Requirements of effective Statehood in Africa

Christopher Clapham, December 2007


  • state formation
  • nation state
  • post-conflict
  • state sovereignty
  • Africa

1. What are the requirements for effective statehood?

I would start by emphasising, with reference in particular to my own area of interest in sub-Saharan Africa, that we should not take it for granted that post-conflict states can be reconstructed at all. Especially since the events of 11 September 2001, which drew to the attention of the United States that its own security could be threatened by conditions in ‘ungoverned’ parts of the world, political scientists interested in the processes of state collapse and reconstruction have been bombarded with demands from policymakers to tell them how conditions of stable statehood, and hence political ‘order’, can be created in those parts of the world where states have been most under threat. The assumption underlying such demands, which bears evident affinities to the ‘neo-conservative’ assumption that political conditions can be replicated (with the aid of appropriate policies) across widely different cultural and structural conditions, is that there are universal principles for building states that can – possibly with local variants – be made to work everywhere. This, in my view, is not the case. The ‘state’ is the consequence of specific conditions that do not always apply. The conflicts that have riven quite a number of states in recent years sometimes (though not always) reflect the problem that the conditions for building effective states do not exist in the affected area in the first place.

This is not to suggest that the state, as it has emerged in Europe, is a unique historical experience. On the contrary, effective states, and indeed nation-state, have proved to be achievable in many areas of the world, and the conditions for creating such states have indeed been replicated in an increasing range of cases as a result of the changes associated with modernity and globalisation. It is simply that these conditions do not exist everywhere, and that those areas in which they do not exist understandably raise the most intense problems for the construction of political order.

The conditions required for effective statehood notably include:

a) a critical density of population, which both requires and permits a structure of permanent governance;

b) a critical level of resources, from which a surplus can be extracted with which to maintain such a structure of permanent governance;

c) the development over time both of habits of obedience and acceptance of authority on the part of the population, and of corresponding concepts of accountability on the part of rulers;

d) at least a minimal level of common identity, which needs to rise in intensity with levels of popular participation in the political process.

The prevalence of these conditions has been greatly extended by modern global developments, which have in turn increased the geographical extent of areas in which effective and ultimately participatory statehood can be achieved. ‘Development’ has notably resulted in marked increases in population densities, the generation of surpluses through economic development and especially the growth of international trade, the extension of technologies of governance to societies in which they were previously unfamiliar, and the transformation of political identities as a result of increasing levels of participation. Slowest to emerge, however, are the habits of obedience and acceptance of authority on the part of the governed, and of concepts of accountability on the part of rulers. In societies which do not have a long history of settled government, these may emerge only over some generations, and at the cost of bitter learning experiences.

At the same time, the extension of the global reach of effective statehood has highlighted the distinctive features, which are now regarded as anomalous, of those societies in which the requirements for effective statehood have not been achieved. Especially problematic in this respect are those societies which lack the necessary habits of obedience and accountability already referred to, and in which the resulting levels of bad governance on the one hand, and of popular revolt on the other, may readily destroy existing structures of statehood (which have themselves usually been externally imposed), without creating the conditions for the construction of new ones. Pastoralist societies also raise exceptional difficulties for effective state formation.

The issue of whether an effective post-conflict state can be created is both analytically and practically distinct from that of whether it can be established within a specific and predetermined territory. It is a widely recognised problem of state formation, especially in Africa, that territories have been externally imposed, with at best only a very limited concern for their relationship to existing population groups or ecological boundaries. In practice, territorial artificiality has generally been far less of an issue for state creation than might have been expected. Continental norms regarding the relationship between population groups, territoriality and statehood have been very different in most of Africa from the situation in Europe, where it has been widely assumed that a state must correspond to a ‘nation’, and where territorial boundaries have been changed with astonishing ease in order to accommodate demands for national statehood. There are nonetheless some cases in Africa where territorial changes, normally by splitting existing states into two or more separate ones, may be needed as a condition for state effectiveness.

2. African case studies in post-conflict statehood

When considering ‘post-conflict reconstruction of the state’, it is therefore necessary to recognise that there are very different kinds of conflict, which in turn may threaten the state in different ways, and call for different forms of, and possibilities for, ‘reconstruction’. In order to illustrate this point, it may be helpful to take examples from some of the African cases with which I am familiar.


Rwanda: This is a case where, despite a peculiarly vicious and traumatic conflict, there was no significant problem over the reconstruction of the state at all – merely a conflict over who should control it. The Rwandan state has a very dense population and a long history, predating colonialism by many centuries, and habits of obedience so entrenched in the population that its members could be induced to murder enormous numbers of their neighbours when instructed to do so by people in authority. On taking power in 1994, the Rwanda Patriotic Front regime was able to re-establish the state immediately, and continues to run it. The problems of post-conflict statehood relate to the way in which the state continues to be controlled by the RPF and its supporters.

