize control of the state and then proceeded to export violence to Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast in an attempt to expand his control and personal wealth.
In Nigeria, while insurgencies in the southeast have not captured the ability to produce oil, their ability to disrupt production has led to an indirect rent, via ransom. If the shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia are considered another lucrative “raw material,” Somali pirates have engaged in much the same enterprise. In each of these cases, weak states have failed to maintain control over their territories, enabling criminal elements to capture lucrative sources of wealth, which increase the latter’s access to arms and ability to further challenge and erode the state. It can become a vicious cycle and spillover into regional disruption, as it did among Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast as well as in the African Great Lakes, and potentially the Horn of Africa.
With but a few exceptions, postindependent Africa has fared poorly. The tragedy of the African state begins with an unfortunate institutional and economic inheritance from the colonial era, develops into communal conflict over politicized competition for control of limited resources, and into rent-based regimes that erode economic well-being as they weaken and delegitimize state institutions. Finally, weak states leave the door open for regional, warlord-led insurgencies focused on capturing control of lucrative income streams arising from a few valuable natural resources. The states further erode, and in a few cases, have completely collapsed.
A few African states have done better. Ghana, Mali, Benin, Botswana, and, in some measure, Tanzania have avoided, grown beyond, or at least better managed these challenges. A few, such as Liberia and Mozambique, appear to be on the mend. The prospects for South Africa are hopeful though still unclear. However, many other African states are deeply mired in these problems, or at least stand on the brink. It can only be hoped that they will fare better in the future.
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