Pierre Englebert, Africa: Unity, Sovereignty and Sorrow

Pierre Englebert, Africa: Unity, Sovereignty and Sorrow. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reiner Publishers. 2009.

“By and large, the states of sub-Sarahan Africa are failures. Of course, not all of them are failed states where disorder and violence are rampant. And, of course, there is variation among them, with some showing greater concern for their citizens’ welfare than others. Most of them, however, have not brought about or facilitated much economic or human development for their populations since independence. Often, they have caused their people much havoc, misery, uncertainty and fear. With some exceptions, African states have been, mildly or acutely, the enemies of Africans. Parasitic or predatory, they suck resources out of their societies. At the same time, weak and dysfunctional, many of them are unable or unwilling to sustainably provide the rule of law, safety and basic property rights that have, since Hobbest, justified the very existence of states in the modern world.” p. 1

“Yet, there is a paradoxical feature of Africa’s weak states that has received much less attention: they will not go away. For all their catastrophic failures, weak African states are still around. With the partial exception of Somalia, state collapse has yet to lead to state distintegration on the continent.” p. 1

This looks different just a few years later, I think.

“Although decline and failure take place in all sorts of organizations, what is puzzling about Africa is the lack of sanction for failure. How can African states get away with their lousy performance? Why do they endure? How can these oppressive and exploitative, yet otherwise decrepit structures remain broadly unchallenged in their territories or their fundamental existence as states? How can they simultaneously display decay and stability, weakness and resilience? These are the paradoxes this book addresses.” p. 3

From patron-client relations/neopatrimonialism to ‘territorial nationalism’: Englebert suggests this made sense up to the economic collapse of the late 1970s (the postcolonial state as redistributionist) but stopped making sense afterwards. But I think he’s coming at this from political science and thus the notion that the reproduction of the state needs to be explained in terms of some form of rational choice–a proposition that if it didn’t, the state’s victims would not comply with or would resist the state’s intrusions, that there’s a prediction of secession/revolution/etc. that’s not being met.

Here I think he really does not account for the degree to which the state’s weakness is already satisfying some of those rational expectations, if they truly exist, that the desire for a strong state that Englebert presumes should exist is not what many local actors want. This is pretty much how I want to approach the reproduction of indirect rule & tradition/modernity in my own work–not as a legacy that people are helpless to escape (Mamdani) but as a project they actively reproduce in order to keep the state weak.

Englebert is looking to the exogeny of the African state to explain some of this–this is an elaboration of Cooper’s “gatekeeper state” concept.

“One can count Africa’s wars of secession on one’s fingers”. p. 16

Here I think Englebert is using formalism (wars of secession) to categorize something as rare when in fact if you think more widely African states that have regions which are very nearly functionally autonomous are pretty common. Indeed, both regions and even particular communities or districts. The idea that the DRC *or* Congo-Brazzaville have only had two “wars of secession” in the early 1960s is kind of silly. Even in 2009, he could have listed the first round of the civil war in Cote d’Ivoire, the war in Northern Uganda, the conflicts in eastern Congo, Central/North Mozambique, etc. Since 2009, quite a few more.

Analysis of Chad is fairly telling–“continuous warfare among armed groups from poorly integrated communities” doesn’t count as “wars of secession” because the combatants don’t have a formal ideological demand for secession. Same for Cote d’Ivoire. I think this is mistaking what groups say they want for what they in fact get through armed action–essentially wanting to resolve them into groups with clear objectives (capture of the state, political transformation, secession) when I don’t think any of those formalisms really describe either the active intentionality or effective impact. Landau’s rethinking of 18th-19th C. state formation in southern Africa (or Ellis and Richards on Liberia and Sierra Leone) might help get past this need to ‘read out’ what’s going on in terms of formal ideologies of the state. As Englebert says, “Cultural theories are only somewhat more enlightening”. p. 23 –only somewhat more for him because again he’s treating them like hypotheses that predict action rather than vocabularies that describe it.

Fundamental argument is that sovereignty in Africa is externally driven. I think that’s fine, up to a point, but it begs the question of whether there are other kinds of authority and territoriality that are struggling to emerge.

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