Despite their legal attributes, in functional terms many African states (constructs of the continent's encounter with colonial rule) came into being without possessing the requisite qualities of statehood.
Apart from their alienation from the lived political and socio-cultural experiences of the masses of the people, they became states without the capacity to provide for the security and other basic needs of their people. To date, and despite the passage of half a century since the end of colonial rule, a significant number of these countries still suffer from the lack of the functional attributes of a state.
Late last month the 'Fund for Peace' released its annual 'Fragile States Index' - known previously (and somewhat controversially) as the 'Failed States Index'. Removing the category of 'Failed States' and using the new label 'Fragile States' is certainly an improvement - the new 'fragile' label sounds more neutral than the ideologically charged 'failed.'
'Fragility' is also better at capturing the complexities of states and the continuum of capabilities rather than creating a false dichotomy between failed and not failed states. Unlike 'Failed States', fragility does not ignore the existence of pockets of governance even in the most fragile of states and regions of fragility in stronger ones.
Unsurprisingly, the latest index lists many African countries near the top. All five of the countries in the 'Very High Alert' category, five of the 11 countries in the 'High Alert' category and 12 of the 17 countries in the 'Alert' category are in Africa. This means that more than half (20) of the highly fragile countries in the world (34) are located in the continent.
The major curse of state fragility is the risk of a country plunging into violent conflict. If the index is anything to go by, a significant number of African countries are at real risk of this. And this risk has been borne out by events in recent years as a number of countries have experienced a resurgence of internal violence and sustained incidents of terrorism.
In the past two years, a number of countries emerging from conflict have again been plunged into violence. These include Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR) and most recently South Sudan. Major terrorist attacks were also registered in various countries including most notably Nigeria and Kenya (both for a prolonged period of time.)
While all of these countries are in the category of 'Highly Fragile States', the DRC, CAR and South Sudan are part of the top five 'Very High Alert' category of states.
The scale of South Sudan's descent in to civil war was reflected in the fact that it displaced Somalia to take the top spot as the world's most fragile state. Also unsurprising, the CAR experienced the biggest jump up the list in the 2014 index.
This presents a major challenge to the emerging African peace and security system anchored on the African Union (AU) and sub-regional organizations. It highlights the inadequacy of the AU's excessive focus on a 'fire-fighting' approach with heavy reliance on conflict resolution and conflict management tools and the resultant inattention to conflict prevention and post-conflict peace-building activities.
To cater for the tendency of many African states to fall into conflict, the African Union (AU) has put in place such mechanisms as the Continental Early Earning System for detecting and warning policy-makers on the risks of upheaval and conflict in AU member states.
Similarly, the AU has established a post-conflict reconstruction and development framework to deal with post-conflict peace-building issues supporting countries emerging out of conflict or political turmoil. Increasing efforts have also been made to progressively operationalize these mechanisms.
The 2011/2012 north African uprisings and eruption of conflict in the eastern DRC and Mali in 2012, and in the CAR and South Sudan in 2013, show that the efforts undertaken to prevent conflicts or support peace-building have been either utterly inadequate, unsuccessful or both.
As the events in South Sudan and CAR show, without paying greater attention to and prioritizing the situation of state fragility in Africa, the AU cannot make meaningful headway with respect to preventing both new conflicts from erupting and countries coming out of conflict from relapsing back to violent instability.
Questions, such as which countries are most fragile and hence at high risk of facing major crisis, and which continental and global organizations are best placed to play a role in addressing these challenges, need to be raised and properly addressed.
If the AU and countries in Africa are to make headway in overcoming the trap of the prevailing 'fire-fighting' approach to conflicts and violence, there is a need to continuously monitor and robustly engage in these countries. To this end, programmes and plans need to be put in place and resources and political will mobilized.
The curse of state fragility, bequeathed from colonialism and sustained through bad governance and poor leadership, need not be a permanent feature of countries in Africa. Indeed, one of the lessons from this year's 'Fragile States Index' was that countries can progressively move from a status of being most fragile to stronger levels of state capacity.
As highlighted by the index, while Sierra Leone has become the first ever country to exit the 'Alert' category, the progress Liberia has made in the past decade has shown that it may well follow Sierra Leone out of the 'Alert' category in the coming years.
As a recent study convincingly argued, such an outcome is predicated on long-term and sustained engagement with the country and investment in all spheres including the political, security, institution building and socio-economic recovery.