Africa: The African State

A member of the Dassanech Tribe on the border of Ethiopia and Kenya. Nomadic pastoral groups regularly defy borders leading to conflicts with farmers and a growing security concern over the ability of some African states to govern these territories.

The African nation-state is in a period of profound transformation, according to African experts interviewed for episode 8 of Carnegie Corporation’s Peacebuilders podcast series.

In this episode: Alagaw Ababu Kifle, Pamela Mbabazi, Sagal Abshir

"The state in itself is not really African," says Pamela Mbabazi, head of research and policy analysis at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies in Addis Ababa. "Really, the Western state model has been superimposed." State boundaries and state concepts were chiefly a product of the colonial period, further shaped by post-1945 international institutions.

"When you try to understand the different nation-states in Africa," Mbabazi says, "you need to analyze their relationship with the international community to decide the nature and character of a state.… If you look at the IMF, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, they are dependent on that. So the African countries don't have policy ownership. And that has affected how they operate in a big way. Their relationship with the international community defines their national character."

As Alagaw Ababu Kifle of the African Leadership Centre sees it, African states are embedded "in an international political economy where there are very powerful states that are able to advance their interests at the expense of other states." Kifle stresses that African governing elites in many states prefer to have their state budgets depend on foreign funders rather than on their own citizens, who would be more demanding. "The finance is not in the local people," Kifle says. States "get their finance from donors. And if that's the case, then your dependence will be more on those from whom you acquire your resources. That, I think, shaped the nature of the African state itself."

The current splintering of the international community, Kifle believes, creates opportunities for African states to enlarge their own "room for maneuver."

Devolution of state powers, or decentralization, originated "in response to failures in centralized policy" in countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, Kifle argues. For Mbabazi, devolution is a work in progress and the most promising trend in the ongoing transformation of the African state. It should not be dismissed too early, she says, even if devolution of powers can sometimes result in conflict, corruption, and tribalism: "I think we need to have a more positivist way, find what will work. What has worked, what can work, and find solutions.… I think ultimately having a system of governance that responds to your felt needs is certainly much better than having a centralized one, and to me, actually, I think we have to find unique systems of governance that can address the fact that we are ethnically diverse. We need structures, institutions that can respond to the felt needs of the ethnically diverse society. Because really, the state system of governance seems not to be working at all."

Sagal Abshir, a Somali lawyer and former government advisor, points out that Somalia has not had a functioning state government for 30 years. Nearly three quarters of Somalia’s current population was born in that same period. Nonetheless, she says, the country enjoys a "robust and lively … public space," thriving media, and an innovative telecommunications industry. "Sometimes when we do this state building and this peacebuilding, there's a lot of copy-pasting," Abshir argues. "There's a lot of, well, then there's a parliament, and then you must do this, and you must do that. Well, why? We could come up with something completely different and new. I mean, nobody expected our telecom systems that work the way they do, and we've got telephone systems and Internet systems that far out-pass other countries.  How do we harness some of this energy of these young people to create a country? Because it's for them, essentially. They're 73 percent of the population."

Peacebuilders features nine episodes from East Africa. The final episode, “African Solutions to African Problems,” will be broadcast on the morning of Tuesday, June 26. The interviewers are Aaron Stanley, a program assistant with Carnegie Corporation’s International Peace and Security program, and Scott Malcomson, an author, journalist, and former government official and NGO executive. Malcomson was a Carnegie Corporation media fellow (2015–18) and is currently a fellow in international security at the New America Foundation and director of special projects at Strategic Insight Group.

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