Between Strong States, Decentralization, and Development in Africa

In recent  decades, there has been a strongly asserted argument on African countries which are struggling economically and politically. The argument is that their way out of the vicious circle of poverty, debt and dependency is in the ‘market’ way. It is also important for their way out of political instability. ‘Privatize your state’s assets,’ they say, and make your state agencies and budgets smaller and your private sector bigger; the market will meet your development needs if you allow it to grow and take over the economy; etc. This argument is generally supported, in word and deed, by most of the main players in the international development arena, such as the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organization.

Weak states cannot be conducive to development, even if other sectors, such as private businesses or NGOs, claim to take on that task instead. This ‘rule’ applies irrespective of the general economic orientation of the country (market economy, socialist, nationalist, etc.). The reasons are embedded in historic and logistical-technologic factors and thus should be addressed as such. That said, however, a necessary remedy to state centralization is needed, especially in the African context, because centralization has an established trend against sustainable and equitable development. The article then discusses the challenge of realizing the difficult but necessary consolidation of a ‘strong yet decentralized’ model of the state, and why it’s important for the African context in general.

Why Strong States?

To clarify what I mean by strong or weak states we have to consider the context of the post-colonial ‘nation state’ – the only officially recognized form of state in our time – and its main features. For that we also need to review the history of the formation of this world of post-colonial states.

The ‘nation state’ or ‘modern state’ model is mainly a European model that was ‘adopted’ by the rest of the world through colonization, and was later emphasized as the only legitimate model through the European hegemony over the global scene, through organizations like the UN and predecessors. For that, the ‘national identity’ attached to this model is actually a geopolitical – i.e., territorial – identity and not necessarily ‘national’ (from a sense of a nation, defined by homogenous cultural and/or linguistic identities of peoples). This post-colonial state is new in human history, in terms of the level at which it plays a critical role in the daily lives of every single individual within its boundary. The mere fact that every single resident in the country must have some type of state-issued document (and hence, a file with the state) attests to that. If that individual does not have such a document he/she almost does not exist (or is ‘illegal’). Other characteristics, such as the monopoly over the use of coercive force, the right to international representation of citizens, and the choice of official currency, also attest to that dominance of the state apparatus in our lives. The outstanding characteristics of the post-colonial state can be summarized in the following points:

  • “The state is a bureaucratic organization that is centralized, hierarchical and differentiated into separate institutions and organs with specialized functions. But all the institutions of the state operate according to formal rules and a clearly defined hierarchical structure of accountability to central authorities.
  • The hierarchical yet interconnected state institutions are distinguished from other kinds of social organizations, like political parties, civil society organizations, and business associations. The scope and functions of the state require its institutions to be distinct from non-state organizations because state officials and organs should regulate non-state entities and may have to adjudicate differences among them.
  • The expansive and far reaching domain of the [post-colonial] state—extending now to every aspect of the social, economic, and political life, including the provision of educational, health, and other fields—is far more extensive than any other kind of organization [within its borders].
  • To fulfill its multiple functions and roles, the state must [be] the highest authority within its territorial borders. The state must also be the authoritative representative of its citizens and entities within its territory to all entities and actors outside that territorial domain [on most official political and economic aspects].
  • For the same reasons just cited, the state must also have monopoly over the legitimate use of force and coercion. This capability is essential for the state to be able to enforce its authority in order to protect its sovereignty, maintain law and order, and regulate and adjudicate disputes.”1

A ‘weak state’ is one which has failed to sufficiently manifest the characteristics above. A strong state, by contrast, is one which has fulfilled those characteristics. From this it follows that it is expected –and exists– that even some strong states are ‘stronger’ than others. That level of strength, however, still does not necessarily determine the developmental approach of the state authorities. Without a strong state modern development efforts are highly unlikely to succeed, irrespective of other factors, but not every strong state is necessarily a developmental state.

Weak states cannot achieve overall development, whether they are capitalist states that give great power to the market forces, or states with more involvement in their national economy. In Western Europe and North America, and other post-industrial regions, the states are generally very strong. These states are involved in almost all the major aspects of their citizens’ lives and livelihoods (starting from birth and up to death). They hold the highest right and access to coercive force within their boundaries to enforce clear legislations regarding market and financial operations. They also have the most resources to execute their mandates, through detailed and comprehensive taxation systems and property regulations. Yet they have capitalist governments who promote the so-called free-market philosophy. Even market economies cannot regulate themselves, since they need the legislative and enforcing power of the state to establish the necessary financial and legal conditions to flourish. This is why the biggest markets and consumerist cultures reside in very strong states.

