Why does the state model for societal organisation seemingly not work in some instances?

The state model for societal organisation, often considered to have achieved universal compliance, is assumed to provide the only legitimate, achievable and acceptable form governing the world’s people and land (Clapham, 2002:778; 2004:77-80; Kraxberger, 2007:1060). The uniform and aspirational qualities of the state are questioned when the prevalence of weak or failed states in the world today are recognised; suggesting that the state model does not work universally (Milliken & Krause, 2002:762). The prevalence of weak or failed states is often attributed to variations in the nature of regime performance, or style of political system while the category of the state and its mechanisms are rarely questioned. Potential explanations for state model failures which are instead advanced in the literature, emphasise weak political institutions; a government’s loss on the monopoly of power which leads to internal conflict; and a lack of legitimacy through poor relations between the state and its citizens (Ghani & Lockhart, 2009; Goldstone, 2009; Jackson, 1990; Kostovicova & Bojicic-Dzelilovic, 2009; Wolff, 2006; Zartman, 2005).

For the state model to be considered working it is required to fulfil the varied mechanisms of the state outlined by the international community. This approach is questioned by Herbst (1996) who suggests that adherence to the model of the state should not be the fixation, instead believing that consideration should be given to the ‘how and why’ certain states developed as they have, in many cases this has led the state model appearing inappropriate and often as not working (Herbst, 1996:120). Building on Herbst’s suggestion, it is the argument of this essay that within Africa, “the continent with the largest number of state collapses” (Ottaway, 2002:1012) the achievement of the state model was not the expectation or even the goal, either prior to, or following independence. It is this gap between the expectation of African states and the international community that has led to the state model being considered to have not worked in some instances. To evidence this argument firstly the expectations of the state model will be explored. This will be followed with the conditions in which the state model developed. Next, the details of African independence and the expectations surrounding independence and importance of territoriality will be addressed. Lastly going on to suggest how the expectation of African states has shifted following the conclusion of the Cold War and the development of the new label of state failure which has prevented the international community allowing the evolution of an African state model.

The modern and universally recognised state developed from a European model. This model became the primary mode of societal organisation following its prolific implementation in the aftermath of the European empires. The state model’s key mechanisms are founded on the Weberian state which primarily focuses on “successful claims regarding the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (Weber, 1958:78). This notion of the state today has been expanded to consist of the following aspects: a government with absolute authority, the capacity for inter-state relations, a permanent population and a defined territory (Ignatieff, 2002:118 and John, 2010:13). Additionally, the modern state may be considered responsible for the provision of public goods and services such as education, health and economic opportunity, as well as the provision and maintenance of a minimum infrastructure (Axtmann, 2004:260-264; Caporaso, 1996:34; Clapham, 2004:77; Rotberg, 2004:4 and Torres & Anderson, 2004:5). Today a state’s creation and survival depends upon adherence to this model.

When the state model is considered to have not worked, it is often identified as weak or failed by the international community. Helman and Ratner developed the definition of a failed state in 1993, as one that is “utterly incapable of sustaining itself as a member of the international community” (Helman & Ratner, 1993:4). This definition has become the primary way of identifying state weakness and failure despite its ambiguous nature. A state may receive this classification as the result of being considered weak, illegitimate or corrupt; delivering poor economic opportunity and performance, or demonstrating persistent violence, which the state is unable to prevent or protect its citizens from. These factors may also be accompanied by a loss of absolute control over territory and incapacity to provide the aforementioned minimal services and infrastructure (Rotberg, 2003; 2004). These identifiers of poor performance are used when considering state model failure and commonly appear as binary factors; either a state is or isn’t failed.

In addition to the formal mechanisms and institutions of the state there exists an ‘idea of the state’ which provides both its actualisation, as well as the link to developing legitimacy between the state and its citizens; and the state and the international community. Caporaso (1996) suggests that the ‘idea of the state’ is fundamental to its existence; the state itself simply being a “cluster of institutions embedded in specific social formations which are in turn embedded within distinctive historical periods” (Caporaso, 1996:31). Factors leading to the realisation of the state are outlined by Young (1994) who suggest’s that there is an “ensemble of affective orientations, images and expectations imprinted in the mind of its subjects” (Young, 1994:33). This theory is most prominently supported by Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983) which suggests that by attaching icons to the state, such as an official language, national anthem, flag, currency and pledges of allegiance, an understanding of unity is formed which can be replicated over vast areas. It is the replication of these state ideals which help install citizens with an understanding of the government as a legitimate central body of the state, which includes their monopoly on violence and reinforces conceptions of territoriality in addition to maintaining the state model as the dominant mode of societal organisation.

