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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Elusive African State


Here’s a puzzle: how can the state be ever-present in our lives while its true meaning may yet remain elusive? As central as the state is to political life and the academic discipline of political science, it has long seemed to me that the study of the state has struggled to establish its legitimate contemporary meaning.  We may argue about what the government should or should not do, even as we may rarely stop to ponder our place in the polity we call the state. The study of African politics has, however, exposed the elusiveness of the meaning of the state and the importance of addressing this problem in the context of the continent’s contemporary circumstances.

Today, most of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 49 states have been broadly recognized to be profoundly fragile, especially in this century, but the problem of how to conceptualize and undertake state strengthening, curiously, has remained a largely unexplored frontier. The Washington-based Fund for Peace has done significant work on this problem by conducting annual surveys of state fragility in 174 countries worldwide since the early years of this century. It has identified 12 broad dimensions of state fragility falling into several broad categories. 

In the category of social phenomena, the Fund index identifies serious demographic pressures, refugees and internally displaced persons, group grievances, and human flight and brain drain.  Economic contributors include weak and uneven economic development and entrenched poverty. In contrast, weak political institutions include institutional legitimacy deficits, corruption, ineffectiveness, power struggles, and poor educational, banking, health care, and infrastructure sectors.  

A final category encompasses other political factors that include human rights abuses, factionalized elites, international interference, and a range of insecurity factors, including arms proliferation, militarized protest movements, and armed conflict. The Fund scores each of these twelve components on a scale of 1 to 10; the higher the score, the greater fragility. Scores of 90 or above on this120 point scale indicate dangerous levels of fragility, and those between 60 and 90 indicate high levels of concern.  Over the years 2007 to 2022, Sub-Saharan states have averaged a consistent score of about 85.

Today, most of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 49 states have been broadly recognized to be profoundly fragile, especially in this century.

The problem of the essence of the fragility common to each and all of these, its existential dimensions, has appeared to remain largely unaddressed. The problem of African state fragility has remained unchanged for want of progress in discerning the meaning of a state that would integrate and comprehend shared pathways to addressing all these pieces of the puzzle. 

One key to the elusiveness of a viable definition of a developmental state may lie in the pedigree of the state in Africa. The state as we know it has been an import from Europe to Africa as a central dimension of colonialism, as the distinguished Sudanese scholar and United Nations diplomat Francis Deng, among others, has observed. Precolonial African societies were certainly governed by states of many varieties, but in most cases, markedly albeit variably dissimilar to the state-like structures European powers imposed to rule them.  Thus, the fundamental question arises as to what extent independent African countries have purged their postcolonial polities of their colonial antecedents after six decades of independence. An authoritative study of the postcolonial African state by the late Crawford Young summarizes the key components of the modern state as we know it and reaches an ambiguous conclusion:  African states possess enough, if perhaps not all, of the essential properties of the modern state, as generally understood, to qualify as such.  


Sub-Saharan states’ average score in terms of level of fragility between 2007 and 2022.

But in whose eyes? To what extent do African citizens consider that the structures by which they are governed have become and are legitimate? A recent finding on this point by Afrobarometer’s 2021 survey of African political opinion found that only 40% of Africans in 32 states identified totally or more than halfway with their nation-states as opposed to their residual ethnic identities, down further from only 48% a decade earlier. To what extent does this reflect the incomplete decolonization of African states and, thus, problematic legitimacy?

At the same time, the most widely employed academic definition of the modern state also appears problematic, supplied by the early 20th Century German sociologist Max Weber who posited the state as an entity possessing a monopoly of coercive power within a territorially defined compulsory association. Only some modern states fully meet each of those requirements. Moreover, widely prevalent reductionist use of that definition tends to blur a necessary distinction between a ruling regime and the state over which it presides by tacitly treating the former as synonymous with the latter. This tends to lead to further reduction of the state to being synonymous with its bureaucracy and security sectors, leaving the relationship to democracy somewhat unclear in African and
other circumstances alike.

The manifestations of the elusive meaning of the state merit renewed investigation and reflection. ( 

— 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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