On forced displacement

On forced displacement

By Prof John Harbeson

State fragility is pervasive throughout Africa and in other world regions as well. A high-level NGO-based Fragility Study Group usefully defined the phenomenon in 2016 as “the absence or breakdown of a social contract between people and their government.” One of the most profound manifestations of fragility so defined is forced internal displacement of peoples (IDPs) from their homes as result of other major causes of fragility. 

The Fund for Peace has identified these to include demographic pressures, group grievances, human flight and brain drain, uneven and/or weak economic development, poverty, public service failure, human rights and rule of law breakdowns, elite conflict, manifestations of state illegitimacy and breakdowns in security, including outbreaks of violent conflict.  Violent conflict, authoritarian rule, and structural features like rapid population growth have been among the main drivers of forced displacement. 

The depth and extent of state fragility hasn’t shown many signs of diminishing despite its seriousness. Meanwhile the problem of one of its major components, forced internal displacement, has increased exponentially and alarmingly over the last fifteen years. A recently released 2019 study by the Washington-based African Centre for Strategic Studies has found a five-fold increase in the documented number of African refugees, internally displaced persons and asylum seekers from an estimated 5 million in 2005 to more than 25 million in 2018. 

Unlike those risking their lives to reach Europe, the study estimates that of the 1.5 million newly forcibly displaced every year, 95 percent remain within Africa and some 66 percent remain within their home countries. Four Horn of Africa countries—Somali, Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia—are among the eight sub-Saharan countries accounting for 85 percent of the annually displaced.  Together, these four countries have produced an estimated 8,726,000 displacements due to violence and conflict according to the Norway-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) 

Conventional elision of the terms state and government obscure the reality that the former should be understood and reserved for an agreement among citizens and communities to be governed together as one polity.

Kenya ranked 25th worldwide in 2018 worldwide with 10,000 new displacements because of conflict and violence according to IDMC, and an estimated ongoing 162,000 displaced for these reasons, a number that has shrunk significantly since the election meltdown of 2007-8. Kenya has also been a significant recipient of refugees from elsewhere in the region, notably nearly 120,000 escaping conflict in South Sudan. Its Dadaab complex continued to hold over 420,000 refugees, principally from Somalia Sudan and South Sudan as of the end of 2018.

IDPs are both cause and consequence of the overall problem of fragility that the Fund has identified in detail, including nearly 80 specific indicators of the major dimensions of fragility that it measures in nearly 180 countries worldwide annually, including 49 in sub-Saharan Africa. These in turn, of course, are reflections from a specific perspective of the massively enduring and complex problem of underdevelopment. I wonder, however, if perhaps the political causes and ramifications of forced displacement might benefit from further specification

The Fragility Study Group’s definition of the problem of State Fragility as social contract failure deposits the problem squarely within the realm of liberal democratic political philosophy. Political liberalism from at least the 17th Century writings of Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan as well as John Locke in his Second Treatise on Civil Government has assumed the existence of rational, freestanding individuals who contract with each other as well as with government they design and sustain on condition that it uphold and serve their basic interests. 

In other words, liberal government is conceived as based on two contracts rather than just one:  not only one between individuals and the government they conceive and uphold but logically prior to doing so with each other to create a polity to do collectively what they cannot adequately do for themselves.  It is the prior agreement with each other that gets overlooked in the focus on the other contract, as fundamental as it is:  ensuring governmental accountability to citizens. 

25 million forcibly internally displaced African persons resident within their own or neighbouring countries vividly dramatise the failure or absence of both contracts essential to a liberal political order, for they lack a viable sense of belonging in relationship with their neighbours as well as abandonment, even persecution by their host governments. Central to the problem of establishing the prior contract of citizens with each other is that the entity they create or sustain with that contract lacks the name it should have: the state.  

Conventional elision of the terms state and government obscure the reality that the former should be understood and reserved for an agreement among citizens and communities to be governed together as one polity.  Even the most democratic constitutions tend to presume this prior contract as they concentrate on the derivative, or government, contract.  Conflict management paradigms often tend to do likewise.

African fragile states, with their pervasive ethnic, religious, and regional conflicts within and across their unreconstructed colonially-established borders singularly demonstrate an incomplete, short-circuited practice of political liberalism. ( 

Writer is professor of Political Science Emeritus, and a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program at the John Hopkins University

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