Africa Watch

The End of the Post-colonial State System in Africa?

Richard Cornwell
Africa Early Warning Programme, Institute for Security Studies

Published in African Security Review Vol 8 No 2, 1999

The state has been the most prominent feature of the international political system for so long that it is easy to take the permanence of its role in the organisation of society for granted. Lately, however, there is a growing body of literature dealing with the erosion of the power of the sovereign state. Usually, this centres around the impact of what is generally referred to as ‘globalisation’, and the emergence of major transnational economic and financial actors able to shift their operations almost at will and answerable to no one nation’s political masters. This has signified the removal of several instruments of economic sovereignty from the control of the state. Indeed, there are some who would argue that we are beginning to see the privatisation of sovereignty itself.

The establishment of regional groupings in parts of the world has also eroded state sovereignty. At the other end of the spectrum, we find local particularisms challenging the authority of the nation-state, and even significant elements of the population seeking to evade or ignore the state’s claims to authority. This latter phenomenon is also marked among the growing underclass in industrial and post-industrial societies, especially as the state’s ability to fulfil its welfare function comes into question.

In short, the end of this century sees the modern state, as a structure, facing a number of serious challenges and a need to redefine its essential role and its relationship with its citizens. The question of state legitimacy, in the general sense, has probably not been as sharply posed since the emergence of the modern international system. Though there are few who see any other structure emerging to replace the state system as the skeleton of the international order, there can be little doubt that the state of the mid-21st century will bear only a superficial resemblance to that of the mid-20th.

Today, the world is afflicted by a growing number intrastate conflicts apparently of racial, religious and ethnic derivation. Increasing numbers of civilians, as opposed to armies and security forces, are becoming involved in this violence, often for no obvious or clearly articulated political reason. Ethnic and racial cleansing combined with acute religious extremism, intolerance or pure criminality suggest a growing social crisis in the international system.

These instances of turmoil are the local and particular manifestations of a common crisis of individual and group identity in the context of deepening social inequality and fragmentation. The combined effects of weakened state administrative and policy apparatuses, the current cessation of bipolar ideological competition and the accelerating and unaccountable processes known as globalisation have called into question some of the more fundamental and familiar premises upon which our lives and our sense of security are based. Prominent among these is the nation-state project. Globalisation and the expansion of economic scale have implications not only for state capacity and legitimacy, but also for society at large as various groups and individuals seek to redefine themselves in a rapidly changing domestic and individual environment. It is scarcely surprising when, in such circumstances, other certainties suddenly become negotiable.

In Africa itself, we see at the heart of the continent a swathe of wars stretching from Eritrea to the northern borders of Namibia. This phenomenon constitutes such a grave threat that it has prompted some keen observers to speculate that what we are witnessing is the end of the state project launched in Berlin with the congresses of the 1880s. How ironic that a system owing its origin to disputes about the Congo should have its demise heralded in conflicts centred on that same country.

What could possibly replace or supplement the failing state in Africa?

It must be evident that one of the essential weaknesses of the nation-state project on this continent was the massive increase in political scale which it implied. Abstract ideas of statehood were expected to do service in place of a moral universe of values based on assumptions about kinship and shared origins, in which the sacred and profane were inextricably linked. This, rather than the artificial boundaries per se, lies at the heart of the problem.

It certainly seems evident that such feelings of belonging as most African peoples have, remain rooted in their local communities with their familiar bases of kinship and allegiance. No parallel community has yet been created at national level.

Faced with this situation, many citizens have sought solutions to the problem of personal security outside the state arena. Of the survival strategies adopted by Africans in their confrontation with the harsh realities of their condition, one of the more common is ‘avoiding the state’. This strategy has obvious implications for the viability of the state project, politically as well as economically. It also brings us to consider whether the Western belief of creating room for and strengthening African civil society will have the expected consequences: that this will help to promote the consolidation of democratic structures that reinforce and legitimise the modern state. This is a matter for debate, and the argument about the future of the state in Africa has to take cognizance of the emergence of different and particularist forms of civil society in Africa, sometimes as alternatives to, and sometimes as adjuncts of the state and its owners.