Precolonial society in Africa was founded on different mechanisms and ideas from the societal organisation which had led to the development of the state model in Europe. These differences can be understood, according to Clapham (2004) as a result of two dominant elements; firstly, due to the sparseness of populations who were often nomadic, leading to seasonal movements across territories. Secondly, as a result of poor communications and trade links meaning that there were minimal opportunities to maintain control over an area, or profit from long distance trade; both of which are considered significant elements in the development of a state (Clapham, 2004:84). These patterns developed as “land was plentiful and populations thin on the ground” (Herbst, 1996:127). The African pre-states were surrounded by vast areas of unoccupied land, and as such, land was not considered “a constraining resource” (Herbst, 1996:128) in fact there were “islands of statehood […] within seas of sparsely inhabited and feebly administer[ed] territory” (Clapham, 2004:78) which led to the primary objective of control being led over individuals. This is radically different to the development within the European state model which is fundamentally attached to the concept of defined territoriality, as a result of territories adjoining one another (Clapham, 2004:78) and led to a need for military power to defend and expand borders (Kraxberger, 2007:1058).

The further important difference between the two regions stems from the precolonial African practice of ‘shared sovereignty’. It was not unusual, according to Herbst (1996), for “a community to have nominal obligations and allegiances to more than one political centre” (Herbst, 1996:128). This arrangement was generated due to a weakness of communications and technology which meant that “few political centres could hope to wield unquestioned authority; even over areas they were thought to control” (Herbst, 1996:128). This again suggests a marked difference between European and African pre-state conditions, as throughout Europe there are rarely questions concerning “where one stands, and that one always stands on the domain of a single sovereign state” (James, 1986:31). Shared sovereignty led to the commonality of coercion in precolonial Africa, as loyalties needed to be constructed and could not be taken for granted over any significant distance (Herbst, 1996:129). These conditions, it is argued by Nkiwane (2001), still exist, and it is in fact western scholars failure to interpret the evolution and fluidity of the state in Africa which has led to it being deemed weak or failed. Nkiwane goes on to note that the African state reality has simply continued adherence to precolonial ideas of society without expectation of further evolution away from their pre-state conditions (Nkiwane, 2001:287).

Colonisation of Africa by European powers introduced many of the mechanisms of the European state, but not the expectation or idea of the state. This is due to the primary goal of colonisation by the European powers being to serve the needs of the highly industrialised countries, and their drive for capital accumulation without consideration to the long term needs or expectation for independence (Ishemo, 1995:208). The colonisers concentrated on imposing mechanisms such as fixed and arbitrarily defined territories; a centrally structured administrative government, and instruments for managing and manipulating the economy (Clapham, 2004:79), all of which bore little resemblance to the precolonial African societal structures and bases of knowledge (Englebert, 2000:77; Ishemo, 1995:209). According to Davidson (1992) many of the European powers denied the existence of an equivalent African state while imposing “alien models [of societal organisation which] failed to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of the African majority” (Davidson, 1992:12). This view is supported by Englebert (2000) when he notes that Africa was different to other colonial occupations as the institutions and societies pre-dating colonialism usually played no part in the new state system; which he suggests is due to assimilation or elimination, and led to Africans remaining at the “bottom of a relationship of domination” (Englebert, 2000:75). Domination didn’t always result in citizen compliance, and traditional mechanisms of legitimisation were often invoked by imperial powers to create societal cohesion and validate an ‘idea of the state’ (Miyoshi, 1993:729). These included building administrative foundations on the basis of extended family relationships and forms of spiritual authority derived through the ascription of spiritual powers to local elites (Clapham, 2004:84). The use of these mechanisms highlights the difficulties experienced in developing the state model within Africa and the lack of expectation that the state model should or would be fulfilled (Englebert, 2000:77).

