Thinking about state failure (I)

RW Johnson says a failing ANC state should be examined in the wider continental and historical context

At one point in the proceedings of the Zondo Commission evidence was led about the way that irregular expenditure at Prasa had rapidly accelerated from very little to over R20 billion in a year without any consequential action by anyone. Impunity on this scale was almost too much for Justice Raymond Zondo. He expressed astonishment and despair: “It’s almost as if there was no government”.

In fact, of course, when money of that size goes missing there is invariably an elaborate chain of pay-offs and backhanders to buy that impunity, but the point remains: there is simply no one in authority looking out for the public interest. (And in fact, as more and more SOEs fail, a constant theme in their accounts is a steeply rising figure for irregular expenditure as the thieves make a final killing before the ship goes down.)

“It’s almost as if there was no government”. Now cut to Ramaphosa’s state of the nation speech where he promised yet again to auction off spectrum and ensure that more non-Eskom electricity is produced. These are promises he has been making year after year but nothing ever happens. Similarly he boasted about the new infrastructure building programme though everyone knows that it hasn’t got off the ground.

Indeed, the state seems incapable of even the simplest implementation and we know when we hear promises to “fix the railways” or “build state capacity” that this is just hot air. As for the urgent structural reforms for which the IMF and every other international body has been calling for over a decade, we know that even if the state wasn’t opposed to them it would simply be incapable of carrying out anything that basic.

So the state is failing. And we ain’t seen nothing yet. Just wait as more and more SOEs collapse and savage spending cuts further deplete the state’s capacity. All of which has engendered considerable discussion of South Africa becoming a “failed state”. Indeed, in September 2020 Eunomix Business and Economics Ltd, a risk consultancy, forecast that without “a meaningful change of trajectory, South Africa will be a failed state by 2030”.

But it is no good talking as if there is some box labelled “failed state” which we will then neatly slot into. Indeed, such a conception is hopelessly ahistorical. To understand better we need to think about the processes set in motion by African independence across the continent which have, inter alia, produced some failed or failing states.

The failure of the independence generation

The thin stratum of nationalist leaders who led their countries to independence confidently expected that they could take over the existing colonial states and run them better than the colonialists had. This often proved not to be the case: corruption soared and destructive policies were frequently adopted. In most cases colonies which had hitherto always fed themselves rapidly became dependent on imported food, foreign aid and, often, foreign creditors, so they were actually more dependent than ever.

The nationalist elite talked a great deal about achieving rapid economic development but almost nowhere did they achieve it. In practice the elite was far more interested in its own acquisition of wealth and the conspicuous consumption which that enabled – Nkrumah’s minister of transport, Krobo Edusei, flaunted a solid gold bed, for example. Indeed, the talk about development was largely just a matter of enhancing the elite’s considerable sense of self-importance - an ego trip, in other words.

But there was a deeper reason. Throughout its pre-colonial history much of Africa had known only the economics of plunder. Chiefs and warlords had used force to grab whatever they could from their victims. Frequently this meant slave-raiding and by the time of Christ the trans-Saharan slave route was already established, feeding a steady supply of slaves captured in West Africa into North Africa and the Roman and Byzantine empires.

As has often been observed of Latin America, once the habit of plunder was established it became all but impossible to eradicate. This is often posited as the primary reason for the gap between North America (where a strong economics of development produced great wealth) and Latin and Central America, where looting kept those countries poor. In independent Africa, too, the new elite turned naturally to looting, thus reverting to a traditional pattern of activity already thousands of years old.

In many African countries a failure to invest or carry out sufficient maintenance meant that power cuts soon became the norm. The new elite showed little concern for the masses of the poor or, indeed, their country itself. A major reason for this was that in most of Africa there was no tradition of a national state and so loyalties were mainly focused on family, clan or one’s ethnic group, not on the nation.

The result was the conflicted nature of the African state. On the one hand the new elite redistributed resources to itself and away from the poor and on the other hand it also often presided over failed economic policies. Both things made for unpopularity and thus endangered its tenure in power so the elite rapidly adopted all manner of anti-democratic stratagems in order to retain power, for its whole aim of primary accumulation depended on its retention and manipulation of state power.

Nkrumah pioneered this anti-democratic path, declaring a one party state, imprisoning opposition leaders and declaring himself president for life. But his policies produced economic catastrophe and crowds cheered in the street when a coup evicted him after less than nine years. Elsewhere African presidents used similar techniques to those employed by Nkrumah, including rigged elections, violence and intimidation and, almost everywhere, attempts to buy off the educated elite with ludicrously inflated civil service salaries.