The term ‘civil society’ has only recently been extended in the literature on Africa to include ethnic associations, which, with other associations of similar type, have important political functions beyond the surveillance of state agencies. In the Western political science canon, the concept ‘civil society’ has generally implied the opening of opportunities for individual freedom. But one should be careful not to misapply Western political constructs to African circumstances. In Western history, the public realm has been shared between the state, other political organisations and civil society, all of which were assumed to have some concern for individual liberty, which simply is not the African historical experience. The precolonial African state rarely felt the need to justify its existence in terms of meeting the needs of individuals. Nor did the colonial state often include the security and welfare needs of ordinary Africans in its considerations. As Peter Ekeh has argued, this heritage has been passed on to the post-colonial state and, as a consequence, the ordinary individual has sought to attain his security and welfare needs in ways and idioms different from those with which we are familiar in Western political thought.
1 As has been suggested above, the principal structures with which the individual has sought alliance, are kinship organisations which have expanded and developed along a path quite distinct from the European experience.

The avenues of escape open to African publics are not likely to recommend themselves to those who earn their living in the wealthier parts of the economy. Certainly, there will be interaction between the formal and informal, in economics as in politics, and in certain circumstances various parties may seek to benefit from a condition of ‘controlled chaos’, what is becoming known as the political economy of disorder. Nevertheless, a modicum of order and predictability are demanded by those who seek to hold on to the limp reins of state power, and those who seek to take advantage of their claims to sovereign status in order to exploit such parts of the national resource base as may be secured.

The reduction in global ideological conflict has reduced the political and military incentives for outside powers to intervene on the continent; and contrary to some expectations, an Africa omitted from the calculations of external rivals has not become a more peaceful place. That local disputes are now less globalised, means that outside powers have less influence on the conduct, termination and outcome of these conflicts. Local rivalries and antagonisms are given freer rein, being more remote from world centres of power and insignificant in terms of the global system. African states can no longer rely on outside assistance to end local wars that are no threat to vital foreign interests.

External non-state actors have stepped into the void left by the international community, sometimes as proxies, sometimes as independent agents, able by virtue of their wealth and command of expertise to influence events to their local and often short-term advantage. It is for all the world as if Africa has returned to the 1880s, and the age of the chartered companies, marking out their enclaves in an otherwise disorderly environment. Indeed, some of the colonial states of Africa owe their origins to such companies.

This is the reverse side of globalisation. Transnational companies, having demanded a new set of global rules which have effectively undermined the state in certain of the world’s margins, are now able to provide just as much of the apparatus usually reserved to the state to carry out their businesses in relative safety and at great profit, their bargaining advantage being apparent. Their worries now focus on their competition with others of their ilk, and their relative abilities to co-opt such parts of the state’s political apparatus as still has some status in law.

* * * * *

If, indeed, we are witnessing the end of the post-colonial state system in Central Africa at least, how are we to reconfigure our understanding of what is to replace it? Bayart has suggested that, rather than seeing the boundaries of post-colonial states as the framework for understanding the continent, we should instead see how Africa is essentially divided in the considerations of external players: Afrique utile — usable or useful Africa, linked in various ways to the global economy — and Afrique inutile — useless, unprofitable or disposable Africa. Those parts that are regarded as useful, or as containing exploitable resources, are provided with a modicum of protection and are linked to the global economy. Those that are devoid of such attractions are consigned to the margins and left to their own devices, so that, in effect, we have a new ‘apartheid’ of administration and security. In effect, Africa is again divided, between those with protection and those without. The implications for the political and economic future of Africa are profound. For most of Africa’s peoples, the state has long since ceased to be the provider of security, physical or social. Only the ‘useful bits’ will be recolonised by the forces of the outsiders.

Other considerations about the nature of state security in Africa also have to be borne in mind. Christopher Clapham’s work on the African state has identified the difficulties of applying Western assumptions about the nature of state security in much of Africa. He points out that, in many cases, concerns for state survival are subordinate to those connected with the personal security and well-being of the incumbent leadership. The apparatus of juridical statehood is then appropriated to serve the requirements of this fixation.

