BY JOHN HARBESON
In early December the leaders of the African Union and members of the diplomatic corps assembled in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia,to celebrate half a Century of distinguished service to country and continent by Tanzania’s Salim Ahmed Salim. Organized by the Mwalimu Nyerere Foundation, this very distinguished gathering honored Dr. Salim’s outstanding and varied career of leadership as his country’s ambassador and its Minister of Foreign Affairs and as Secretary General of the Organization of African Union (the Africa Union’s predecessor) and member of the Panel of the Wise in more than one delicate assignment.
In his lengthy tour d’ horizon speaking on this occasion, Dr Salim touched on what struck me as a profound and prescient observation meriting in depth consideration. He said “A new dawn is rising in Africa—it is less the Africa monopolized by states, rather it is the Africa of the people of Africa. Voices are becoming more assertive. Collective force driven from within is becoming more revealing and even causing organized change. The people are crossing boundaries and trading among themselves.”
Dr Salim’s forward looking perception is a useful to way to look ahead in the 55th year of African independence since the benchmark year of 1960. He offers a fresh perspective on the phenomenon of weak states, pervasive across the length and breadth of the continent. Bluntly stated, states are weak in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere because they are failing to come to terms adequately with the living conditions of their citizens for whose security and well-being they bear ultimate responsibility. Stronger states can and do suffer from the same infirmities, but the difference is that stronger states generally preside over stronger economies where more of their citizens are relatively able, frankly, to take care of themselves without direct government involvement in their lives.
The Fund for Peace, whose annual surveys of state weakness I have frequently cited, has long identified the fundamental respects in which citizens of weak states suffer from debilitating circumstances that, precisely because they are weak, fragile states are not only unable to address adequately but in many cases actually make worse. Thus, the Fund’s indicators of state weakness include all of the elements of poverty that the Millennium Development Goals project has been able to address only partially and unevenly across the globe over the last 15 years, leaving in question how closely uneven institutional and process capacities may correlate with those outcomes. In addition they include the circumstances of refugees and the internally displaced, communal and sectarian violence, high percentages of unemployment and insecure employment, especially among youth, stable and in some cases rising high levels of inequality, victimization by official corruption, human rights abuses at the hands of poorly trained police, barriers to mobility, infringement of property rights, notably in land, and persistent discrimination along religious, ethnic, gender, and other lines.
Dr Salim’s observation points to an emerging reality that Africa’s citizens are looking less to their states to deal with these afflictions than to each other. He bears witness to an emerging tendency for Africa peoples to in effect turn their backs on state incapacities and to ignore territorial, jurisdictional boundaries the better to take matters into their own hands. On the one hand, that is an exciting prospect and a testimony to the vitality, imagination, and energies of African peoples at the grassroots, notwithstanding the challenging circumstances of their lives, as Dr Salim seemed to suggest. It speaks to the importance and potential for horizontal cooperation among African peoples across familiar ethnic, religious, gender, and geographical fault lines.
On the other hand, for African peoples to turn away from their states is also profoundly troubling and potentially worrisome. It is troubling because for African peoples to take matters into their own hands is effectively to deepen the problem of state weakness by an order of magnitude. In this sense, states become weakened not only by their own lack of capacity to perform core functions effectively, as has long been the case. But, more seriously, states may suffer losses of efficacy and legitimacy in the minds of their citizens even to bear responsibility for these key functions. It is worrisome because one way or another, the other side of the coin from potential broadly-based society cooperation to improve living circumstances productive is the possibility of dangerously chaotic circumstances and potential anarchy unless some effective patterns of governance emerge in the horizontal linkages.
The key point then emerges that effective governance is an absolute necessity, one way or another, if peoples are to have decent chances at secure and viable livelihoods. To this end, if effective governance cannot be approved not through states as they have been known, then it must be through some other forms of more effective governance, that include reinvention of the idea of the state itself. Everyone is aware that the state as we know it is at root a European import, arguably the least questioned colonial inheritance more than half a Century after independence.
Thus, as the term is employed in conventional parlance, the “state” is inescapably an entity remote from the lives of individuals, somewhat distrusted and feared for that reason as well as it wields the capacity of coercion. Thus, in normal usage, the term derives from its origins in the work of early 20th Century philosopher Max Weber who defined the state as an entity possessing a monopoly of the means of coercion over a compulsory community existing within territorially defined boundaries. In effect, even though the state may be organized along democratic lines and/or be run by popular and effective ruling administrations, the core idea of the state itself has this remote, all-powerful leviathan tends to remain unmodified.
A fundamental flaw in the received idea of the state is who actually is the state. Implicitly, the inherited concept of the state includes as its active “members” those who rule and exercise its coercive capacity. By extension, the definition effective excludes ordinary people who are compulsory, essentially passively incorporated subjects of ruling elites rather than active citizen members. The most significant implication of Dr. Salim’s portrayal of popular moods in contemporary Africa is that people do not regard themselves as “members” of the state, empowered as citizens, but only as subjects of the state, notwithstanding democratic elections or even constitutional enshrinement of basic human rights.
I read in Dr Salim’s remarks an implicit call for a reformed definition of the state appropriate to contemporary African circumstances as foundation for the quality of governance African peoples require to support their efforts to improve the living circumstances. That reformed definition of the state would treat as members of the state citizens in partnership with those who rule on their behalf. The Weberian concept of the state as a compulsory community would yield to one based on at least tacit acquiescence by individuals and groups on terms for being governed together in a shared political order, creating legitimacy and even viability for the still necessary coercive monopoly.
Dr Salim’s remarks suggest that a reformed definition of the state is a key to its survival and viability.
Toward a reformed definition of the state in 2015?.