The end of empire meant the process of decolonisation and the rapid development of independent statehood. This was driven by recognition of the new states by the international community and their desire to award rights of self-determination. These aspirations existed despite the former colonies lack of expectation, foundations or preparation for independence by the colonisers (Englebert, 2000:77). Independence is commonly held as liberation, but the reality of the newly formed African states was not a “restoration of Africa to Africa’s own history, but the onset of a new period of indirect subjection to the history of Europe” (Davidson, 1992:10). Africa became more than fifty nation states, each based on the European model, and quickly formalised by the international community when the United Nations “immediately declared the new countries to be sovereign and ratified their borders” (Herbst, 1996:121). The UN’s grant of sovereignty, simply because a country had achieved independence, was a “revolutionary departure from traditional practices whereby sovereignty had to be earned” (Jackson, 1990:168-9). Jackson (1990) further problematizes the UN’s actions by defining these African states as “quasi-states” which are “deficient and defective as apparatuses of power” as there is no “evidence of a capacity to rule” (Jackson, 1990:168-9). This position has been defended by the UN which states that sovereignty, human rights and self-determination grew out of World War II, and that supporting states to fulfil these requirements “represent[s] the three central purposes of the United Nations Charter“ (Sellers, 1996:1). It is argued by Murphy and Augelli (1993) that involvement of international institutions has supported decolonisation and developed civil society through the promotion of self-determination (Murphy & Augelli, 1993:71). This position is argued by Simpson (1996), who notes that instead of supporting the realisation of the state model, self-determination instead diminishes it through “assiduously serv[ing] the same state system it pretends to assail” (Simpson, 1996:36). The paradoxical result of self-determination can be identified in Africa when considering the importance placed on fixed territories by the UN, contradicting the African idea of the state, while simultaneously fostering tensions within the newly created and highly heterogeneous states containing multiple groups of self-identifying minorities (Simpson, 1996:36). It is acknowledged by Miyoshi (1993) that once absorbed into the international community the previously colonised space “cannot reclaim autonomy and seclusion once [it has been] dragged out of the precolonial state” (Miyoshi, 1993:730). Miyoshi goes on to suggest that “they now have to deal with the outside world, irrespective of their own wishes and inclinations” (Miyoshi, 1993:730), and that this is despite the conditions of the state model being unavailable to most former colonies (Miyoshi, 1993:730).

Suggestions that the state model is unavailable and unexpected within Africa, despite ideas of self-determination and recognition by the international community, are supported by the new ruling elites. While adopting some outward features of statehood, new elites reverted to precolonial political practices, as well as methods exerted by the colonisers in an attempt to legitimise and impose their idea of the state. Notions of self-determination which developed prior to independence had offered African’s an opposition against which they asserted their identity; these now became obstructive as postcolonial rulers adopted the territories and institutions of the colonial times as bases from which to generate their independent states, in turn creating problems of legitimacy (Clapham, 2004:80; Englebert, 2000:76; Miyoshi, 1993:730). Attempts at adherence to the state model by the new elites can be understood when it is remembered that they received training in statecraft by the European powers; this had included receiving a European education, adoption of the colonial language; even assumption of the coloniser’s dress (Englebert, 2000:76). Successor elites further supported adoption of the colonial model as it provided them unquestioned preservation of their own positions “because there was no guarantee, if they began to experiment with different types of political organisation that they would continue to be in power” (Herbst, 1996:121). Fears of political instability also witnessed reversion of elites to more familiar political practices alongside the adopted societal model. African leaders traditionally held a tendency to “blur the distinction between the public and the private realm” (Englebert, 2000:72), leading to the readopting of systems of power and traditional African institutions based on patronage and clientism, which have now become normalised in the politics of Africa (Davidson, 1992:12). This practice, of re-establishing precolonial kinship ties and spiritual authority have resulted in a further weakening and detaching of legitimacy and expectations from the modern state (Holsti, 1996:97).

The desire of the new African rulers to simultaneously revive precolonial traditions, while superficially adopting the European state model, resulted in African states which lacked expectation of, and compliance with the fundamental mechanisms of the state mode of societal organisation. Englebert (2000) claims problems with adherence to these fundamentals is a result of “dubious communities of heterogeneous and occasionally clashing linguistic, religious and ethnic identities” (Englebert, 2000:74), he goes on to suggest that problems with the creation of a national state identity were compounded through a “rarely effective and much less monopolistic” (Englebert, 2000:74) claim over force and violence within states, and the “predatory nature of many of the African governments” (Englebert, 2000:74) which fails the test of citizen legitimacy. A sustained focus of state evolution has also been its relationship to territoriality, an issue highlighted by Englebert (2000) which he describes in many African states as “at best hesitant and contested; and usually limited to an urbanised and schooled minority” (Englebert, 2000:74). Boahen (1987), disagrees with Englebert’s argument, when he expresses that the maintenance of the European boundaries, though inappropriate, left a positive legacy, as prior to the colonial rule Africa had been a place of an assortment of “existing innumerable lineage and clan groups, city states, kingdoms, and empires without any fixed boundaries” (Boahen, 1987:95). The positive result of the loyalty to the European boundaries is questioned by Holsti (1996) who alternatively argues that these arbitrary boundaries might well have provided clarity, but that this clarity was invalidated through the loss of the idea of the state, and any agreement as to what constitutes the community over which the state prevails (Holsti, 1996:97). This form of the state persisted unchallenged, despite its inadequacies, until the conclusion of the Cold War.

