The continuing curse of state fragility in Africa – By Solomon A. Dersso

Solomon Dersso (Ethiopia)Despite their legal attributes, in functional terms many African states (constructs of the continent’s encounter with colonial rule) came into being without possessing the requisite qualities of statehood. Apart from their alienation from the lived political and socio-cultural experiences of the masses of the people, they became states without the capacity to provide for the security and other basic needs of their people. To date, and despite the passage of half a century since the end of colonial rule, a significant number of these countries still suffer from the lack of the functional attributes of a state.

Late last month the “˜Fund for Peace’ released its annual “˜Fragile States Index‘ – known previously (and somewhat controversially) as the “˜Failed States Index’. Removing the category of “˜Failed States’ and using the new label “˜Fragile States’ is certainly an improvement – the new “˜fragile’ label sounds more neutral than the ideologically charged “˜failed.’

“˜Fragility’ is also better at capturing the complexities of states and the continuum of capabilities rather than creating a false dichotomy between failed and not failed states. Unlike “˜Failed States’, fragility does not ignore the existence of pockets of governance even in the most fragile of states and regions of fragility in stronger ones.

Unsurprisingly, the latest index lists many African countries near the top. All five of the countries in the “˜Very High Alert’ category, five of the 11 countries in the “˜High Alert’ category and 12 of the 17 countries in the “˜Alert’ category are in Africa. This means that more than half (20) of the highly fragile countries in the world (34) are located in the continent.

The major curse of state fragility is the risk of a country plunging into violent conflict. If the index is anything to go by, a significant number of African countries are at real risk of this. And this risk has been borne out by events in recent years as a number of countries have experienced a resurgence of internal violence and sustained incidents of terrorism.

In the past two years, a number of countries emerging from conflict have again been plunged into violence. These include Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR) and most recently South Sudan. Major terrorist attacks were also registered in various countries including most notably Nigeria and Kenya (both for a prolonged period of time.)

While all of these countries are in the category of “˜Highly Fragile States’, the DRC, CAR and South Sudan are part of the top five “˜Very High Alert’ category of states. The scale of South Sudan’s descent in to civil war was reflected in the fact that it displaced Somalia to take the top spot as the world’s most fragile state. Also unsurprising, the CAR experienced the biggest jump up the list in the 2014 index.

This presents a major challenge to the emerging African peace and security system anchored on the African Union (AU) and sub-regional organizations. It highlights the inadequacy of the AU’s excessive focus on a “˜fire-fighting’ approach with heavy reliance on conflict resolution and conflict management tools and the resultant inattention to conflict prevention and post-conflict peace-building activities.

To cater for the tendency of many African states to fall into conflict, the African Union (AU) has put in place such mechanisms as the Continental Early Earning System for detecting and warning policy-makers on the risks of upheaval and conflict in AU member states. Similarly, the AU has established a post-conflict reconstruction and development framework to deal with post-conflict peace-building issues supporting countries emerging out of conflict or political turmoil. Increasing efforts have also been made to progressively operationalize these mechanisms.

The 2011/2012 north African uprisings and eruption of conflict in the eastern DRC and Mali in 2012, and in the CAR and South Sudan in 2013, show that the efforts undertaken to prevent conflicts or support peace-building have been either utterly inadequate, unsuccessful or both.

As the events in South Sudan and CAR show, without paying greater attention to and prioritizing the situation of state fragility in Africa, the AU cannot make meaningful headway with respect to preventing both new conflicts from erupting and countries coming out of conflict from relapsing back to violent instability.

Questions, such as which countries are most fragile and hence at high risk of facing major crisis, and which continental and global organizations are best placed to play a role in addressing these challenges, need to be raised and properly addressed. If the AU and countries in Africa are to make headway in overcoming the trap of the prevailing “˜fire-fighting’ approach to conflicts and violence, there is a need to continuously monitor and robustly engage in these countries. To this end, programmes and plans need to be put in place and resources and political will mobilized.

The curse of state fragility, bequeathed from colonialism and sustained through bad governance and poor leadership, need not be a permanent feature of countries in Africa. Indeed, one of the lessons from this year’s “˜Fragile States Index’ was that countries can progressively move from a status of being most fragile to stronger levels of state capacity.

As highlighted by the index, while Sierra Leone has become the first ever country to exit the “˜Alert’ category, the progress Liberia has made in the past decade has shown that it may well follow Sierra Leone out of the “˜Alert’ category in the coming years.

As a recent study convincingly argued, such an outcome is predicated on long-term and sustained engagement with the country and investment in all spheres including the political, security, institution building and socio-economic recovery.

Solomon Ayele Dersso, a legal scholar and analyst of African affairs, is Head of Peace and Security Council Report at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), Addis Ababa Office. 