There is ample evidence that economic and human development does not happen, in visible measures, in the post-colonial world, under weak states. Both private businesses and NGOs cannot efficiently undertake the tasks expected of the state in any national development context. And, as for the local civil society potential, its healthy existence is highly dependent on the foundational legal framework based on principles of constitutional citizenship and participation, which can only be provided by the state’s apparatus. The writer is in agreement with one of the prominent figures for development governance in Africa, Julius K. Nyerere (1922-1999), in saying:

“[Africa should ignore the call], emanating from the North, for the weakening of the state. Our states are so weak and anemic already that it would almost amount to a crime to weaken them further. We have the duty to strengthen the African states almost in every respect you can think of… In any case dieting and other slimming exercises are appropriate for the opulent who over-eat; but very inappropriate for the emaciated and starving.”2

Development and Redistribution

Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) proposed that there are three general forms of integration through which economic processes are instituted in societies. These three forms are:
– Reciprocity (founded upon patterns of symmetry),
– Redistribution (founded upon patterns of centricity), and
– Exchange (founded upon market systems).

What this paper emphasizes is the second form of integration, which is redistribution. The pattern of centricity that Polanyi mentions here means that there is a central point (of authority) to which resources flow in, from all the parts of the large social unit, and out again, with the determination of that central authority.3 That ‘central’ authority can be federal, for example, with measures of autonomy to sub-regions, but still central in its overall structure. This political-economic process manifests itself in systems of taxation (and spending), land/resource allocation, regulation of property rights, and chartering priorities of development infrastructure and public services, among others. It is, therefore, the degree and kind of redistributive activity that the state undertakes which makes it either a developmental state or not.

The redistributive role of the state is paramount for developmental concerns, and redistributive decisions that governments make reflect their priorities. A government that is more involved in directing its economic and human development tools towards pre-conceived goals would utilize the state institutions accordingly and make them big agents of development. On the other hand, governments that seek to minimize the state’s role in the industry and trade operations, with the claim that the market will take care of itself and of the economy, create the opposite of what can be called a developmental state.

From modern history it can be shown that countries that were capable of improving their development status in the last century, comparatively, generally used either socialist or embedded-liberalism approaches for that goal. Both approaches are known to require the state to be central to economic planning and execution. The tools and priorities through which the state and the market manipulate the economy are very different; therefore the market forces cannot claim to substitute the role of the state in the economy. Governments that choose to delegate economic development to the market system end up with tailoring the state’s role with many measures in order to make the legal and financial environment conducive to the market’s interest, but the state’s involvement is never diminished. This is why a writer like Faranak Miraftab accuses attempts of public-private partnership as a way of diluting the “the redistributive and political role” of the state “in favor a technical marginal one [such as monitoring and insuring].”4 It is also why a writer like Jess Gilbert was capable of demonstrating, from historical cases, how even a big state with general capitalist orientation, such as the USA, in its history consciously used the redistributive role of the state to achieve big developmental leaps with equitable results in society (such as what happened in the famous ‘new deal’ era in American history).5

Why Decentralization?

That said, it is apparent that the very structure of the post-colonial state has inherent problems that challenge principles of genuine participatory democracy (instead of just representative democracy) and socio-economic self-determination for smaller social units within the larger social aggregate. These challenges however can only be addressed maturely when the conditions are ripe, and with the right political processes. The ripe conditions first require a mature infrastructure—of education, healthcare, constitutional rights, national economic autonomy, etc.—to be attained by strong, developmental states.

The state is a child of the irony of the dialectic. It transformed human identity from the ethnic group, the race and the religion to a simple and objective identity: the geopolitical identity. The state also was historically instrumental to establishing universal human rights and international law, along with standardized systems of scientific inquiry, technological advancement, and redistribution of power and wealth. On the other hand, the state had kept an oppressive side since its very beginnings. Its own existence requires the monopoly of coercive force and criminalizing all behavior that is not conducive to its continuation (even when the behavior is not actually criminal under moral criteria). The state also amplified class conflict, helped nourish fascist regimes and ideologies, and suffocated many positive and revolutionary forces of society.

In the end, humanity cannot deny the lessons learned, and benefits gained, from the state experience, but has to recognize that it cannot move towards its ultimate goal – realization of full potential and emancipation – without making the state history. The universal human community which was able to take strides forward using the state institution is also capable of crafting an alternative system that learns from the previous experiences and surpasses them. The road towards this alternative begins with decentralized federation.

>Why? The state largely feeds on centralized authority. Centralized authority allows the state to execute the will of the central government effectively and, most of the time, swiftly. The power of legislating laws and executing them keeps the centralized authority on top of things. Too much power is usually entrusted to political figures who often misuse it. So, how can we forge socio-political systems that embrace the importance of strong developmental states while also mitigate the negative aspects of centralized authority? The course of historical development of the state in Africa gives us good insight.

Most African countries have not witnessed a strong independent modern state yet, and it would be unwise and ahistorical to ask them to bypass that stage. The reason for this can be largely traced to the experience of colonization. The native social development process of Africa was severely interrupted and diverged to serve foreign interests that were directly opposed to the interests of Africans.6 The last century witnessed the withdrawal of these foreign colonizers, but after they decided to draw the borders of the ‘new and independent’ African states, and after they laid out the main features of the governance structure. Africans were then asked to occupy these structures as is, and continue forward normally, as if nothing happened, to be judged as good new members of the international community.

