A confusion of nations; a violence of states

If only state-building could be this easy...

If only state-building could be this easy...

What is the unit of development? Do we expect individuals to ‘develop’ their own personal circumstances? Or shall we choose from a menu of different levels: villages, geographical regions, nations, or states?

Let me illustrate how undecided we seem to be: Jeffrey Sachs’ famous Millennium Village Projects operate at the level for which they are named. Despite this, the most commonly used measures of development are calculated at the level of internationally recognised states: Gross National Income per capita and the Human Development Index. The results of development work over the last 50 years can be depressing at this level, but someone (Lant Pritchett? Help me out – I’ve forgotten!) pointed out that if we weight progress by population the picture is rosier thanks to India and China. This measures development at the individual level, even if we are not arguing that’s where it stems from. Yet here we run into more problems: it can be legitimately argued that India is too large, too diverse to be treated as one entity and experience. In Africa, you do not need to search hard to see division between, for example, the ‘Yoruba Nation’ in the West of Nigeria and the Hausa in North, or the Igbo.

These are not idle observations about analytical constructs. They have practical implications for policy and for understanding the constraints to development and the impact of the West’s involvement on the subcontinent and Africa in particular.

I believe that the process of development must occur at the level of the state, but that this level of development does not exist in isolation. At the level below the state, how the regions, villages, tribes and other subdivisions within a state interact and behave can determine the success or otherwise of a state-level development process. One level up and the larger geopolitical context of the state can hem in or expand the possibilities of development. Amidst this, the state is of crucial importance due to its administrative and institutional roles. This, however, opens up a set of profound problems that we must address: why do so many states fail to function, and why are so many states fracturing into smaller states?

States are of crucial importance because development as I understand it is not simply a cumulative process of incrementally improving incomes and living standards. It requires a transformation in the socio-economic structure towards a more dynamic entity capable of sustaining a viable capitalism (or a socialism, if we can show this will work; both need a state structure). This transformation is painful, and involves winners and losers. Historically it has normally involved a redistribution of resources on unequal terms, sometimes by force and always through uneven distribution of power. This redistribution has usually occurred through an established state in different ways. In England, the Enclosures movement enabled agrarian capitalism, which was arguably crucial for industrialisation; in Japan and South Korea a strong central state was able to offer subsidies and dole out punishments to groups that were favoured to ensure their performance as the focus of an economic drive to prosperity. Movements of people, consolidation of capital, transfer of land, standardisation of education and commercial terms: all of these things are best facilitated by a state, if we are not to rely on historical accident.

They cannot occur above the state level outside of warfare: if two states engaged in such a process, the one that looked most like becoming the loser would disengage from the process. At the tribal or village level, forms of identity may be too unified to offer scope for moving resources between groups, and more pertinently, without state restrictions movement to avoid being cast as the loser in the transformation is easier.

If states are crucial for development processes to proceed with power and direction, we are left with some very uncomfortable questions about the development of Africa (and possibly the Subcontinent and Eastern Europe, though my knowledge of these regions is sketchier), and the role of the West in this performance. For states to fulfil the roles suggested above, they must be strong and relatively stable. Yet, far too few developing country states meet these criteria. It is not just the so-called ‘failing’ or ‘failed’ states that we must look at but also otherwise apparently stable democracies or autocracies where state power is weak. State power is not only defined by the existence of a Government that is not under constant threat of overthrow, it also requires that a Government is able to make national policy effectively without trying to please all of the people all of the time.

Weak state power may exist in dictatorships as well as democracies; a dictator may be looting the Government and holding power precisely because their options for movement are limited: they cannot favour one group to become a capitalist class over another to increase the riches he can skim off for fear of overthrow. If his or her aim is to maximise personal wealth, then intense theft is the best option despite its retardant effect on the size of the overall pie. Or the dictator may know his days are numbered due to factionalism and thus chooses brutality to extend the period and intense theft to benefit from it. By contrast a democratic Government may be unable to propose transformational policies because the distribution of power across identity-groups within the country is too balanced: favour one or harm one and the political base is irrevocably compromised and the next election is lost.

These circumstances exist in a number of African countries. To take a very obvious example: Nigeria. It was only within the last few years that Nigeria first had a civilian-to-civilian handover of power in Government. Military dictators have come and gone. Democratic elections were marked by regionalism, factionalism, rigging and dispute. There has been a secessionist civil war. It has fractured from a Government with three states in 1955 to one of thirty-seven states and more than one hundred and thirty local government areas today. Still other African countries are emerging from civil war and are in the first throes of rebuilding the state. Democratic states haven’t been much more successful in attempts to transform from small-holder dominated economies and factionalist politics.

Why has this been the case? Aid Watch recently linked an interesting piece by Robert Skidelsky discussing state-fragmentation. He argues that it is largely because of the existence of multiple ‘nations’ within a state, by which he seems to mean kinship, ethnic or other groups united by identity within the larger state. This seems to be the case in much of Africa as well: apart from Nyerere’s success in promoting pan-Africanism in Tanzania, there are not many countries where the regional, ethnic or tribal groupings are not immediately obvious.

The historical evolution of states in Africa was always complex, even before Europeans exerted any influence on it. According to Iliffe’s excellent Africans, the main political formations in the West African savanna countries  were villages and clusters of villages called Kafu, led by Chiefs. These formed micro-states that proved exceptionally difficult to join into larger states for long periods of time, because the kinship groups they were based on, necessary for clearing and colonising new land, were too powerful to dominate. Mali under Sunjata Keita and Senegambia for example, were unified states for a time but proved difficult to maintain and through violence and warfare returned to a system of micro-states. Similarly, in modern Nigeria, Hausaland probably started off as a number of microstates of a similar fashion, which formed into Kingdoms, wracked by warfare up to the 16th Century. The factionalism that is commonly observed in politics thus seems to have extremely deep roots in political development based on identity groups. The concept of ‘nationhood’ seems to exist below the level of the large states. This is exactly what Skidelsky argues will make strong states and governance difficult.

The additional impact of colonisation and decolonisation must also be considered. A number of states were created through these processes. Many of these states were created without a concept of nationhood. In decolonisation, civil war erupted in part because of this. In other countries, oil or another resource may tie the state together since the benefits of the resources attract those who can make a claim on them, but these groups still resist real state power because there is a weak concept of nationhood, or even of federal unity. In some ways this is the worst of all worlds – the state is held together by a resource, but without unity of governance. It could thus be argued that the state boundaries drawn up in colonisation and decolonisation exacerbated existing difficulties in state-building.

The difficulty for development is that many of the structural changes which normally require a strong state to impose will be particularly difficult to implement. Aid can’t really help this. But time and better policies might, by fostering an increasing sense of nationhood and national identity. To end with a positive story: I lived in Malawi for four years and was struck by the regionalism there. There were loud murmurs of disapproval when speculation suggested the Minister of Finance and the Secretary to the Treasury would be appointed from the same region, despite both being eminently competent people. The North, Centre and South were all strongly affiliated with different parties. Yet the most recent election was marked by high turnout, little violence and most encouragingly of all, reduced regionalism in voting. Why? I really don’t know. Every country is different, but this example shows that progress is happening in some places; the sooner we understand why the better for all countries, and not just here in Africa.

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