It was soon clear that many of the new independent states were in serious trouble and that the ambitions of the nationalist elite far exceeded their ability to deliver on any of their promises. Indeed, their looting, self-enrichment and absurd self-glorification (taking titles such as “the Redeemer”, Emperor Bokassa, the last King of Scotland etc) virtually guaranteed their economic failure. Many states went into decline and became chronically unstable.

Today a small number of states have achieved legitimacy through economic success – Botswana, Mauritius, Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. And a small number are bolstered by actually having a historic tradition of statehood – Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and Madagascar. But in many cases the state is either extremely weak or has collapsed and there is a tendency to reversion to a pre-colonial situation.

Reversion to the pre-colonial

As we have seen, the pre-colonial situation often featured warring chiefs and warlords who indulged in slave raiding and trading. The appearance in time of foreign traders off their coasts presented such men with a major opportunity and they then built their fortunes on selling slaves into the Atlantic slave trade which provided slaves to North and South America, or into the East African slave trade operated by Muslim traders.

According to the Senegalese historian, Tidiane N’Diaye, this latter slave route fed some eight million slaves into North Africa and the Middle East and another nine million into the Red Sea states, the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. This great outward flood of black humanity had many incongruous results.

Thanks to the trans-Saharan slave trade, for example many African slaves ended up in Georgia (then part of the Byzantine empire), where there were once whole villages populated by black people. The great poet and originator of Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin, though a Russian aristocrat, was of partially African origin – his great grandfather was born in Cameroun (some say Ethiopia) and had been a slave gifted first to the Ottoman Sultan and then presented as a page to Peter the Great.

Elements of the pre-colonial slave trade never entirely disappeared. Even now slavery exists in all but name in Mauretania and Sudan and in many parts of West Africa. In the Fouta Djallon, in Guinea, for example, the French formally suppressed slavery but the descendants of the slaves brought home from their slave raids by the great Foulah chiefs still lived on as virtual serfs. Even in 1968 when I passed through the Fouta Djallon the chiefs referred to such folk as “les captifs”.

The dominoes fall

The first state to collapse back into warlordism was the Congo – a fate which it has never since really escaped. Indeed, it never experienced an initial nationalist interlude. Lumumba was murdered but even had he lived a viable Congolese state was never in prospect. The country was too huge and various and Lumumba lacked a parliamentary majority: he could never have hoped to hold the Congo together.

Of course, a reversion to warlordism does not mean going back to spears and bows and arrows. Charles Taylor of Liberia – the perfect archetype of the contemporary warlord – certainly didn’t depend on that. The modern warlord has a satellite phone, Kalashnikovs, RPG-7s, a Swiss bank account and, possibly, foreign business partners and intelligence contacts. Dan Gertler, the Israeli billionaire with extensive interests in Congolese diamonds and other minerals, has made his money from this murky world. One of Trump’s last acts as President was to lift the sanctions imposed on Gertler.

The Congo seemed sui generis for a while. The collapse of Somalia had a greater impact for it had been a Marxist republic, a coherent single-party state. But, undermined by economic failure and political instability, it fell apart. Ex-British Somaliland separated itself off into two new countries, Somaliland and Puntland, Djibouti decided to stay French and the rest reverted to the pre-colonial pattern of city states and petty sultanates.

Almost immediately the modern legal system fell away and was replaced by customary law and religious (Sharia) law. In a classic reversion to pre-colonial patterns, piracy flourished once again. Even the Islamic terrorist movements which sprang up had clear resemblances to the fanatical Dervish movement which had once inflicted severe losses on the British.

Thanks to lengthy UN and other foreign interventions a shaky federal government was finally set up in 2012 after more than twenty years without a functioning central government but Somalia remains an extremely fragile construct, plagued by violence.

Somalia is today only second on the Fragile States Index because the end of the long Sudanese civil war saw the formation of an independent South Sudan which immediately collapsed into internecine warfare. It remains No.1 on that index. But there is now a lot of competition for places on that list. Both Sierra Leone and Liberia collapsed into warlordism. Strikingly, not only did the warlords there revert to such medieval practices as cutting off their victims’ hands but they made extensive use of child soldiers and child labour in the diamond mines.

This was, by definition, slave labour. Often the boy soldiers were kept permanently drugged to make them more malleable and suicidally brave. That is, men like Charles Taylor and Fode Sankoh reverted all the way back to the warlordism and slavery of the pre-colonial period. Taylor, before serving a 50 year sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity, was, remarkably, a guest of Nelson Mandela’s in Johannesburg, bringing large diamonds as gifts.

