Colonialism and Failed States

Today in my course “War and Peace” we talked about failed or failing states.   In looking at states like Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, we directly confronted the question: would Africa be better off it were still run by the Europeans?  Are the Africans simply too primitive to run their own affairs?

It’s important to remember that colonialism was one of the most destructive forces in history.  It wiped out indigenous civilizations in North and South America, low tech holocausts where Europeans literally replaced the original inhabitants.  In Africa the entire political and social structure of society was obliterated, as the Europeans drew up borders and exploited their colonies for whatever they could find.  When they left, they imposed their political organization, the modern state, on the local populations.  These states often mixed up a variety of different ethnic groups, or cut whole tribes into pieces, with some of each group on different sides of various borders.

In the West, we often forget that the modern state was very hard to construct.  It emerged ‘naturally’ in Europe, over centuries, through bloodshed and violence.  Early states were more like organized crime syndicates than what we would call governance.  Monarchies emerged from large scale shake down operations and protection rackets, as the ‘bosses’ moved towards legitimating their rule as being of divine right or blue blood.  Even then it was centuries of violence, technological innovation and conflict that led to the first modern nation states.  After that it was centuries more of struggle to develop functioning democracy, get rid of slavery, and finally give women their rights.   The West did not have this imposed from the outside, but developed it along the lines of its own culture and civilization.

Looked at that way, the idea that former colonies could simply take western governmental structures and suddenly be functioning states is absurd on its face.   Democracy and functioning territorial states are very difficult to create and maintain, even European democracies usually failed on their first attempts.  In Asia states fit a bit better to the local traditions, most of which managed to survive European conquest (unlike in Africa).   The Americas not only got early independence, but thanks to the genocides committed there, they essentially replaced the indigenous population and culture with a new European one.   But in Africa, it was the worst of all words — the old culture totally destroyed, the population in tact, and a foreign political organization imposed with little regard to ethnic populations and natural borders.

Failed states were to be expected.  The Europeans modeled the behavior that those in power should control the population and exploit resources to their own ends.  Governments quickly became corrupt, and ethnic groups vied for power in order to control the resources and hand out government favors.   Despite that many governments were unable to penetrate their entire state, leaving vast swathes of Africa as essentially anarchies, run by local tribes or often war lords.

The lack of a stable culture not only meant that rule of law was not achieved, but when war and violence does break out, nothing seems to mitigate its affect.  Child soldiers are abundant in the various conflicts, often having cocaine directly rubbed into their bloodstream and told they are invincible.  Drugged up, they are taught to kill and mutilate, so that 14 year olds end up doing things so horrific they are beyond our imagination.  Groups fight for resources, compete for political power, and neglect the needs of the masses, caught up in chronic malnutrition (nearly half the population of the African continent) and lack of opportunity.

Those who argue that colonialism would be better than this ignore one thing: colonialism caused this.  Unless one wants to posit a perpetual colonialism as viable, whereby one group exploits another and in exchange keeps order and stability, privileging small groups while keeping the masses poor and powerless, it was inevitable that colonialism end.  And, while one might think that exploitive imperialism is better than what much of Africa has now — and in some ways it was — it was a fundamentally unjust, immoral and destructive relationship.  The problem is not that colonialism ended, but the transition to something new has been disastrous.

The result is the creation of state governmental structures unable to operate effectively.  In places like Nigeria, hundreds of ethnic groups compete for power, and with control of oil resources at stake, authoritarianism and corruption became the norm.  Sierra Leone started with an early successful transition, only to see corruption (thanks in large part to diamond trade) turn it into a civil war where amputation, child soldiers and atrocities overtook the country in the 90s.   Lacking a coherent social structure and political culture to support a stable government, countries had to choose between chaos and strict authoritarianism.  Transitioning from either to something better has proven virtually impossible.

It’s hard to see how to solve this.  Places with no effective governments are the most dangerous while the most effective governments are corrupt and authoritarian.  Simply, the state is not an effective political organization, at least not as defined currently in Africa.  And changing state borders to fit ethnic realities creates more problems — who controls resources, how are borders between ethnic groups defined, etc.   States don’t work, but there is no viable replacement.

