State-building is not a walk in the park

 “Mauritius’s state building success came on the backs of relentlessly exploited slaves and indentured labourers. Sugar planters compelled the government to ignore mistreatment on sugar estates, implement unreasonable fines and annual passport fees in the name of preventing ‘vagrancy,’ and harass those workers who tried to search for a better life in urban professions. Planters’ actions were expressly designed to subjugate and repress the politically powerless in order to maximise their economic power. Moreover, the fact that class divides coincided with racial difference meant that economic and political contention between elites and labourers on Mauritius became imbued with what was, at times, virulent racism. The worst of these endeavours were related to the planters’ quest to secure an adequate labour supply in the four decades after 1825. Later initiatives, such as railway construction and research and development programmes, were fairly benign. Together, these undertakings transformed the island’s economy and governmental capabilities. In Mauritius, then, one finds something of a developmental paradox: although the long- term consequences of state building have led to a regional ‘miracle’, the way in which the island’s elite and government laid the groundwork for it was normatively reprehensible.”

That is Ryan Saylor writing in the latest edition of Review of African Political Economy.

The paper mostly focuses on the success story that was Mauritian state (capacity) building. But this paragraph is a reminder to those who imagine a whiggish history for much of the developing world to go take a hard, honest look at history.

Throughout most of history, in order to have barons that successfully limited the power of the king or his equivalent (thus creating the roots of post-enlightenment democracy) you needed barons who could extract the life out of peasants. Wars that made states killed lots of young conscripts, confiscated private property and led to the demise of whole peoples’ ways of life (Not all French had French speaking ancestors, for instance). And speaking of the French, they went through lots of republics and dictatorships to become what they are today. Further afield, following its own civil war the institutions of government designed to protect human rights in the US had to look the other way until the 1960s in order to preserve its democracy. In the 20th century, decades of intolerant Kemalist ideological orthodoxy laid the foundation for the Islamic world’s most resilient democracy in Turkey.

Source Wikipedia. Darker shades indicate state failure.

Source Wikipedia. Darker shades indicate state failure in 2011.

Will Egypt, Rwanda, Kenya and the rest escape these patterns if they are ever to become Denmark, the supposed paragon of liberal democracy?

How does one go about state-building in a modern world with sacrosanct borders and a saner human rights regime?

Recent events in the DRC and CAR confirm the urgency with which we ought to address the question of state-building in the developing world in general, and in Sub-Saharan Africa in particular (see map).

Wars of conquest (which probably would have resulted in Rwanda, Angola and Uganda carving up the DRC) are no longer kosher. Add to that the demands of a tighter and saner human rights regime and you are left with little room to maneuver if you are trying to create an effective state (which occasionally may involve curtailment of political rights). Unless you can somehow insulate yourself from the so called stakeholders, including the International Bleeding Hearts Industrial Complex – like much of east Asia did through the 70s and 80s – you are left with a rather tricky situation of trying to forge a unified state with a million and one centrifugal forces with communal rights backed by threats of donor sanctions. The same system ensures that every rebel group that can cobble together a few guns gets to sit at the table (see Sudan, Mali, Burundi, DRC, CAR, Chad). The UN or some Nordic state pays the hotel bills. Western observers and their sponsoring organizations write reports. Some of them meticulously document human rights abuses by rebels and government troops alike.

Meanwhile censuses are never taken. Taxes are never collected. Little economic activity takes place. And millions of people continue to live just a little bit better than they would in some stateless state of nature.

The present international consensus appears to be one that believes in state-building through democracy and institutions. Lived reality for much of world history appears to contradict this consensus. In most cases democracy and the phantom great institutions appear to lag state-building.

The challenge for those of us interested in state-building is to think of ways to go about the effort in a manner that is sensitive to the present human rights regime and structure of the international system. The present urgency, occasioned by widespread human suffering in the less governed spaces of the globe, requires that all reasonable options (including some uncomfortable ones) be put on the table.

the african problem

Sub-Saharan Africa is in dire straights. It is the most sick, hungry, poor and ignorant region of the world. It is a region infested with despots and illiberal democrats who for decades have led their nations to economy ruin and pre-modern tribal divisions and ways of living.

As the world watches one of this region’s promising nations descend into chaos, it is important for us to ask each other hard questions about the African Problem. I say the African Problem problem because it is not by chance that from Senegal to Somalia, Chad to South Africa, there is not much success to talk about. Poverty, disease and ignorance rule supreme.

We need to ask each other hard questions because racially sensitive Westerners (or Easterners for that matter) on whom we depend for most of “our” solutions will not ask us these questions; Is it our culture? Why haven’t we managed to shed the tribe in almost a decade into the 21st century? Why do we tolerate such appalling levels of mediocrity among us? Why don’t we demand more from our leaders? Why don’t we produce real leaders.

Our dictators compare woefully to those from other regions. Pinochet murdered Chileans, enriched himself, but also modernised the economy. Lenin had a weird ideology and some intellect behind his murderous leadership but he modernised Russia. Suharto did not run Indonesia into the ground. And now we turn to Africa: Samuel Doe, “Emperor” Bokasa, Iddi Amin, Obiang, Abacha and all the other Nigerian generals, Mobutu, Mugabe, Charles Taylor…. etc. This is a list of common criminals. Nearly all of them lack (ed) an iota of ideology behind their leadership, nearly all impoverished their people more than they were before, and all are a shame to all Africans. None of them knew what it means to be leader of a people or peoples.

These leaders got obscene amounts of wealth while their country men and women walked around naked, sick, hungry and ignorant.

How hard can it be? Why haven’t we succeeded in having successful socio-cultural and economic institutions that work for us? Does anyone care? Of what use is a million dollars to any African anywhere if Reuters is showing pictures of naked flood victims from Mozambique??? Why are we stuck in pre-modernity?

The many questions aside, the one thing that is clear is that Africa needs to change fast or it will never catch up with the rest of the world. We should not confuse pre-modern subsistence existence with culture. People live in mud houses and roam around with emaciated goats not because they love it but because they can’t afford or do not know any better.