Last week, I looked at the ongoing strife in Southern Sudan and the Central African Republic and wondered whether there can be a solution to the seemingly persistent instability and conflict in Africa. Even as I prepared this week’s column, two news reports caught my attention.
First it was reported that patients in the main hospital in Bor, in South Sudan, had been shot and killed in their beds for being from the “wrong” ethnic group. While in the Central African Republic, people who claim to be Christians were lynching people they believe to be Muslims and one of the so- called Christians cut a piece of the flesh of a dead or dying Muslim man and ate it in front of a mob! Evidence of the universal dehumanising effect of war and violent conflict.
Although there are local factors behind the South Sudanese and Central African conflicts, they not are unique in any way. We have instability and conflict, of one form or another, in several countries on the continent. What happened in Kenya in 2007 and Mali in 2012 showed us how quickly seemingly stable and democratic countries can slide into violence and state failure. On that basis, “post conflict” countries like Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia and Sierra Leone cannot be permanently removed from the watch list.
The common thread that runs through all of these past and present conflicts is the weakness and/or inappropriate form of the nation state in Africa. Duncan Clarke called the idealised image of the African nation state “our dominant contemporary, but flawed, myth” while Basil Davidson summed up thus in the title to his famous book, “The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation State”. In Europe the concept of the nation state, with a defined territory, centrally controlled governing institutions and notions of sovereignty was introduced and refined for purposes of reducing wars.
It was this concept – the Westphalian state model – that the Europeans chose to impose onto Africa when they colonised it. There is nothing wrong with the concept per se, except that in Africa it was deployed for a completely different purpose. In Africa the European colonial powers were demarcating natural resource concessions. They were scrambling for territory without reference to the Africans or our history or our native modes of political organisation.
They drew arbitrary boundaries to keep their competitors out and run the territories with what they called “governments” but what Chinweizu more accurately described as “armed bureaucracies”. Sadly, the nationalists who agitated for independence embraced the concept and the defined colonial territories without question and only fought to change the colour of the managers from white to black.
Despite the myth of centralised authority, after independence many states remained little more than “geographical expressions” held together, externally, by international recognition and aid and, internally, by regimes that rely on coercion and patronage. Where the boundaries and centralised authority bred nationalism in Europe, in Africa they have bred sharp internal competition and turned local ethnic and religious rivalries into deadly sectarian enmity.
Control of government means absolute power over the distribution of public goods and patronage so elites are quick to instrumentalise ethnicity and to resort to violent conflict to grab or keep hold of it. Conflict resolution has also become formulaic and, inadvertently, a driver of cycles of violent conflict because it usually entails a curve up of the “national cake”, thus encouraging sectarianism and corruption as positions are doled out on the basis of ethnicity.
So what is the solution? Ian S. Spears summarised it best when he said, “Unless the African state system is reconfigured in some way, states cannot be consolidated and instability will remain a permanent feature of the continent’s political life.” We must recast the African State and mould it into our own image - so that it may look like us and protect our legitimate interests and aspirations rather than it trying to mould us to look like it and enslaving us to serve foreign interests and the whims of rapacious and violent elites.
This will not be easy because, as Spears rightly observes, the status quo though highly undesirable, serves many powerful vested interests well. The “international community” still views the present state system as useful and no local elites will willingly cede power or territory which international law and local reality deems to be absolutely theirs.
So any reconfiguring shall have to take a circuitous route through the two areas where the colonial states have been and continue to be abject failures - economics and culture. Out of a new economics and new cultural dynamic can be born a new politics which can create a new state paradigm, with confederations of peoples operating under the auspices of regional supra-national institutions.