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Topics / Sustainable Peace in Africa

Peacebuilders: The Modern African State

Diffusion podcast explores this period of transformation for the nation-state

Alagaw Ababu Kifle (African Leadership Centre), Pamela Mbabazi (Institute for Peace and Security Studies in Addis Ababa), and Sagal Abshir (Somali lawyer and former government advisor) discuss the modern African state in this episode of the Diffusion: Peacebuilders podcast.

MALCOMSON:  Welcome to Diffusion, a podcast of Carnegie Corporation of New York.  I'm Scott Malcomson. 

STANLEY:  And I'm Aaron Stanley.  In Episode 8, we are discussing the role of the contemporary African state. 

MBABAZI:  The contemporary state is very problematic.  It's in a state of remission, due to a lot of influences: within itself, because of ethnicity, tribalism; but also the influences from without, the structural adjustment, the globalization, and all this that’s affecting the state in Africa.  So we need to really dissect it and see what was the pre-colonial arrangement of this, how did colonialism affect it, and then through currently, globalization, how that is affecting a particular state. 

MALCOMSON:  You just heard Pamela Mbabazi, the head of research and policy analysis at The Institute for Peace and Security Studies in Addis Ababa.  She joined us in Addis with Alagaw Ababu Kifle, a research associate at The African Leadership Centre. 

KIFLE:  When you look at the Western tradition, power was consolidated internally.  You know, there has not been a powerful actor outside that can shape the trajectories of statehood there. 

MBABAZI:  The things inside, yes. 

KIFLE:  But you know, the unique circumstance where African states come into existence and their embeddedness in an international political economy where there are very powerful states that are able to advance their interests at the expense of other states.  So that significantly shaped the policy these states will adopt, the directions they will take.  But also the force they want to rely on if they want to stay in power. It is not the local people that they want to rely on!


KIFLE:  Because the finance is not in the local people.  They get their finance from donors.  And if that's the case, then your dependence will be more on those from whom you acquire your resources. That, I think, shaped the nature of the African state itself.

MBABAZI:  That is so true.  And I think in line with that, when you try to understand the different states, or the different nation-states in Africa, you would need to analyze their relationship with the international community to decide the nature and character of a state.  'Cause if you look at a country like Ethiopia, the way it's been able to relate to the international community in a very unique way, to mobilize capital and be able to be the way it is, and then you look at one like Chad for instance, and its relation to the international community — so I think it's a very, very important factor in the whole geopolitics of Africa really.  The position of the international community and how it relates … in some cases, it's been very problematic.  In some, it's very detrimental.  It has been an engine of growth.  So I guess the onus is on African states and on our leaders per se, in the kind of way in which they relate to the international community.  Because the international community has its own interests, of course. 

STANLEY:  Right.

MBABAZI:  And again, I put the blame on our leaders, because I think they have the ability and right to say no.  But in some cases, they just agree to relate in a manner that is really problematic.  So the international community has its own interests, the African countries have their interests, and they're not homogenous, so each country is still operating in its way.


MBABAZI:  But their relationship with the international community defines their national character.

MALCOMSON:  But the international community itself is becoming more diverse as we speak

MBABAZI:  You can't say “the international community”.

MALCOMSON:  It doesn't seem like it.  I mean it's, I mean China being the main instance, but not the only one.  So what happens when the international community becomes diverse enough that it can't really be considered, from an African state perspective, as a unitary actor? 

MBABAZI:  Uh-huh.

KIFLE:  I think it creates room for maneuver of African states because if you get farther from one country, then you shift to the other.  Also you might have resources that will be useful for one party to the other.  So it's a good thing for African states, the diversification of powerful actors, because it increases reserve their room for maneuver.

MBABAZI:  To me, the other aspect of it is not the international community, but international institutions.


MBABAZI:  I think one other aspect has been the fact that many African countries lack policy ownership, because international community, I mean international institutions, define, determine the kind of policies.  If you look at the IMF, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, they are dependent on that.  So the African countries don't have policy ownership.  And that has affected how they operate in a big way, because if you look at Uganda, which I know very well, all our policies have had to be in line of, in line with, especially during the structural adjustment, privatization.

STANLEY:  Structural adjustment was a program prescribed in the 1980s by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for countries with faltering economies who wanted to continue to obtain new loans from these organizations.  Conditionality is focused on privatization and cutting government spending, notably on civil service.

