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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Fragile institutions: the elusive state


By Prof John Harbeson

Sub-Saharan Africa is composed of 49 nation-states. Western Sahara and Somaliland have long waited in the wings, and the Maghreb states of North Africa, are conventionally, albeit debatably, regarded as looking more toward the Middle East than south across the Sahara.

Everyone recognises that describing these 49 countries as nation-states Is so remote from reality as to verge on indulging in euphemism.  With the possible exception of Eswatini, they are states of not one but many nations.  More fundamentally, the extent to which the majority have existentially qualified as states in practice has proven problematic and aspirational at best. Remedying the dearth of promising initiatives to reform and strengthen sub-Saharan African states has been continually thwarted by profoundly expansive imprecision in how the term has been tacitly defined.

That most sub-Saharan African states have become profoundly fragile over their six decades of independence has been the cause and effect of millions of citizens lost to war and destitution, including approximately 30 million African refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and asylum seekers, by current UNHCR estimates. Numerous protocols for measuring African political and socioeconomic progress document this reality of state fragility. However, few interrogate the underlying elements of African state fragility as it has emerged, especially during this century.

An exception has been the Washington-based Fund for Peace (FFP) which has gauged 180 states worldwide since 2006 according to twelve categories of fragility, scoring from 1(very resilient) to 10(extreme fragility.) These include four categories of social indicators: a) demographic pressures of disease, environmental hazards, and population growth; b) refugees and IDPs; c) group and sectarian grievances; and d) loss of human capital, including brain drain. 

A second set of four political and socioeconomic categories includes 1) uneven economic development, including geographically; 2) poverty and economic decline, unemployment and inflation; 3) state legitimacy and effectiveness, including democracy and 4) quality and scope of health, education, and environmental services. 

A final set of four political and military indicators categories includes a) human rights and the rule of law; b) factionalised political elites and power struggles; c) quality and strength of the security apparatus; and d) external intervention.

Overall, the FFP estimates a moderate resilient average score for all 180 states in 2023 of 65.7, improved by 4.9 points since 2007. Sub-Saharan African states average a significantly fragile current of 84.5, against a maximum potential fragility of 120, which only enhanced a point since 2007. Kenya was the 35th most fragile state in 2023 at 87.8, improved by 3.5 points since 2007. African states performed worst over these 15 years in their security apparatus and provision of public services and, somewhat surprisingly, relatively best in managing group grievances and demographic pressures.

The FFP indicators are a comprehensive array of implicit outcomes a resilient state would produce for its people and those a fragile state would not. But outcomes alone do not fully capture the essence of state resilience or fragility.  Put simply, I suggest state resilience, like strong social relationships generally, is a function, at personal as well as at collective levels, of four essential process qualities:  legitimacy, equitability, sustainability and trustworthiness that need to infuse negotiations in terms of association for being governed together as one political community.

I suggest that the term “state” has been routinely employed in numerous ways unmoored to these process requirements, affecting the essence of fragility underlying the missing outcomes of FFP tracks. I hypothesise that where relatively new states, like those of sub-Saharan Africa, have proven most resilient, one would find indications of quality leadership exhibiting these four process requirements, and their absence is visible in fragile states.

Discussions of state fragility routinely tacitly rely on definitions of the term that overlook these process requirements as keys to increasing state resilience. They commonly reference the state as synonymous with bureaucratic structure rather than engaging in political processes. 

An authoritative treatise on the African state identifies the properties that enable it to become a semiautonomous end in itself rather than constitutive of and engaged with the citizens it serves.  Widespread implicit reliance on the Weberian concept of the state continues, understood as an entity monopolising solely legitimate coercive capacity within compulsory territorial boundaries, begging broader, complex, and essential meanings of “legitimacy.”

The distinguished Sudanese diplomat, Francis Deng, has emphasised that state structures as we know them were colonial imports. As such, they have survived into the independence era, if intact only fragilely, without, in most cases, anything resembling the aforementioned negotiating processes needed to lend these states greater resilience.

Finally, African states have achieved a mixed record on democratisation over the last three decades. That African democracies have inspired only negligibly improved state resilience is at least in part because the requisite quality processes have been missing in addressing both.  ( 

Prof Harbeson is a professor of Political Science Emeritus and a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University

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