Eritrea: This is likewise a case which involved no significant problems of post-conflict state reconstruction, even though the conflict was fought, not over control of an existing state, but in order to create a new state within the artificial territory established by Italian colonialism. The key to state construction here was the extraordinarily effective military organisation created by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front during the struggle for independence, and – underlying that – the long experience of statehood among the people of the densely populated highland area from which the EPLF drew its main support. There are certainly problems of post-conflict statehood, both at a structural level over the control of lowland (and Moslem) peoples by a highland (and Christian) dominated state structure, and at a contingent level over the counter-productive authoritarianism of the present leadership, but these are not such as to threaten the existence of the state itself.

Somalia: This is a case at the opposite extreme, where the collapse of the state derives fundamentally from structural difficulties, and notably that of maintaining any kind of state over a sparsely-inhabited territory, most of which is suited only to pastoralism, and among a population for whom respect for authority is at best both transient and conditional. The most recent attempt to reconstruct a Somali state, by the Organisation of Islamic Courts defeated by the Ethiopians late in 2006, characteristically depended first on a leadership drawn from a very narrow clan base, and second on a project of national unification that threatened the major regional power (and in addition, a United States government concerned over its Islamist credentials). In these circumstances, state reconstruction was all but impossible.

Somaliland: Here we have another case of post-conflict state construction, based (as in Eritrea) on the re-establishment of the former colonial territory, though without the command structure or the underlying habits of governance available to the EPLF. It remains far more effective than attempts at state reconstruction in former Italian Somalia, on the other hand, partly because it can draw on the identity of the Isaaq clans which comprise most of its population, partly because of the need to demonstrate effectiveness in order to protect itself against Somalia, partly because it can at least draw on the support of the area of settled agriculture provided by the Hargeisa highlands, and partly also because its government has been careful to work with, and not against, major regional and global interests.

Southern Sudan: This again is a case of prospective post-conflict statehood derived from territorial redefinition, on lines defined both by race and religion, but in which the underlying bases for statehood according to the criteria outlined above are nonetheless extremely weak. The population is sparse, the material resource base is weak, the sources of authority and accountability are slight, and the common identities fostered by the long war of liberation from Moslem northern Sudan are undermined by significant differences within the indigenous population. Creating a viable South Sudan state is likely to prove an extremely difficult task, in which a high level of international engagement will probably be required.

Liberia: Liberia is a long-established West African state, in which historically entrenched patterns of inequality and bad governance eventually triggered conflicts which led to widespread societal as well as political breakdown, and eventually to the current process of state reconstruction by an elected government with a very high level of international tutelage. This is one of the clearest cases of state reconstruction in our sample, which is not an impossible task, but will certainly require a long period of collaboration between the domestic government and international supporters with a long-term commitment to provide both basic security guarantees, and financial and technical assistance. Essentially, this amounts to the provision of international trusteeship.

Sierra Leone: This is a case comparable to Liberia, both in the level of political and societal breakdown, and in the need for long-term international trusteeship.

These case studies indicate the need for a case-by-case approach to the problems of post-conflict reconstruction, and a hard-headed appraisal of the possibilities for maintaining or re-establishing effective states, and the role of external actors in doing so. A high level of external engagement, to take one key variable, may be unnecessary in Rwanda, impossible in Eritrea, counter-productive in Somalia, and badly needed in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

3) Aspects of the state in post-conflict Africa

For a further overview of the problems involved in post-conflict state construction, it may be helpful to take the four ‘aspects of the state’ identified in the initial framework, and apply them to the cases which have been considered here.


One striking feature of the cases considered here is the low level of correspondence between state effectiveness and collective identity. In much of the world, and notably in Europe, collective identity is characteristically regarded as the sine qua non for the creation of legitimate states – so much so, indeed, that the boundaries of these states have been dramatically altered in order to reflect identities, a process which is still continuing not only in the former Yugoslavia, but in apparently stable West European democracies such as Belgium and the United Kingdom.

Somalia may be contrast be taken as the extreme example of a society with a strong sense of its collective identity, exemplified in common cultural characteristics including language, religion, and attitudes to political authority, which has at the same time been quite unable to maintain any effective state. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is another state whose citizens – despite, unlike Somalia, encompassing a large number of different indigenous ethnicities – share a strong sense of being Congolese, without being able to use this as the basis for creating stable or effective political institutions. In both Eritrea and Somaliland, the frontiers imposed by colonial rulers have been resurrected as the basis for independent sovereign statehood, even though these were every bit as artificial as in other parts of Africa, and divided peoples with the same indigenous ethnicity. While there are certainly cases, with South Sudan as the most obvious, where collective identity divides peoples within an existing state, and makes separation an almost necessary precondition for post-conflict statehood, the differences between Africa and other regions ar4e profound and need to be recognised.

