News and Views on Africa from Africa
Last update: 1 July 2022 h. 10:44
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Failing States in Africa

The signs of a failing State, a government which for whatever reason is unwilling or unable to fulfil its responsibilities to a particular country’s citizenry, have in Africa become systemic. If it is accepted that the major components of every modern State are its citizens, their elected or otherwise broadly accepted government, an independent legislature and judiciary, and efficient and disciplined tools of governing – including a police force to keep internal order and an army to provide external security – then, when these components fail to work properly on their own, or in coordination with one another, we have the conditions of a failing State.
Fr Laurent Magesa

Unfortunately, many African States may gradually be fulfilling these conditions, roughly two generations after independence for most.

Where, for example, a considerable proportion of its citizens have gone into exile or are internally displaced, can we really speak of the existence of a viable State? But this kind of situation is not rare in Africa, from the Great Lakes region, with Burundi and the DRC now as prime examples there, to the West African region, such as the strife-ridden countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone show. But then there are countries such as the Sudan, Somalia and many others where chaos and anarchy are the order of the day. In Sudan, a big part of the population is not accorded citizenship rights for racial and religious reasons. Not only is it denied proper access to food, education, health care, and other social amenities that are necessary for government to provide its citizens, it is frequently bombed out of existence by the very government that in theory purports to protect them. And Sudan is only one, albeit extreme case.

A subtle, but perhaps more insidious symptom of a failing State, noticeable all over the African continent, appears in the form of economic and cultural alienation fostered today principally by the globalisation processes. African governments have a miserable record of failure in protecting its citizens against the harmful effects of these processes. The reason for the failure may be that the African elite, who governs, is itself not touched by poverty and its consequences that painfully affect the general public. This is evidenced by the kind of homes and (exclusive) city areas it lives in and the type of vehicles it drives. The soaring crime, on the one hand, and state-sponsored violence against any form of protest against government misrule, on the other, signify nothing but the fact of a failing State.

The negative effects of globalisation are insidious because they are causing in the body politic what can only be described as a situation of psychological emigration, a kind of exile of the people’s mind and heart, or displacement, similar in consequence to their physical equivalents. In this situation, people have little or no commitment at all to their country and its institutions, their culture and economy. Any semblance of patriotism disappears, except perhaps when it serves some personal selfish end. People become virtual zombies in their own country. It is noticeable that excessive economic liberalization and the mindless rush to privatisation of economic infrastructures pushed by liberal capitalist international institutions produce this phenomenon of failing States, in much of sub-Sahara Africa, at least.

Bad government, intolerant of opposing viewpoints, and consequently of democracy, ensues on account of this, and disenfranchisement of sections of the population results. It is rife in Africa, despite the rhetoric and sometimes-honest efforts by a few genuine and concerned leaders to the contrary. Practically every constitution and status book in Africa is enshrined with the right of every sane adult citizen to vote. This is the right of every sane adult citizen to elect the government they want. However, accusations of intimidation, foul play, vote rigging and so on, are the rule rather than the exception before or after every election on the continent and its surrounding islands. It happened recently in Zambia. As I write, Madagascar is now experiencing a crisis of this type, as is Zimbabwe. One hopes and prays that the situations in these countries will resolve themselves peacefully.

Lack of transparency and the apparent dishonesty in electoral procedures have seriously marred the reputations of otherwise politically stable and exemplary countries such as Tanzania. Accusations of vote rigging led to a deplorable situation in Zanzibar in both the 1995 and 2000 elections, leading to violence, exile, internal displacement, destruction of property and loss of life. There seems to be no let up in Africa in general of instances such as these proving, one again of a slide towards the situation of failing States.

Too much power is in African systems of government concentrated de facto in the executive branch of government, but this is a sure recipe for a failing State. Democratic experiments the world over have confirmed beyond doubt that when this happens, disaster with regard to just governance is not far away. The executive, legislative and judicial arms of the State should be kept separate because, if they are collapsed together, as they tend to be in Africa, democracy is inevitably strangled, civil oppression and strife reign, and the State as a viable reality disintegrates. Fundamental human rights – such as “the right not to be tortured or treated in an inhuman or degrading manner; the right not to be held in servitude or to be required to perform forced labour; the right to liberty; the right to a fair trial; the right not to be punished other than in accordance with the law; the right to respect for private and family life; freedom of thought, conscious and religion; freedom of expression; freedom of assembly and association; the right to marry; and the right to effective remedy before the courts for violation of the other fundamental rights,” as the lawyer Aidan O’Neill summarizes them (The Tablet 9 February 2002, p. 13) – then tend to count for nothing.

The independence of the judiciary is especially important in this respect. In a viable State, it alone has the power to interpret legislation according to the dictates of the country’s supreme law, the Constitution. It alone thus has the potential of holding the executive and legislative branches of government in some check by going public with its interpretation of the law. Yet, this otherwise potential “saviour” branch of the State has generally been compromised in much of Africa to the extent that it is regarded as merely an instrument of the President, and indeed oftentimes behaves as such. It thus makes hope for an authentic system of justice illusory. And where there is no justice there is corruption. Or rather, where there is corruption justice disappears.

That the judiciary in Africa acts not independently for justice of the oppressed, but on behalf of the powers-that-be is evidence of corruption: justice has been “bought,” in the first place, by those in power. One of the biggest challenges a person faces today is therefore to show where in Africa corruption is the exception, where it is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, where the “small person”, the David of the African village, can get justice against the “big person” with political and financial influence, the Goliath of the city. The opposite, the victimisation of the small person, is evident everywhere, to people with eyes to see.

The police and army are the instruments of government normally charged with the responsibility to keep law and order and peace in the case of the former, and to defend the nation from external threats in the case of the latter. They should work closely with the judicial, the executive and the legislative arms of the State. In many parts of Africa, however, they have been cited to be rife with corruption and cruelty. Police officers asking openly for bribes are a routine thing in police offices and on the streets of East Africa for sure, but one is told of the same experiences in West Africa. Even if it is open to question or interpretation, the accusation that more people meet a violent end in Kenya at the hands of an incompetent and ruthless police force, acting under various dubious pretexts, than, for example, in road accidents, is alone a matter of concern.

And how can anyone explain the fact in Nigeria in 1999 the army, in a punitive mood at the murder of one of its soldiers, killed hundreds of villagers in the Delta region and razed the village in question to the ground? In 2001 in the Middle Belt, it did exactly the same thing to a town there, reportedly killing possibly thousands. Oddly, President Olusegun Obasanjo, an ex-soldier himself, instead of prosecuting court-marshal processes against such flouting of military discipline, is reported to have defended the soldiers, saying that it was what soldiers are trained to do! There can be no surer sign of a failing State. If what is now happening there is any indication, with incidents of lawlessness and violence too large and numerous for comfort, Nigeria as a viable State is tottering on the brink of failure (and it has gone through this trial before). Which is frightening, on account of the country’s population size and potential wealth.

Similar symptoms across the continent can be multiplied ad infinitum. But let these suffice to make the point. What is now needed is a conscientious attempt to reverse the situation before it reaches the point of no return. There has to be a shift of power from Africa’s rulers towards the people, in the first place. It will also involve, in the second place, reform of the economy in the same direction. Only these moves will reintroduce popular faith in the ability of African States to create and maintain credible structures of government. This may now be an uphill task, but it can be done. The onus is on Africa’s leaders and the elite in general. The continent’s destiny is in their hands. Their failure to wake up to this call will spell doom for everyone.

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