Why Do African States Fail? Don't Blame Neo-Colonialism

By Jean-Loup Amselle

Originally published in Le Monde.

PARIS - The recent French interventions in North Africa (Libya, Mali), and the one that began last week in the Central African Republic, raise the question of the very existence of the state on the continent.

Even though anthropologists identified the existence in precolonial times of two types of societies - state societies represented by kingdoms and empires, and segmentary lineage society, organized in tribes - it is clear that the former's characteristics are very different from that of the rational bureaucratic state, which one can observe nowadays in most developed countries.

The great Sudanese empires of the Middle Ages (Ghana, Mali, Songhai) or those that developed from the 18th century onwards - like the Fula empire of Massina, the Imamate of Futa Jallon or the Bamana Empire - did indeed possess specific characteristics. At the center of these political entities, sovereigns had absolute power, leaving none to those situated on the outskirts of the kingdoms. They only controlled these parts remotely, creating divisions among the villages, lineages and different leaders to establish their rule.

At the end of the 19th century, the French conquest ended with the destruction of the empires of El Hadj Umar Tall and Samori Ture, and the establishment of a colonial bureaucratic machinery over the societies of the region. The French colonial administration was however far from direct, often relying on local intermediaries such as canton leaders.

When these countries gained their independence in the 1960s, they kept using the same institutions as the former rulers, even though they sometimes sought to imitate the functioning of socialist countries (Mali, Guinea, Ghana, etc.). But the weakness of these political institutions together with manipulations from the former colonizers led, more or less quickly, to the fall of these states, which were then replaced with military regimes (Moussa Traoré's in Mali, Lansana Conté's in Guinea, etc).

Pressures from the French - among them from then President François Mitterrand in a famous speech in June 1990 - soon drove the military out of power. This is how Mali, after Senegal, became the longstanding model of democracy in Africa. Therefore, observers were all the more surprized when in March 2012, a simple officer from the Malian army, Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, managed with an almost unbelievable ease to topple President Amadou Toumani Touré. And it is only thanks to the French intervention that the Malian state was saved.

Without going as far as talking about neocolonialism or puppet states, the conditions in which this intervention took place and what followed do raise questions as to the nature of politics in Mali, as it appeared very clearly that there was no centralized political system - or as a matter of fact, no existing state in Mali, and possibly in many other African countries.

Politics in Africa are essentially dominated by predatory principles and vote-catching redistribution. So much so that speaking of corruption makes no sense in these countries where it is crucial to occupy positions of power to allow one's family and friends to benefit from it.

Predators and politicians

Moreover, it appeared that the more a regime was democratic and decentralized - the keyword of the policies pushed forward by international sponsors in 1990s - the more important predatory skills and clientelism would become. The Malian state machinery, like many of its African counterparts, is therefore riddled by networks that feed on the range of resources available on the continent: mining and oil as well as international aid and drug trafficking.

No state and no society either - but instead networks whose functioning methods are based more on Marcel Mauss' theories of reciprocity and gift exchange (set out in his 1924 essay The Gift) than on Western treaties of political science. What happened in Mali was not a one-off: This alarming phenomenon also affects the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the central power fails to have authority on the whole of its territory, Somalia, the northern parts of Nigeria and Cameroon, and the Central African Republic as well.

Africa is now experiencing the implosion of its bureaucratic state and the redefinition of social and political ties, which far from systematically being all about ethnicity show instead the emergence of religious factors.

For developing countries and international organizations, the fall of the state creates a number of problems, especially with regards to maintaining law and order on the continent. In the meantime, it also allows multinational companies and the richest countries to get hold of the much sought-after raw materials at a lower cost.

Jean-Loup Amselle is an anthropology teacher at the EHESS (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences) in Paris. Originally published on Worldcrunch. Republished with permission.

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