One particularly interesting example of an attempt to use collective identity as the basis for post-conflict state reconstruction is the establishment of the system of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia after 1991. It may be useful to examine this further in the discussion.


By contrast, sovereignty has been, and continues to be, the founding principle for the establishment of African states. African states have overwhelmingly been established by force, including both the great majority in which this force has been imposed by an external colonialism, and those (notably Ethiopia) in which it has internal origins. Political scientists including Robert Jackson and Jean-François Bayart have emphasised their continuing dependence on external resources, including military and financial assistance and external recognition. At the same time, as has likewise been widely recognised, their capacity to impose force throughout the whole of their national territory has often been inadequate.

In re-establishing states which have been destroyed or badly damaged by conflict, force has likewise been the critical consideration. In some cases, notably in Sierra Leone, this force has had to come from external actors (in this case the United Kingdom), given the absence of any viable domestic military. The deficit of force in much of Africa likewise explains the large number of international ‘peacekeeping’ forces deployed in the continent. It is only once an effective structure of control has been established that one can plausibly attempt to incorporate other aspects of statehood, such as taxation systems or institutionalised political structures. Even identity, in many cases, has followed from physical control, rather than being used to create it.

Rule of Law-State

The rule of law state, however desirable, remains a distant prospect in the great majority of African post-conflict situations. The establishment of public order takes first place, and in the process characteristically leads to the installation of regimes whose sense of their own legitimacy derives from their role in ending conflict, and often – at least in their own estimation – ‘liberating’ their countries at the same time. Regimes which have come to power as the result of guerrilla struggle, as in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda, are extremely reluctant to accept that their own tenure of office can be restricted (let alone terminated) by the judicial and electoral mechanisms that the rule of law requires. Where elections have been held, as in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda, these have either been so dominated by the incumbent regime that its victory was inevitable, or else manipulated by the changing of constitutional provisions or straightforward falsification of the results (as in Ethiopia in 2005) to ensure that the regime remained in power. In the extreme case, Eritrea in 2001, leading members of the ruling party who challenged the head of state were summarily imprisoned without trial (and, if still alive, remain in prison six years later), and the entire independent press was suppressed.

Consequently, the only cases in which anything approaching a rule of law state has been established in post-conflict situations has been in those cases where the restoration of order depended to a very large degree on international intervention, and where the dominant external powers were in a position to enforce its provisions. The two cases among those considered here are Liberia and Sierra Leone, where the opposition party has won the most recent presidential elections. At the same time, of course, these are the states in which the domestic political order is weakest. The rule of law state is consequently a substitute for, rather than a reinforcement of, the sovereign state.


While taxation is seen as a key element in the creation of states that are both effective and accountable in Europe, as explored notably in the work of Charles Tilly, the post-conflict African states examined here work in a very different way. Few African states, indeed, rely for their revenues on taxes levied directly on the population, and calling both for efficient collection mechanisms and for a degree of public accountability and acceptance, in the way that the European model provides. The great majority of African states are instead ‘rentier states’, which depend for their revenues on surpluses provided by the extraction of mineral resources or other internationally traded products, or alternatively on foreign aid. These create very different forms of accountability from those resulting from the imposition of uniform taxation systems on the population as a whole. Mineral extraction characteristically produces enclave economies, in which the revenues accruing to the state depend on the control of very restricted parts of the national territory – those in which the key minerals are located – and on the arrangements made with the mining corporations (usually foreign, though also including parastatal companies) by which the minerals are extracted. The result is to reinforce the neopatrimonial character of the state, destroy mechanisms for accountability and the maintenance of the rule of law, and often leave large areas of the formal national territory which are judged to be useless without effective governance of any kind.

In the case of post-conflict states, there is often a very heavy dependence on foreign aid, which indeed becomes essential for state reconstruction, and is often accompanied by foreign advisory missions tasked with retraining the military, re-establishing health, education and taxation systems, and so forth. This externalises political accountability, and leads to a dependence on ‘policy rents’, or policies which the government pursues in order to generate the aid flows that depend on external conditionalities. The resentments resulting from this process provide one reason why governments may prefer to pursue more explicitly rent-seeking arrangements with corporations from states like the People’s Republic of China which make great play of respecting the sovereignty of the states in which they operate.

4) Concluding Comment

Since these comments are intended only to contribute to a general discussion, this is not the place for any formal conclusions. The overall tendency of the comments that I have provided here is, however: first, to emphasise that state reconstruction in post-conflict situations may be not only difficult, but in some cases impossible; second, to suggest that processes of post-conflict state construction may operate differently in different parts of the world; and third, even within a single region such as tropical Africa, that there are very wide variations between states, and that stage construction strategies must depend not only on specific political circumstances, but also and more basically on the underlying historical experiences and cultural values of the societies concerned.