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To save Africa, reject its states

EDITOR’S NOTE: Professor Englebert comes up with an idea that Ethiopian Review has been advocating for a while. As long as poverty-mongering institutions such as the World Bank continue to keep genocidal dictators like Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia financially afloat with billions of dollars in loans and aids, Africa will remain a hell on earth for most of its people. Hopefully the folks at the World Bank, the U.S. State Department and European Union will listen to Englebert’s ideas as presented below:

To save Africa, reject its states


THE World Cup, which began on Friday, is bringing deserved appreciation of South Africa as a nation that transitioned from white minority domination to a vibrant pluralist democracy. Yet its achievements stand largely alone on the continent. Of the 17 African nations that are commemorating their 50th anniversaries of independence this year — the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia will both do so in the coming weeks — few have anything to truly celebrate.

Five decades ago, African independence was worth rejoicing over: these newly created states signaled an end to the violent, humiliating Western domination of the continent, and they were quickly recognized by the international community. Sovereignty gave fledgling elites the shield to protect their weak states against continued colonial subjugation and the policy instruments to promote economic development.

Yet because these countries were recognized by the international community before they even really existed, because the gift of sovereignty was granted from outside rather than earned from within, it came without the benefit of popular accountability, or even a social contract between rulers and citizens.

Buttressed by the legality and impunity that international sovereignty conferred upon their actions, too many of Africa’s politicians and officials twisted the normal activities of a state beyond recognition, transforming mundane tasks like policing, lawmaking and taxation into weapons of extortion.

So, for the past five decades, most Africans have suffered predation of colonial proportions by the very states that were supposed to bring them freedom. And most of these nations, broke from their own thievery, are now unable to provide their citizens with basic services like security, roads, hospitals and schools. What can be done?

The first and most urgent task is that the donor countries that keep these nations afloat should cease sheltering African elites from accountability. To do so, the international community must move swiftly to derecognize the worst-performing African states, forcing their rulers — for the very first time in their checkered histories — to search for support and legitimacy at home.

Radical as this idea may sound, it is not without precedent. Undemocratic Taiwan was derecognized by most of the world in the 1970s (as the corollary of recognizing Beijing). This loss of recognition led the ruling Kuomintang party to adopt new policies in search of domestic support. The regime liberalized the economy, legalized opposition groups, abolished martial law, organized elections and even issued an apology to the Taiwanese people for past misrule, eventually turning the country into a fast-growing, vibrant democracy.

In Africa, similarly, the unrecognized, breakaway state of Somaliland provides its citizens with relative peace and democracy, offering a striking counterpoint to the violence and misery of neighboring sovereign Somalia. It was in part the absence of recognition that forced the leaders of the Somali National Movement in the early ’90s to strike a bargain with local clan elders and create legitimate participatory institutions in Somaliland.

What does this mean in practice? Donor governments would tell the rulers of places like Chad, Congo, Equatorial Guinea or Sudan — all nightmares to much of their populations — that they no longer recognize them as sovereign states. Instead, they would agree to recognize only African states that provide their citizens with a minimum of safety and basic rights.

The logistics of derecognition would no doubt be complicated. Embassies would be withdrawn on both sides. These states would be expelled from the United Nations and other international organizations. All macroeconomic, budget-supporting and post-conflict reconstruction aid programs would be canceled. (Nongovernmental groups and local charities would continue to receive money.)

If this were to happen, relatively benevolent states like South Africa and a handful of others would go on as before. But in the continent’s most troubled countries, politicians would suddenly lose the legal foundations of their authority. Some of these repressive leaders, deprived of their sovereign tools of domination and the international aid that underwrites their regimes, might soon find themselves overthrown.

African states that begin to provide their citizens with basic rights and services, that curb violence and that once again commit resources to development projects, would be rewarded with re-recognition by the international community. Aid would return. More important, these states would finally have acquired some degree of popular accountability and domestic legitimacy.

Like any experiment, de- and re-recognition is risky. Some fear it could promote conflict, that warlords would simply seize certain mineral-rich areas and run violent, lawless quasi states. But Africa is already rife with violence, and warlordism is already a widespread phenomenon. While unrecognized countries might still mistreat their people, history shows that weak, isolated regimes have rarely been able to survive without making significant concessions to segments of their populations.

For many Africans, 50 years of sovereignty has been an abject failure, reproducing the horrors of colonial-era domination under the guise of freedom. International derecognition of abusive states would be a first step toward real liberation.

(Pierre Englebert, a professor of African politics at Pomona College, is the author, most recently, of “Africa: Unity, Sovereignty and Sorrow.”)