Genuine (i.e., authentic and grounded) social progress does not happen that way however. This is why post-colonial Africa was left to catch up with its own native history, but in a sporadic way caused by the circumstances. This unique African post-colonial context requires a special analysis. Amilcar Cabral (1924-1973) responded to this challenge by devising a theory of national liberation—its purpose and methods—that highlights the importance of the process of entrenching the modern African state into the native social dialectics of Africa, in order to reignite the local social forces. This process, Cabral argued, will eventually continue the native African history that was severely interrupted by colonization.7 Such process generally aims at what we can call a forging of a native African state – not simply a post-colonial state – from the remnants of the colonial legacy. It is very important because genuine development depends on it.

There is no good reason to conclude that Africans would have not reached the nation-state model if it wasn’t for European colonization (although I am generally not a fan of the ‘what if’ reading of history, but will tolerate it this time for the sake of the argument). We look into history, and we see the common law of social evolution that groups of people tend to grow from small/simple social aggregates to big/complex social aggregates. This applies to the histories of the nations of all continents. So nationhood, and indeed ‘continent-hood’ (i.e. political and socio-economic consolidation of multiple nations under a common vision and structure) are not surprising cases in that trend. Even Europe, with a history of internal wars of larger magnitude than any other continent on Earth, is now leading the parade for continental unity.

Also, historically, when social aggregates grow more complex, a type of centralized political management emerges. This is also witnessed in all continents’ histories. So the imagination of the role of centralized authority is not necessarily a work of the devil, but actually a work of objective, universal social history. Africa is no exception. But the African model of the nation state does not have to be – and should not be – a copy of the European model.

The African state can be different. That is where revolution happens, when the people reclaim and re-design the state apparatus to work for the interests of the masses, not for the interests of elites or colonizers. That is where the decentralization model is an important instrument: because it is more capable of, and conducive to, carrying and responding to the pulse of the masses effectively. The contemporary answer, for Africa, lies in the decentralized model of the state, in order to benefit from the state structure and mitigate its negative impacts at the same time. This model is broadly described as the federation model (with many degrees of federation).

Difficult but Necessary: The Strong Decentralized State

Since excessive centralization of political authority is not conducive to equitable and sustainable, people-oriented development, a remedy to excessive centralization should be sought in federation. Federation can be defined as the political system formed by the union of several self-governing units (e.g. provinces, localities, etc.). In democratic federation, the central authority shares political powers with the federal members, in a way that intends to balance and decentralize political and economic control for the benefit of citizens.

Federation – in theory – is an anti-thesis to centralized state administration, but it is not a promoter of ‘weakening the state’. The state, we must not forget, is an important tool of development. The state coordinates labour and resources to build national infrastructure (roads, railroads, utilities, sanitation management, etc.) and facilitate the provision of other critical public services (education, healthcare, safety, and quality assurance of circulated material goods, etc.). To envision autonomous communities who would actually do that, and build modern developed material conditions in Africa, without a central coordinating body — i.e. a state institution — is an unrealistic imagination, un-tempered by history lessons.

Decentralization is also not only reflected in political structure and decision making, but in development models and cultural living as well. A decentralized development model will give more priority to economic investment in regional schemes for local agriculture, energy harvesting, and water supply, for example. These schemes are more inclined to be investing in native management and more environmentally sound than state-wide similar schemes controlled by the central authority. On the cultural front, and with reality of cultural diversity in most African countries, a decentralized model would more likely help different groups express themselves, through their cultural life, with more agency, and with less imposition of a state-sponsored cultural identity. That in turn is more likely to catalyze genuine coexistence and peaceful reaching to a consensus on an inclusive national identity. A strong state, in the decentralized federal model, compliments that trend by coordinating efforts and channeling resources more effectively than a weak state would have. Therefore, the strong-but-decentralized state model is not necessarily ‘the answer’ to the problem of development in Africa, but it is a critical part of that answer.

  1. Abdullahi An-Na’im (2008). Islam and the secular state: Negotiating the future of Shari’a. Harvard University Press. p 86-87. []
  2. Julius K. Nyerere (1998). “Address by Chairman of the South Centre, to opening of conference on ‘Governance in Africa”. Addis Ababa, March 2. []
  3. Karl Polanyi (1957). “The economy as instituted process” in Karl Polanyi, Conrad M. Arensberg and Harry W. Pearson’s (eds.) Trade and market in early empires: Economies in history and theory. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press. Chapter 13: 243-70. []
  4. Faranak Miraftab (2004). “Public-Private partnerships: The Trojan horse of neoliberal development?” Journal of Planning Education and Research, 24: 59-101. See p. 93. []
  5. Jess Gilbert (2009). “Democratizing states and the use of history.” Rural Sociology, 74(1): 3-24. []
  6. Walter Rodney (1972). How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (6th reprint, 1983). Dar-Es-Salam: London and Tanzanian Publishing House. []
  7. Amilcar Cabral (1966). The Weapon of Theory. (Address delivered to the first Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America held in Havana in January). []

Gussai H. Sheikheldin is a Sudanese, post-graduate student at the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, University of Guelph, Canada. He can be reached at: gsheikhe@uoguelph.ca. Read other articles by Gussai.