Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 April 2000
Issue No. 477
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

The state is the crisis

By Mohamed El-Sayed Said*

Mohamed El-Sayed Said The convening last week of the Africa-Europe Summit in Cairo was a good opportunity for reflection on the current crisis in Africa. This crisis, in fact, provided much more than just an issue on the agenda of discussions. It was the parametre which determined the relative positions of Africa and Europe.

The Europeans were interested in Africa because they want to improve the chances of their bid for global eminence as a collective super-power alongside the United States. What they did not want, however, was to get mired in a series of seemingly intractable and chronic African crises. The Africans, on the other hand, had a great many demands and expected too much from the outside, and particularly from Europe, in the hope that foreign assistance will pull the continent out of its quagmire.

Expectations and fears were somewhat exaggerated on both sides. But this is only a fragment of the real problem, the depth of which is amply demonstrated by the mere fact that there exists no consensus as to the way out of the crisis. In fact, the conceptual basis of all suggested remedies remains extremely tenuous and lacking in coherence. The phrasing of the final communiqué's position on this crisis seems at best naive, at worst misguided.

However you define the nature of the present crisis in Africa, you will by necessity come face to face with the great question of the state and the state system prevailing on the continent. This question, however, was not addressed in any significant manner in the summit's final communiqué. Yet no solution to the African crisis seems possible without addressing the major issue of the state.

There is little doubt that the vast majority of African states are entangled in a total crisis. All forms of the state in Africa exhibit the symptoms, which are familiar to observers of the continent by now: ineptitude, incompetence, corruption and nepotism, violence and civil strife, constitutional and military coups and counter-coups, repression and protracted civil wars and wars of secession, in addition to a general failure to deliver on the promises of development. African economies are, by and large, retreating even from the levels attained at the end of colonial rule.

The crisis of the African state, moreover, has proved to be enduring. A change of regime, simply, is not the answer to the dilemmas plaguing it. Regimes which emulated the representative democracies of Western Europe's colonial powers were overthrown by mostly more repressive and less accomplished military regimes. And when these latter had to go, and a return to "democracy" was brought about, confusion and disillusionment were quick to reemerge, leading to other forms of governments imposed by force, either by revolutionary wars or another wave of military coups.

In fact, all major ideological formations, if at all consistent in the first place, also met with failure. Pragmatic liberalism as well as revolutionary Marxism, the two major ideologies competing on African soil, failed to deliver the goods they promised. Atavistic ideologies, amalgamated with either of the two main modern ideologies, only exacerbated civil strife. "Modern" political structures could hardly be expected to combine easily with communalism in political practice. And those striving for authentic political or cultural experiences failed to articulate appropriate modern techniques of government. The two themes of modernity and authenticity acted negatively on one another, leading to an aggravated sense of alienation in African political and cultural psychology, with serious repercussions on the stability and performance of the various political and social systems.

African leaders certainly differed in the way they were perceived by their own societies and by the international community. How could parallels be drawn between a destructive figure such as Idi Amin and the saintly Julius Nyerere? In the final analysis, the societies and states constructed by leaders such as Nyerere have retained a precious element in their legacies, upon which they may draw when they embark on future projects of political and social reconstruction. It goes without saying, however, that the present situation of the political systems constructed by "saints" and "prophets" show similar (and sometimes worse) symptoms of failure and crisis than the "average" situation in other countries.

In brief, the crisis of the African state has little to do with intentions and other subjective factors. It is obviously objective and structural. Most analysts trace this crisis to the colonial or post-colonial legacies. This is by and large true. Nonetheless, in a broad historical perspective, Africa is faced with a question that goes to the very heart of its existence, past and future.

The most fundamental question Africa is faced with is this: What could be the political philosophy of a political system that may best accomplish the mission of "saving" Africa marginalisation, and perhaps perdition?

Of course, this question cannot be answered in isolation from present circumstances. It is also clear that the question engages not the issue of political organisation narrowly defined, but also to choices in such fields as economic organisation.

This question was addressed implicitly by the Africa-Europe summit in Cairo last week. The answer provided, however, was formulated by the Europeans rather than the Africans. The answer was: the principle of good governance.

The principles advocated in the final communiqué of the summit -- such as rule of law, human rights, and good governance -- indicate that the crisis is embedded in the state system. But the notion of good governance falls far short of the remedy needed for resolving the crisis of the state system. It is also misguided in that it asks those in charge of the state apparatus to reform themselves and rule their own people well -- a plea which is certain simply to be overlooked.

In fact, no true remedy to Africa's crisis is possible without recognising that the state itself is the direct cause of the crisis. The state seems to be extremely parasitic. It provides no real services to its own people; on the contrary, it continues to exploit them. Oppression is an intrinsic part of this exploitative system. The communalisation of politics, fragmentation of societies and destructive rivalries and conflicts are manifestations of the sickness in the very formation of states, as engineered by the colonial powers and maintained by inheritors of the colonial administrations.

It follows, I would argue, that Africans are better off with fewer of the trappings of statehood and more of the qualities of communities.

The present complex situation in Somalia is testimony to this fact. People there have begun to exercise direct control over their own affairs, in the absence of a state. They feel freer, but also more competent in deciding on matters that were previously mismanaged by inept, corrupt and arrogant government officials. The present configuration of experiences in community-building and the management of the public domain must be supported not by putting together a similar state structure to replace the one that has collapsed, but by helping people to establish a political system of their choice in an atmosphere free of war-lords, armed militias and war financiers.

Africa needs to rely on itself, carving out its own path to emancipation from the post-colonial state and building a proper political system that will help people direct their energies and creative contributions toward goals they have chosen. For this, it certainly needs new thinking, fresh approaches to politics and certainly new forms of public authority closer to the people, rather than states that thrive on the people's misery.

* The writer is deputy director of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.


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