MBABAZI:  The state in itself is not really African, if I might put it that way.  Because if you have to, for instance, privatization, the way in which Uganda was pushed to privatize, all the national companies had to be divested, the sugar corporation, the tea corporation.  And this ultimately turned out not to be the right thing, because the IMF had its own way of thinking.  Or even reduction in government expenditure, restructuring of the civil service — and now we are coming to see that the biggest challenge in most African countries is lack of capacity.  And yet there was a whole restructuring of the civil service at the time.

STANLEY:  I wonder about NGOs as well, from the other side of it.

MBABAZI:  The role, the role of NGOs. 

STANLEY:  So rather than implementing policy, but, the international community as NGOs where they're going in and doing education at the local, and in many ways, in these kind of rural areas outside of what would be normally considered in…

MBABAZI:  They've stepped in.

STANLEY:  Hardcore state control.  And are they kind of giving governments, central governments an out? A way of not having to provide some of these services in these areas so that the actual role of the state doesn't reach these farther-out areas? 

MBABAZI:  For the Ugandan case, because of the structural adjustment…


MBABAZI:  The state was rolled back.

STANLEY:  Anyway.

MBABAZI:  It was rolled back, and there was a gap.  And that's where you see a proliferation of international communities now coming in to fill these gaps.  And that was a time we had the war in northern Uganda.  And yet unfortunately because of corruption, much of the international community came in through, there was a whole reconstruction of northern Uganda, NGO arrangement in the prime minister's office which turned out to be corrupted, and ultimately the impact wasn't that much. 

But in answer to your question, it was because of the rollback in the state because of the international policies that gaps were created where then the international community came in.  So yes, they have helped, in cases where they haven't been fraught with corruption, and they have made a huge difference in education and health, in education, mainly education, health, sanitation as well, water and sanitation.  So they have filled the gaps where the state has not been.  And in a way, it's not that the state has not been, it was weakened by the kind of policies introduced. 


Inclusiveness, and that touches across, if you see what Boko Haram is all about.  I mean the north has been disenfranchised, if you may, compared to the rest of Nigeria.  But certainly, I think, Zimbabwe — look at South Africa now, it's a time bomb there.  I think it's about inclusion.  So how our leaders, our societies, craft mechanisms to ensure that all ethnicities are, have equal access, or if not equal access at least have access to power…  


MBABAZI:  Is the challenge.  That is the big challenge, to make sure — and the fact that our societies are so ethnically divided, I think another important factor to always consider in African politics is ethnicity.  That is a major factor, because if one ethnic tribe assumes power, and it does not allow access to the other ethnicities, that's a recipe, everything goes, because it affects all the facets of society.  So ethnicity to me is a very central factor in understanding Africa's broader politic.

MALCOMSON:  In the case of Kenya…


MALCOMSON:  Kenya had a political crisis.


MALCOMSON:  It came up with a new constitution.  One of the main themes of it was to devolve power.  And so power was devolved to 40-plus different administrative units.  At least one effect of this might be to exacerbate local conflict.  Kenya might have come up with some means to devolve power in such a way that it's weakening its own state.  Now that might be a good thing; I don't know.  But just the pattern of it is interesting.  It's sort of the upside down of the pan-Africa stuff that we've been talking about. 

MBABAZI:  I think to me, it's really, again, trying to see what system works better.  Because the state as it's been, has not been addressing the local issues.  It's been so distant, not addressing the needs and desires of the local population.  So in an attempt to devolve, decentralize, it's really about giving people access to social services, addressing people's needs and being …  of course, it's an issue of balance, I think.  We need to find, I think, a way of balancing.  But ultimately, if you compare having a centralized system of government and a decentralized, though it has its own challenges, like the ones you pointed out, I think ultimately having a system of governance that responds to your felt needs is certainly much more, much better than having a centralized one, and to me, actually, I think we have to find unique systems of governance that can address the fact that we are ethnically diverse. 

And one way to do that is to decentralize and actually devolve, give these unique ethnicities that ability to respond to their needs rather than having … because our societies are so unique, they are totally different from that Westphalian model that sees a society that can respond. So I feel that if in fact Kenya has shown us the way, and we need to challenge our thinking as African scholars to find ways to make it work, and find solutions to the challenges that I imagine right now in Kenya, use it as an example to see how it can relate.  'Cause to me I think decentralization really in itself is a good thing, if we can get it right, but contextualize it.  Because it can't be a one-size-fit-all situation.  But we need, I think structures, institutions that can respond to the felt needs of the ethnically diverse society.  Because really, the state system of governance seems not to be working at all!  We have to find ways to make it work. 