Since then we have seen the irruption of Islamic terrorism in large parts of the Sahel and northern Nigeria. This too can be seen at least in part as a reversion to pre-colonial patterns when Muslim warlords slave-raided this area. Boko Haram repeatedly kidnaps schoolchildren whom it wishes to turn into jihadist warriors or concubines, again resuscitating the slavery theme.

Mali and several other states in the region are in a state of virtual collapse as a result of jihadist terrorism and are sustained only by French and other foreign intervention. We have also seen warlordism erupt in Chad and the Central African Republic. It has long existed, too, on the borders of Uganda in the shape of the Lord’s Resistance Army, whose leader, Joseph Kony, is accused of abducting 66,000 children as child soldiers and large numbers of girls to be sex slaves. Again, this is clearly a reversion to pre-colonial patterns for the LRA operates in an area traditionally notorious for slave-raiding.

Interestingly, West Africa now has such a major piracy problem that the head of Maersk, the container giant, has asked for Western military intervention to suppress it. This too links us back to pre-colonial patterns: just as the advent of white traders off the coast once presented a wonderful commercial opportunity for West Africa’s slaver-warlords and chiefs, so once again not dissimilar elements have grasped at rent-seeking opportunities coming from the sea, this time in the shape of tankers and container ships.

Even party bosses can be warlords

However, the descent into warlordism is far more general. For example, Zimbabwe is ruled by a tiny elite of Zanu-PF politicians and the military who are rich thanks to all manner of cartel arrangements and rackets. They rig elections and terrorize the population. Whatever their party label, they are in effect a small warlord clique extracting wealth from their ruined country. This is an exact replication of the pattern in many pre-colonial African kingdoms ruled by chiefs who lived from plundering their own people.

The MPLA and Frelimo elites in Angola and Mozambique are no different. All the wealth flows to just a few families, the rulers rig elections, use hit squads and other terroristic means against their populations. Only those who wish to deceive themselves can refer to these as “liberation movements”. Similarly, Togo, Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroun and a number of other African states have long-serving and wealthy rulers who do not allow free elections and use force to maintain their position. How not to call them warlords too?

The demographic deluge

The outlook for the African state is not good. Ironically, despite the evils of colonial exploitation, the greatest threat stems from one of colonialism’s benefits. For the most fundamental change wrought by colonialism was the introduction of colonial medicine. This saved countless lives and hugely reduced the infant mortality rate. The result has been a huge demographic surge. Already Africa is not coping with the result and more and more Africans are trying to migrate to Europe, though more attempt the easier journey down to South Africa, creating increasing problems in the host countries.

Today there are 1.36 billion Africans but by 2050 they will number 2.4 billion. As one looks at Africa’s often flimsy states one realises that there is zero chance that they will manage to provide food, housing, education and jobs for that extra billion. The chances are uncomfortably high that the continent will be simply overwhelmed by this demographic tide with dire consequences for law and order, let alone political or economic progress. Almost certainly, more states will fail.

This, then, is the context against which any discussion of a South African failed state should take place. We do not have a long-established state – South Africa was born in 1910, essentially the creation of a victorious imperial power. For many years – even now to some extent - the old colonial and republican entities – the Cape, Natal, the Transvaal and OFS – had greater meaning and legitimacy. The notions of an independent Cape or Natal have never wholly died: both had long and successful histories as self-governing colonial states.

On the other hand, South Africa grew to be the richest and most powerful state in Africa and a considerable actor on the world stage. Its sheer success as a state bred a sense of belonging and pride. But equally, the rapidity of its post-1994 decline has bred a corresponding disappointment and anger. That decline has, of course, been greatly hastened by the emergence of a governing elite much given to looting in the pre-colonial style. Indeed, ANC leaders make no secret of the fact that their aim is the “sustainable extraction of wealth”, an ambition wholly at odds with development.

No one can deny that this extraction of wealth has been the dominant theme of the democratic era, nor that it has been massively successful. Since 1994 utterly prodigious sums have been poured into BEE deals, into public service salaries, into SOE corruption and into the colossal looting of the political elite and its friends. This has robbed the country of development and beggared the state. None of the beneficiary groups can agree that this wonderful party should stop, but if it goes on the state will fail. Indeed, it is already failing.

This, then, is the world the ANC has made after a generation in power. The question is what happens next. It is to this question that I will turn in the second part of this article.

R.W. Johnson