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5 thoughts on “The continuing curse of state fragility in Africa – By Solomon A. Dersso

  1. Oh when will you stop blaming colonialism? 50 years and they are worse off now than at independence. The problem is with the people. And part of growing up is not blaming others.

  2. Most African countries have had over 70 years of colonialism and now 50 years or so of “self-rule”. It was easy to apply high handedness in the colonial time, fixed their colonial vision, to work. It has been extremely hard under the watch of the so-call human rights, to do the same in the last 50 years, to fix what could work for the new Africa. Look at it this way, yes, colonialism is squarely to blame even after 50 years on.

  3. My thinking on State Fragility and Political Legitimacy refracted through the African Political Social Leitmotiv Lens which is attempting to deny the African Citizen active public civic civil electoral voice expression as guaranteed by their respective National Constitution has prompted the following reflection.
    Where justice is a virtue of social institutions that imposes demands on the horizontal relations between citizens as engaged civic civil social political public participants, legitimacy is a virtue of political institutions that imposes a demand on the vertical relations between the citizen and the state. Justice and legitimacy in this civic sense can come apart, as illegitimate states may provide well for justice and legitimate states badly. Empirically, the legitimacy of a state might require a measure of justice and justice a measure of legitimacy, but they still make distinct demands.
    What makes for state legitimacy?
    Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau argued that a state can be legitimate only if it is set up with the full consent of citizens and continues over time to a attract and further that consent. More recent political philosophies, utilitarian, contractualist, have tended to ask after the performance of states in delivering justice, whether social civic or more comprehensive justice, ignoring the issue of whether they have a legitimate pedigree.
    The question of whether a state is legitimate is best taken as the question whether state coercion of citizens is consistent with their continuing freedom. Whatever its failures in other respects, a regime that preserves this freedom would be bound to count as more legitimate that a state that does not.
    It may be useful to distinguish between social justice and political legitimacy,since it emphasizes the importance of democracy. Even an approach that treats justice as a comprehensive, social-cum-procedural ideal, as John Rawls’s writes in his “A Theory of Justice” will be forced to recognize the importance of democracy, provided that it endorses the core republican ideal of freedom as non-domonation and pluralist inclusive respecting the constitution.
    The failure of young African democracies [Zimbabwe, Zambia, Nigeria, South Africa, DRC, South Sudan, Tunisia, Egypt] has enormous inter-continent consequences notwithstanding that the ‘democracy idea’ eventually and ultimately will be the end state of every nation on earth. This ‘democracy idea’ remains a most powerful seductive concept [Fukuyama]. In the long run, democracy is on balance the best political system—-not because it allows citizens essential fundamental freedoms but because democracy as a normative concept enhances transparency and rule of law which in the long run will foster and encourage prescriptive ordinal citizen prosperity—the fundamental ontological essence of ‘civitas’—- essential in pluralistic dynamic flowering and flourishing of values connoting and promoting respect, peace, and good order. Civic Institution Elements grossly lacking in many fragile social democratic societies today.
    Good citizens who are alert, engaged and educated in the advancement of pluralistic common values should participate in a national conversation and reflect collectively upon the content and character of their shared national identity. In a prescriptive pluralistic society open to engaged polite debate, the motives of good citizens should arise freely; virtue cannot be the product of state civil coercion or servile civic indoctrination.

  4. When empires collapse, fragile states emerge in their wake. This is not to “blame colonialism”, but to understand what is at the core of the problem of “fragile states” in Africa.

    When the Roman empire collapsed, Europe entered its “dark ages”, it took several hundred years for stable states to emerge (one of the first was France) – a similar (slow) process is taking place in Africa.

    Apart from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the most significant event in 1,000 years in Sub-Saharan Africa was European Colonialism – we aren’t “blaming the White man” when we talk about it – it is similar to Europeans drawing lessons from the Reformation to understand Modern Europe.

    In the Middle-east, we are seeing the end of Sykes-Picot & a rise of a new political order. We are going to see something similar in Africa (states based on the Berlin Conference lines aren’t fit for purpose).

    In Nigeria it is as clear as crystal that the Muslim far North cannot co-exist with the rest of Nigeria. In 1999, they dismantled the basis for co-existence (secularism), by instituting Sharia law. We Nigerians know that it is only a matter of time before these faultlines manifest as new states.

    Africa’s problem is fundamental, it is political. The “African state” is neither a “state” – nor “African”. It is a product of long-dead white men drawing lines – & until that changes, there will be no real progress.

  5. As Dersso says ‘the curse of state fragility, bequeathed from colonialism and sustained through bad governance and poor leadership, need not be a permanent feature of countries in Africa’, so there is hope! However, even after 50 – 60 years it is surely not at all surprising that the colonial legacy of something so fundamental as the boundaries of nation states continues to be of enormous significance.

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