I think we haven't challenged our thinking enough as African scholars to find what would work best for our unique, because really the Western state model has been superimposed, and it's really, I think to me the African state is not a state because it's not African.  So we need to look back to the way our societies were organized, find best ways to integrate with what, I'm not saying wash away the state, but we have to find unique models.  We need to challenge our thinking, but we haven't done enough research.  Like now already you'll find a lot of literature about dismissing devolution in Kenya.  I think we need to have a more positivist way, find what will work.  What has worked, what can work, and find solutions. 

KIFLE:  I think, I mean the origin of the idea of decentralization itself is in response to failures in centralized policy.  If you take for example Kenya, the policy in the post-independence period where, especially in the development arena, it says that economic development has to be targeted in areas that are highly productive.


KIFLE:  That's generated inequality and you know, all this ethnic discontent.  So in that sense, it's a reaction to the failure of the previous policy. 

MBABAZI:  I agree.

KIFLE:  The same with Ethiopia you know, you have a centralized state, and in the name of unity an assimilation policy was pursued where a single language was enforced for everyone.  But the result was counterproductive.  You have this big civil war and all these things.  So the decentralization in essence is a reaction to the period of centralized policy. 

MBABAZI:  I agree. 

KIFLE:  Whether that reduced the importance of the state or the idea of the state:  It may, but what did you really want?  Do we want people so that they have a near government that serves them, or do we want the state to remain intact?  Why, after all, should we care about the state if people are going to serve their interests by having a local authority near to them?  I think that has to be pointed out.  As [does] every system,  decentralization has also its own drawback.


KIFLE:  Especially in the immediate…


KIFLE:  Once you introduce it, what we see in Kenya now is, it intensified competition at the local level.  And exactly as I think the circuit of decentralization, by dispersing the power… 


KIFLE:  You disperse conflict. 


KIFLE:  So they don't accumulate to become, you know, a large scale war. 

MBABAZI:  True, true.

KIFLE:  In that sense, you know, what decentralization did is simply to disperse the sources of violence.

MBABAZI:  And corruption as well. 

KIFLE:  It all depends on what do you mean by inclusive.  Does inclusiveness mean reflecting the wish of the people?  Does that mean just bringing their representatives to the state?  What is it you are talking about when you are talking about inclusiveness? Of course we all know that political institutions will not survive if those who are powerful are not served by these institutions.

MBABAZI:  Yeah, they have to.

KIFLE:  Since they have power, they will overthrow the system. Well, you have many ways into power, to some extent.  But what can you do if that is counterproductive of global social transformation?  I think that is the challenge.  If the way those who are powerful actors, if their interests are not served by bringing change and development, they will be comfortable doing things the way they have been doing.  And in the long run, that is not sustainable.

MBABAZI:  I think that's the biggest challenge on the continent, how to ensure that all this inclusiveness of the different facets of society in each of the countries, and you find everywhere, where there are many, well South Sudan is more in a resource conflict really.  It's largely the oil, although they have their own issues, similar.  But I think in many other societies where there are tensions, even in Uganda which I talked about, it's a question of inclusiveness and trying to…

KIFLE:  Yeah.  I think inclusiveness becomes even more serious when you look at in terms of a situation where you have armed conflict.  The tendency in Africa now is fractionalization of armed groups.


KIFLE:  And the process of making peace, what are you going to do with all these armed factions? Bring them, and that would be giving incentives so that others follow suit.


KIFLE: And fracturing. What you see in Sudan and South Sudan, Sudan - -.

MBABAZI:  - - South Sudan.

KIFLE:  Yeah, even in Mali. In all these you have a situation where armed groups are fractionalizing, and what does inclusiveness mean in that context, especially in context of making the peace?  Does that mean bringing them to the negotiation table?  Does that mean just addressing their grievances?  How to make peace if they are not going to be included?

MBABAZI:  That is so true.


MBABAZI: It certainly moved like you said, pre-colonial, colonial, and into the time that we had a lot of engagement with international financial institutions, determining the policy.

MALCOMSON:  Let's call it neocolonial, I think.