A method employed by rulers in circumstances in which little more remains of the state than the abstract and juridical is to create a parallel political authority, where personal ties and controls replace failing institutions. William Reno has termed this ‘the shadow state’, in his pathfinding work on Sierra Leone, which examines the role of informal markets in the construction of alternative extrastate power networks, underpinning political and economic privilege.
4 So potent and pervasive are these networks that, by manipulating the vestiges of state power, they are able to frustrate and bend to their own purposes interventions by the international financial and donor community designed to undermine the informal sector and strengthen the structures of the state. It is against this background and in this context that the military activities and interventions of state, regional and private security forces have to be analysed.

The criminalisation of the state contributes to the unrestrained privatisation not only of the productive sectors of the economy, but also of sovereignty itself and the sovereign functions of the state — the maintenance of customs barriers, the concession of territories or harbour enclaves to foreign entrepreneurs, the preservation of internal security and national defence, and of peacekeeping.

In short, Africa has managed to resist conditionality, and democratisation will not be the best lens through which to observe the continent, as shadow networks of power emerge in reaction to the privatisation of the state and the economy. Informal and illicit trade, financial fraud, systematic evasion of rules and international agreements will be some of the means used by certain Africans to survive the tempest of globalisation.

What Chabal and Daloz have called the political economy of disorder offers opportunities for those who know how to play the system.
5 Informalisation affects politics, as well as economics. In many respects, what we are seeing in the conflict zones of Africa is the playing out of rivalries for the control of scarce resources and the manipulation of business links, licit and illicit, to the benefit of the entrepreneurs of violence. On the back of these resource wars, vast profits are to be made in the transportation of other things, from guns to food.

If this analysis of the African state is applied to the current wars raging in and around Central Africa, then we must adjust our thinking and assume that we are dealing with is a set of pseudo-states in which the interest of the community and the rule of law count for nothing. The problem is that the current international diplomatic and security architecture is unable to cope with this type of crisis. It is partly a matter of scale, of course, the equivalent of a body being overwhelmed by massive infection. But it is also more than that. Current diplomatic and security arrangements are state-centred and predicated upon regarding states as the primary actors in international affairs. In Africa, this is simply no longer the case. There are regional alliances forming between private actors, or leaders who appropriate the framework of the state to their own ends and in their own private interest. In this environment, the United Nations finds itself ill at ease, having to deal with individuals both as the source of power and wealth, and as the origin of ambiguous signals in a rapidly changing environment.

Hesitating between non-intervention and semi-intervention in the opaque world before them, institutionalised external actors find themselves uncertain about where to exert leverage and unwilling in any event to muster the political will to use force to back up their political pressure.

Given this situation, much will now depend on how African civil society attempts to organise and arrange a modicum of order. While it may be co-opted by external agents and their local hirelings in some situations, its mutations and manifestations are so rich and varied, and so inventive, that it would be foolish to accept that the political and economic giants will find it easy to manipulate or manage. The outcomes are uncertain, but this will be the arena in which the issue of human security in Africa is likely to be decided for the foreseeable future.


  1. P P Ekeh, The constitution of civil society in African history and politics, in B Caron, A Gboyega & E Osaghae (eds.), Proceedings of the symposium on democratic transition in Africa, Centre for Research, Documentation and University Exchange (CREDU), Ibadan, Nigeria, 1992, pp. 187-192.

  2. For a discussion of these developments see P Lock, Africa, military downsizing and the growth in the security industry, in J Cilliers & P Mason (eds.), Peace, Profit or Plunder? The privatisation of security in war-torn African Societies, Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria, 1999, pp. 29-31.

  3. C Clapham, Africa and the international system: The politics of state survival, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996.

  4. W Reno, Corruption and state politics in Sierra Leone, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995.

  5. P Chabal & J-P Daloz, Africa works: Disorder as political instrument, James Currey, Oxford, 1999.