Sometime last year, at the urging of a friend, I downloaded and listened to a podcast from the American libertarian Cato institute. The Cato Institute invited a panel of speakers to discuss the state in Africa. I was almost screaming as I listened to the suggestion of one of the panelists. Military strategist and historian Edward N. Luttwak suggested that African governments should be left to fail instead of being propped up by aid from developed countries.
His argument, the substance of which is not exactly original, is that African states did not evolve like modern European states, and so the relationship between the people and the state in Africa is not the same as one would find, for instance, in Western Europe and Northern America.
Anybody who is familiar with the literature on state and civil society in Africa would be aware of a similar analysis. Peter Ekeh wrote, in a now much-quoted article, that an average African has two publics. One is the civil public of the nation-state, while the other is the more relevant immediate group. The immediate group could be the age-grade, the hometown association or even the larger ethnic group.
He argues that it is morally acceptable – and maybe even expected – that one robs the civil public of the nation-state to feed the more immediate public. Conversely, it is more of a moral hazard, and therefore more frowned upon, for one to steal from the hometown association or the age-grade association.
Of course, the relationship between the people and the state is not the same in Western Europe and Africa. And of course, the state was not organic in Africa. Or even in many other part of the world for that matter. Hey, with regards to Western style democracy, Western Europe and Western European offshoots are the exception and not the norm. That is a discussion for another day so I will leave it out here.
Mr Luttwak suggests that western governments leave failing African states to fail, arguing that their failure would lead to the growth of a more organic structure that is closer to the reality of African societies. His mistake is that the African people of his imagining are long dead and gone; the Africans of today live in a world where there is a state, and where the state has its functions, and they are oh so well aware of that.
A trip to any village in western Nigeria would find reveal how much of a reference point the state is, even if that reference is more about its absence and inefficiency. Ask the villagers what they want and they would likely tell you that they would like the government to remember them, shortly after telling you that ijoba o ranti wa (Yoruba for ‘the government does not remember us’).
You want to know the importance of a state, even for icons of capitalism? Ask the directors of Lehman Brothers, or the private-jet owning bosses of the big car-manufacturing companies in the United States of America. The state is important, and perhaps even more so in less developed countries.
My point is not that western governments should continue propping up failed states. I guess we all know that international support is more often in protection of the interests of the supporting/funding/donating countries than for any other reason. What one should consider is what happens when there is no state, or the symbolic imagination of the state. We live in a world where the state exists, even if only in the minds of people, and to take away the entity that is the ‘physical’ representation of that idea is to invite disorder.
I am against the spirit of what Mr Luttwak said, not against the idea of propping up failed states. Why do people sometimes imagine that Africans are not aware of what is happening in other parts of the world? I would argue that we should think of how to make states meaningful for people, how to make them accountable to the people, and how to make them perform the duties a state is supposed to perform.