One lesson in this is to recognize that any intervention by outside powers into a region’s natural development, even if they bring more technology, medicine and short term benefits, can lead to long term disaster.  (Star Trek’s prime directive was right on!)  However, while up until now failed states could be ignored — the world that said “never again” to genocide turned a blind eye to the Rwandan genocide, despite Romeo Dallaire’s heroic efforts.  Most people didn’t notice.  Now, however, with terrorism, new technologies, and the spread of both images and ideas, failed states can be dangerous.  One can imagine a charismatic leader finding a way to channel discontent into a major movement, one seeing the West — the colonizing powers that tore everything apart — as the enemy.  That could lead to a dangerous confrontation with a new kind of war.

We need to find a way to turn around that dynamic, to allow states to succeed.   And, unfortunately, this will require some intervention.  But I don’t think exploitive intervention like colonialism, or armed violent intervention like in Iraq, can be the answer.  Look what it did in Iraq, after all!  Or what the Soviets and the US collectively did to Afghanistan.  Rather, in Africa (where the problem is worst) the African Union needs to work with the UN to develop a plan to stabilize states who wish to work towards a functioning government.  There should be incentives (trade preferences, aid, etc.), and there should be oversight of all spending and government actions by an outside group, with a plan to assure transition to full independent control by the state itself.

To work, this would require a massive commitment by the industrialized states to invest time, money and people in giving states where people live in abject poverty, abuse and often the worst atrocities a chance to move forward.  We’d have to work with the people there, learning the culture and help them find their own path, not trying to simply create large export industries or infrastructure investment.   The current economic crisis makes that seem unlikely, but it could also create a volunteer pool for people needing work or a chance to make a difference.  Ultimately, a prosperous growing third world — albeit one with sustainable development, not just mass consumption — could help transform the world economy and avoid future threats of terrorism and mass migrations from South to North.

Impossible?   Only if the industrialized world lacks the will, or third world state governments refuse to go along.  The latter is less a problem; some states would take longer than others to join, some would fear neo-colonialism.  But it’s really an effort to relaunch independence for these states, and this time in an effective transition process.  More problematic would be the cooperation of the rich north in a time of economic crisis.  They will look inward, and not see the interdependencies and real danger of having mass amounts of people in dire straights.   There is still hope, but hope can always be trounced by fear and anger.

So, no, one can’t just blame the Africans for the failure of European imposed political structures to work.  People like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe are products of these structures, the average people have little recourse (and in Zimbabwe they’ve been bravely trying to force change, risking a lot and so far being crushed).   We live the advanced lifestyle we have because our ancestors exploited and abused their colonies.  That helped put the West where it is now.  We not only have a responsibility to work to alter that, but it’s in our interest.    At some point these states will not only not be able to be ignored, but they’ll be able to do real damage to the world system.   We need transformational change, and the sooner the better.

  1. #1 by Lee on January 29, 2009 - 01:32

    What a fascinating solution to a complex problem. I wish i believed that industrialized nations would buy in, but I am not sure I think that they would. Also I wonder if we genuinely have the ability to learn what we need to learn about others cultures.

  2. #2 by henitsirk on January 29, 2009 - 04:26

    Last year I copy edited the book Empire, Colony, Genocide by A. Dirk Moses. It was fascinating, and very disturbing, given the wide range of cultures and locations discussed. Genocides in settler colonies have been happening for a long, long time all over the world. It was a depressing thing to read, frankly.

    Now, there’s a world of difference between a country being “run by” Europeans and being dominated and exploited by them. One could imagine Westerners providing key assistance or even leadership, in a limited way, which would not resemble colonialism at all.

    A few weeks ago I proofread a book about the International Criminal Court and its problems. Certainly there is great hope in European assistance with bringing justice to places like Rwanda and Sudan, but the Europeans involved continue to work against African culture and tradition in so many cases. For example, there are cultures in Africa that have effective methods of forgiveness and reconciliation that do not require judicial proceedings, but these practices are being quelled in favor of European-style “justice” that often creates more problems. I imagine this is yet another case of Westerners being blind to the idea of any cultural tradition other than their own — as in colonialism.

    Then I’ve also edited several books over the last few years on cultural issues in Turkey, and have developed something of a fascination with that country. I was reminded of it when I read your comments about countries not being able to simply adopt wholesale a Western-style government. Turkey certainly has been struggling for a while with secular democracy, and certainly needs more time to develop it in accordance with Turkish culture and history. Doesn’t bode well for the speed of similar developments in Iraq. Of course, Turkey has the incentive of EU membership to help it along!

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