MBABAZI:  Neocolonial. 

MALCOMSON:  The term was used once or twice at the time.

MBABAZI:  And then now, where we seem to be going back to the roots, really.

MALCOMSON:  Yeah, yeah. 

MBABAZI:  Trying to understand the African, where are we, pan-Africanism.  Where are we, who are we as Africans?  What are their--

MALCOMSON:  [Interposing] So it's the “Wakanda Forever” moment basically. 

MBABAZI:  So it's…

MALCOMSON:  That movie is perfectly timed for this historical moment.

MBABAZI:  Yeah, true, true.  That's true.  So really, the African state in what we've discussed so far has been in a process of, it's still moving, still transforming.  So it's not static.  You can't say this is the African state.  No, it's real information. 

KIFLE:  Inclusiveness become, and the notion become, very problematic in contemporary Africa when you look at it in terms of ideologically inspired actors.


KIFLE:  [Interposing] Like Al Shabab, or Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, Ansar whatever-you-call-them. Does that notion even accommodate those who have different notion of statehood?  There are even those who don’t subscribe to the idea of the state itself. 

MBABAZI:  Boko Haram.

KIFLE:  Yeah, yeah, because they are now getting very powerful.  The armed insurgents landscape is dominated by these kinds of actors.  And that is a very significant challenge for our idea of statehood--

MBABAZI:  [Interposing] That's true.

KIFLE:  --and our idea of inclusiveness as well. 

STANLEY: There’s something to say about rebel governance here, I think. 

KIFLE:  They perform way better than many African states, especially when they emerge in power, they have been making a huge difference. They make a huge difference, but the problem is they don't subscribe to this idea of the state.  They don't restrict themselves within Somalia itself, or these other discourses or whatever. They declared jihad on Libya for example. And they have been using it as a base for international jihadist actors. That brings to the fore whether inclusiveness in that context means simply capitalizing on, I mean, addressing the grievances of a group which these radical groups capitalize on, or does it also mean ideological shift so that, for example, make Sharia state religion in such country?  I mean does that mean … be taken as a model of inclusiveness? 

MALCOMSON:  We turn to Sagal Abshir, independent researcher, consultant, and former Somali government advisor, whom we spoke with in Nairobi. 

ABSHIR:  I think it's important to first acknowledge that there is a robust and lively Somali public space.  And there are active debates happening about these very big questions of what do we want in a country?  What do we want our state to be and to do?  How do we improve our security?  What do we do about Al-Shabaab?  What have we done for our young people?  What are we offering them?  And it's not happening just within Somalia.  It's happening across the Somali global diaspora.  What does it mean to be Somali? 

So that’s a very live thing, and I don't think that's something that necessarily is visible to the outside world.  It happens online.  There is very active online debates and conversations, but we also have a very live media as well, websites, radio stations, and we've got a very, very open communications space, let's say, which is quite rare I think in many African countries. 

The other thing I would say is important to keep in mind when thinking about Somalia is one UNDP report estimates that 73% of our population is under 30.  That's a significant number, and that number, 30 years is also significant.  That's how long we've been without a government.  So if you imagine, you've got three-quarters of the country not even understanding what you mean by, sort of, some of that historical, some of the standards of let's restore A, B, C.  Like it doesn't resonate.  And so that's two-sided, right.  You've got a high number of people who can be disappointed, right, who are looking for opportunities, who are either ending up recruited in some of these groups or are taking to the deserts and the seas, right, to try to get to Europe. 

But on the flipside, you also have this tremendous resource and population.  And I think it's about how do we harness their imagination into making something new.  I think sometimes when we do this state building and this peace building, there's a lot of like, there's a lot of copy-pasting.  There's a lot of like well then there's a parliament, and then you must do this, and you must do that.  Well why?  We could come up with something completely different and new.  I mean nobody expected our telecom systems that work the way they do, and we've got telephone systems and Internet systems that far out-pass other countries.  How do we harness some of this energy of these young people to create a country?  'Cause it's for them, essentially, right.  I mean they're 73% of the population. 


STANLEY:  In our next and final episode, we will hear perspectives on the phrase “African solutions to African problems”. 

MALCOMSON: Peacebuilders is produced by Matt Fidler for Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Diffusion is the podcast of Carnegie Corporation of New York, promoting the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding around issues of peace, education and democracy.