Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Does Africa Really Need Nation Builders?

Severine Autesserre's article in African Affairs "dangerous tales: dominant narratives and their unintended consequences" describes the three main narratives that dominate wel-meaning international efforts in Congo:
  • primary cause of violence: illegal exploitation of mineral resources
  • primary consequence: sexual abuse of women and girls
  • central solution: extending state authority
Good observation:
"Interestingly, nobody I met challenged the emphasis on state building as the indispensable response to the ongoing conflict. There was no narrative emphasizing other modes of social organization beyond the state."
This state-building narrative was promoted by Michael Gerson (communitarian and speechwriter for Bush) after his visit to Kivu. It's also promoted by blogger Pascal Zachary in his recent article "Africa's Amazing rise and what it can teach the world".
Johnnie Carson links to this article by Pascal Zachary on his facebook page in which this former Wallstreet journal journalist claims that strong nation-states should be the next talk of the village among those who discuss Africa and development:
"In the next wave of creative thinking about development, the nation-state must return as a subject of conversation. African states need to take a stronger role in promoting general welfare even as they cannot return to the practices of the past that stifled individual initiative, robbed "surplus capital" from the enterprising, and reinforced social inequality, consigning women and children to the worst forms of abuse. Only strong nation-states, committed to fairness, can manage the new tensions brought on by wealth and insure that the old risk-averse agenda of African development -- obsessing over preventing further slippage into poverty rather than nakedly pursuing legitimate achievable gains -- becomes an artifact of history."
Amazing how he portrays this dominant state-building narrative that has been around for over a decade as some kind of creative new idea. As so often the proposed solution is more government and more social engineering while the more pressing question remains unanswered: "Can the African nation have peace and prosperity without freedom?" The short history of African states, the accidental borders and tribal diversity have contributed to a weak and superficial national identity and nation-state.

However, this perceived weakness of the African state could easily be seen as an advantage to work towards strong and peacefull crossborder cooperation and instead de-emphasize the nation-state. It's precisely the utopian nation-building projects by visionary liberators that have led to tensions in Africa (as Pascal Zachary himself claimed in his article on Sudan's split and Congo's Kivu).

The tribal tensions and the emergence of all kinds of rebel groups which in turn are used as pretext to perpetuate dictatorial rule, should instead be tackled through regional cooperation and free movement, not by further increasing the role of the state. Let's not reinvent the wheel. The history of Europe is an example, albeit imperfect, of why nation-building should not be high on Africa's priority list.

To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, let me ask you as I close, to lift your eyes beyond the narrative of state- and nationbuilding of today.

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