The end of the Cold War saw the re-evaluation of state expectations and exposed African states as hollow and not adequately fulfilling the state model conditions as result of state frailty and their inability to gain legitimacy (Clapham, 2002:775; Freeman, 1996:60). During the Cold War there had been, as argued by Herbst (1992), an implicit rule that the international community was to maintain the integrity of the colonial boundaries (Herbst, 1992:17). Since its conclusion there has been a decline in the volume of development aid entering Africa. This decline is described by Clough (1992) as a ‘fundamental break’ in the relationship with African states over the last century which had witnessed first colonisation, then the international community legitimising independence through sovereignty, and lastly followed during the Cold War, by financial support and resources which preserved the African state system without requiring proof of its adherence to the model or challenging its expectations (Clough, 1992:77). This reduction in support has witnessed many African states weaken, further quashing ideas of the state model and any expectation of compliance to the related mechanisms. This is confirmed by Herbst’s (1996) observation that states are contracting because “while the centres still exist, they cannot extend their power very far over the territory they formally control” (Herbst, 1996:124) primarily as a result of a reduction in income through aid, investment or tax collection. This contraction of the already absent state model in Africa since the Cold War has, according to Reno (1995), generated a new type of power from the business sector who have in many instances been seen to replace government and the state institutions, who “have little interest in carrying out the traditional functions of the state” (Reno, 1995:1). It is transitions such as these which are often considered to add weight to the international communities labelling of many states in Africa as weak or failing at fulfilling the expectations of the state model.

Since the Cold War a tendency has developed, within the international community, to label African states as weak or failed; highlighting the international communities continued commitment to the state model while attempting to justify various interventions; yet denying Africa alternative ways of imagining the societal organisation. Creation of the definition of state failure by Helman & Ratner in 1993, following the Cold War, has again shifted the relationship between Africa and the international community. The inherent weaknesses within the structure of the postcolonial states which still exist are suggested to be as a result of a lack of expectations and poor implementations surrounding state mechanisms (Hughes, 2004:863). Governments are considered “fractured, decentred and often lacking in clear spatial as well as functional lines of authority” (Caporaso, 1996:34). Englebert (2000) notes that the weakness of the African state is the consequence of its lack of institutional hegemony and legitimacy at the domestic level (Englebert, 2000:79) this is supported through numerous examples of conflict, corruption and poor infrastructural development (Hughes, 2004:863; Zartman, 2005:5-6). Goldman (2001) reiterates the importance of externally recognised sovereignty which is commonly awarded by the international community on the basis of domestic legitimacy, removal of which supports foreign and institutional intervention (Goldmann, 2001:63). Intervention mobilised by the international community maintains support for the “principle of the state, sovereignty and territorial integrity confirm[ed] by the centrality of the European state ideal” (Axtmann, 2004:262). Elson (1984) believes that much of this intervention should be understood as “imperialism without colonialism, as the results are still linked to exploitation and domination” (Elson, 1984), through military, financial, political or institutional means, limiting the expectations of Africa to fulfil the state model. The role of aid and development, which is often considered as positive intervention, is noted by Murphy & Augelli (1993) as limiting and depressing movement away from these new forms of imperialism; discouraging African states from “attempting their own experiments at autonomous development (Murphy & Augelli, 1993:79). The relevance of autonomous development and alternative models of societal organisation can be understood as state boundaries and issues concerning territoriality become less important through the global flows of trade, investment, technology and migration patterns. It is argued by Griffin (2003) that political institutions and approaches to societal organisation have “lagged behind” (Griffin, 2003:790), creating a need to support states in evolving and adapting new, appropriate forms interaction and self-definition and societal organisation, not necessarily based on the state model.

In conclusion, the state model for societal organisation is required to realise a majority of the mechanisms and institutions of the state to be considered successful. Today the seemingly increasing volume of states failing to achieve these requirements has led to the universal applicability of the state model being questioned. This essay demonstrates that when considering the case of states within the African continent, the seeming failure of state model should be attributed to the lack of expectation that the African state would ever fully fulfil the idea of the European state either prior to, or following independence, and that this belief has remained unchanged as a result of stark differences in ideology in precolonial societies in Africa to that of Europe; the rapidity of decolonisation and actualisation of sovereignty, low expectations of the new elites who appear to have often regarded the state model as an unachievable. The final indication that the European state model remains unexpected of African states has been witnessed through the limiting effects of intervention by the international community who have labelled states as failures, while denying efforts which would lead to the natural evolution of an African state model.


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