6 thoughts on “To save Africa, reject its states

  1. This is an interesting idea but not practical, especially by those who are benefiting from the misery of the poor Africans. Delegitimizing, those states that do not reflect the wishes of their people from international recognition would have helped the people. It would remove the moral hazard that the national elite and international autocrats have, over the poor Africans. Both groups are benefitting by promoting conflicts and poverty. They have enriched themselves, with fat salaries and bribery. The more there is conflicts and misery the more they benefit. Look what is going in Somalia, trying to promote a government that is not recognized by its people but recognized by international institutions and foreign governments with billions of money and tons of arms shipment to continue the conflict in the country. I was checking the achievements of many African countries on Human Development statistics, published by UN and it clearly showed African countries at the bottom of the list on such statistics as access to sanitation, water, infant mortalities, and life expectations. Interestingly Eritrea seems to do much better in less than two decades compared to those countries with more than five decades independence, granted to them on silver plate, by their colonial masters. I wish to be optimistic about Africa’s future, but unfortunately I can’t help it to be pessimistic as long as international organizations blindly support corrupted governments in the continent, I totally agree with the long standing assessments of Ethiopian Review about UN, OAU, World Bank, IMF, EU etc pouring billions strengthening dictators throughout the continent.

  2. The professor is assuming that Western and Eastern nations would want the development of African nations. Indirectly they don’t because they want to make sure dictators keep the resources for West and Eastern nations. It is the people of the African nations who should fight and die to bring democracy and development to their nations no matter how long it takes.

  3. At face value Prof. PIERRE ENGLEBERT proposal seems a bizzare prescription to save Africa. From my childhood recollection in rural Ethiopia,however, his recommendation appears to be plausible.

    During Haile Sellasie era, goverment forces were unable to reach remote villages and protect them from shiftas. The copying mechanism and servival strategies were devised by the villagers themselves. A person who had more than two sons used to feed one of them very well, buy a gun and make him a shifta that roams at night to counter attack other shiftas. That means his life is sacrificed for the welbeing of his siblings who are working in the field, get married and produce children. Everybody ensures the protection of his family through this kind of mechanism. Those who fathered girls will have the option of leasing a similar level of protection from others and that way their welbeing is ensured. Any shifta or rober will first check the family bacground before launching attack for fear that the retaliation will have sever consequences. Obviously those individuals who neither have sons nor protection money had to bear the effects of looting, property loss and at times their dear lives more than their share. This way our villagers were enjoying a relative peace at that time. This indigenous mechanism of ensuring ones freedom was lost forever during the Derg era through confistication of guns and eradicating shiftas. In the light of my personal experience PIERRE ENGLEBERT proposal is plausible. His only weakness in addressing the issue is that he presumed aid flow to Africa to help the people and goverments with no strings attached. Aid will continue to flow to Africa specially to tyrants because they will demand their donors more else they cannot do what they are told to do.

  4. There is one clear issue not adressed by Pierre. Actually two. 1. Colonialism, even though primarily driven by resource grabbing greed, was essentially colour based (racist). 2. The division of Africa into states was done without, or with, the knowledge that lumping people of different cultures and languages together without their consent or even dividing the same tribe and forcing the individuals to live in different states, thus acquiring different citizenships. These two issues are very important in underestanding and defeating the huge problems Africans are living under today. Let me elaborate. Africans, by not forgetting colonialism being colour based would help as a unifying factor, eventhough people are of different tribes. Their colour would suffice to cancel meaningless differences they might have amongst themselves. And the lumping up of different tribes together in one state has created (not to let the african tyrants off the hook)the feeling of only caring for me and mine (kind of african on african racism). To defeat this the only thing needed is awareness and nothing else. Letting powerful states to decide which governments are Ok and which ones aren´t would lead us back to square one. They can keep their aid, because it´s their money but they cannot decide which govt. is legitimate. But contrary to my suggestion, if africans decide to level the playing field by warring against one another, then so be it. I underestand Pierres idea but I don´t believe the powerful states would take such actions driven by goodwill for Africa and africans. Politicians are not to be trusted, rather the motive for every action they take thoroughly scrutinized.

  5. A sovereign state means a sovereign people period and not a sovereign president or prime minister.One does not have to be a nuclear scientist to understand how or when the people of a nation become sovereign.
    We are living in the 21st century. The American people are sovereign, so are the British, the French , the Germans and people of the developed world.And in Africa?what nation’s people are sovereign?
    Politicians and businessmen from the
    states with sovereign people deal with
    presidents and prime ministers of states whose people are not sovereign.It does not make sense. A double standard. But that is the way things work between Africa and the rest of the world.No wonder in the wretched of the live.

    Bogale Ewnetu

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