Adam Hyde is PhD student in LSE’s Department of International Development. Here he responds to a recent article in the Atlantic by G. Pascal Zachary in which he recommends that the old colonial borders should be rejected by more states in Africa.
On 11 July, 2011 in The Atlantic, G. Pascal Zachary proposed that more African states should “divide, secede, splinter, or otherwise scramble the old colonial borders.” I want to briefly set out a few problems with his assertion as well as argue that despite having inappropriately assigned borders, further division or secession in most sub-Saharan African cases is neither necessary nor desirable.
South Sudan represents an exceptional case where secession might arguably have been preferable to unification but it is too early to claim this. A case might be made for a minor scrambling of some borders but even that is not realistic given elite incentives to sovereignty and the opportunity cost that such an effort would represent. In the end, the reality is that separation often leads to increased conflict.
Externally deciding on state boundaries according to colonial arrangements made in 1888 was, of course, inappropriate, arrogant, inhumane, and generally damaging in many ways. It would be a challenging argument to make that all African borders are comprised of neat ‘nations’ governed under single integrated authorities.
In many countries we observe the opposite. State boundaries often split populations that have natural affinities (geographically and culturally, for example), while at the same time these borders can force the political integration of groups that typically appear at odds with one another, unable to get along, collectively act, and create a political economy that could lay the foundation for growth.
These facts alone do not justify the proposition to split up and scramble the existing boundaries. Doing so because of the aforementioned rationale would ignore the fact that social and political systems, ethnicity and culture more generally, are forged over time, and that they are changing, malleable and flexible constructs.
Affinities outside the familial are borne of common experience and history, shared interests, and sustained incentives to cooperate. They are forged through public debate and mutual dependence, whether for trade, survival, or love. These are the things that enable populations to define themselves as a ‘people.’
Given this interpretation of how human societies evolve, contrary to Zachary’s argument, policy should acknowledge the obvious incentives facing African elites to maintain weak states, and increased effort should be made to promote integration of populations within existing territorial boundaries.
I would argue that such effort at integrating diverse populations within states would have more positive outcomes for African development than would promoting the division of populations into smaller social and political units.
Zachary makes a number of points that I would take issue with. First, it is not clear on what basis he believes that letting existing states fracture in to smaller nations might “reduce conflict, increase economic growth, and cost less in foreign aid”.
For example, in his assertion, Zachary ignores the substantial body of literature that finds that the presence of numerous ethnic or other diverse population subgroups within a single state, we often observe a ‘power balance’, characterised by less conflict and conversely, whereas when fewer groups are found (but more than one), say two or a few, as in the case of Rwanda, we observe more conflict due to the possibility of dominance by one or two groups.
To highlight this point with an example, Tanzania is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Africa but it is also one of the most peaceful and politically stable, despite sustained disappointing economic growth.
It seems that Zachary is promoting ethno or tribal-based nationalisms and further, politicising these identities and equating them to statehood. But if populations were arranged in to such small units, it is difficult to follow his logic that this would lead to increased economic growth.
For example, Zachary mentioned the Nubia region of Sudan. On what basis could ‘Nubia’ form a viable nation-state capable of political and economic organisation, and international engagement, at sufficient scale and efficiency to ever enable growth and development – assuming that one could somehow define neat parcels of people for inclusion and exclusion as ‘Nubian’?
It is a small, sparsely populated, landlocked region with poor human development indicators and an undeveloped economic base. Further, he asks why Darfur should not secede ignoring the fact that Darfur is a melting pot of cultures, ethnic groups, and influences, without any obvious centralised political leadership.
It is also difficult to see how, in an industrial and service-based international political economy, even smaller African states can compete with China or India in these sectors respectively, outside of micro-niche specialisation, without years of sizeable investment and commitment to finance basic services, let alone complex industrial or service based organisation.
Finally, he argues that the maintenance of such tiny states would cost less. But the marginal cost of first securing and then maintaining an additional state and its administration is very high (both in terms of international aid and when measured as a proportion of a state’s total budget), and this cost is directly relative to the population size over which any administration governs (more people, more economic activity, more tax, etc).
Would it not therefore cost more in the maintenance of state bureaucracies and their inherent inefficiency and frequent corruption than in trying to facilitate the existence of larger populations within one state?
Zachary then looks to Jeffrey Herbst to support his argument, referencing Herbst’s book, States and Power in Africa. Herbst argues that a reason for the failure of development in many states in Africa is due to states’ failure to extend an infrastructure of power across their territories, due to sparse populations making it very expensive to do so (build roads, tax, deploy police, etc).
But the conclusion from Herbst’s thesis is not necessarily that Africa needs smaller states. On the contrary, it is more logically viewed as an argument for stronger states (or for the concentration of human density that might reduce the cost to states of deploying their ‘power infrastructure’).
If states, for example, were assisted via international aid and pushed with incentives to extend state control to their peripheries, thus capturing control of their territory, then this might address one problem without creating the difficulties that myriad smaller states would present. The natural and sustained trends toward increased urbanisation also might ultimately contribute positively in this regard.
Herbst does, admittedly, suggest that the carving out of certain economically viable (higher population density) regions within Africa might be desirable in the sense that a higher population density is more conducive to economic development, but he is not outright in advocating this.
If this were to happen, who then would govern less densely populated, less economically and politically viable rural or remote areas? It is not an acceptable proposition that areas of insufficient density or natural wealth be carved out and left outside the nation-state system, with their residents unable to enjoy the benefits that membership of a nation-state affords.
At the heart of a nation-state is economic redistribution – sharing the gains of economic wealth created in some areas or in some industries to areas that might not be as economically prosperous, but no less a part of the nation-state regardless.
Read the rest of this post on openDemocracy.