Odyssey to the Nation-State: State-building and the legacy of colonialism in Africa

Odyssey to the Nation-State: State-building and the legacy of colonialism in Africa

By Younes Abouyoub

Morocco World News

New York,  August 10, 2011

The rolling revolts in many countries in Africa and the Middle East and the split of Sudan into two separate countries in last July raise several problems that a number of post-colonial states suffer from, not the least of which is the nature of the state and the social contracts, if any, that govern relations between the rulers and the peoples. Even though human experiences are most often than not over-determined, and notwithstanding the agency of the peoples and political elites of these countries, especially in the post-independence era, it remains that some historical experiences more than others have had a detrimental effect on the political developments of these nations. The trauma of colonial domination is one of such experiences, which mediated the access of many African countries to ‘modernity’ and the ‘nation-state’.

In their attempt to conceptualize the ethos and the aspirations of the anticolonial movement, Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon have defined it as the opposite of what the colonial state once stood for. They described colonialism as a totalizing structure based on brutality, objectification, racism and exclusion[1].  In their opinion, this was the paradigm against which the postcolonial state should have been constructed. Anticolonialists had to replace a negative structure that limited power by a positive one in the form of a regenerative counter-power[2]. Yet, the history of a vast majority of post-independence third-world states and mostly African ones has been one of reproduction of the bifurcated power[3] paradigm they inherited from colonial powers who had visited on them this extremely violent and sustainably destructive form of rule in the name of the civilizing mission.

Some may argue against this premise by saying that the colonial experience has indeed helped third world countries in the process of state formation, transition to democracy, and institution building. This argument espoused by many apologists of the colonial conquest, and more particularly of the scramble for Africa has triggered the late controversy between Algeria and France over the supposedly “positive legacy” of colonialism as the French president Nicolas Zarkosy described it. In fact, far from being a positive contribution to development and institutional building of a democratic modern state based on the rule of law, colonial powers both through direct and indirect forms of rules they applied to the subjugated natives, have established norms of rule at odds with the concepts of the nation-state, the rule of law, and citizenship. Moreover, in the post-independence era the former colonial powers continued to sustain these types of states that yielded negative political identities through a series of subtle neo-colonial mechanisms and both economic and non-economic coercive policies.

Max Weber construed the state as an entity that has the Monopoly of legitimate force over a territorial jurisdiction it claims to control[4].  According to the Weberian theory the state must have a permanent administration, a law-enforcing body, and most of all a tax collection mechanism that supports the two former institutions[5]. Morover, the modern state is built on the principle of law through which the state defines legal distinctions, enforces them and constructs institutions that structure the category of citizenship, and hence the participation of citizens within the realm of the state[6]. Yet, the colonial state in many African countries did not enforce the concept of ‘citizenship’ but instead put in place a system that distinguished between race and ethnicity. The label of race was exclusively attached to nonnatives with whites being at the higher echelon of the racial scale since race was, or rather has been to this day though in a new cloak, construed as an element of civilization, while native were perceived through the prism of ethnicity. Civil law was applied to the former while customary law(s) were applied to the latter[7].

What is more, the colonial powers applied the Machiavellian ruse of divide and conquer by privileging one ethnic group over others and bestowing on it more legitimacy to yield power in the name of the master race, a dichotomy that recalls Malcom X’s distinction between the ‘Field Negro’ and ‘House Negro’.  More often than not, these privileged ethnic groups / tribes were the ones who would inherit the reins of the state after the colonial rulers had left, as it is the case for Sudan for example.

Indeed, through the guise of an early form of multiculturalism, coupled with a hypocritical deference towards cultural specificities of native societies, the colonial state excluded the majority of natives from the realm of civil society by pushing them into that of traditional authority, be it patrimonial, patriarchal, or feudal. Yet, one of the deadliest mistakes made by the postcolonial state is that it tended to identify customary law with an ‘imagined’ authentic African tradition, and hence unwittingly ended up reproducing the same toxic bifurcated political system nurtured by the colonial powers. In fact, as the anthropologist Mahmood Mamadani explained in the case of the African continent, the states that came to be formed after the independence were plagued by two more deadly sins, namely idigeneity as a formal basis for rights and as a test for justice[8]. He argues rightly that in the process of Africanization, the post-indpendence elite tried to extricate the racial component from the state but failed to do likewise in the realm of civil society, which contributed in reinforcing old historically accrued privileges of one ethnic group over others. The process of redistribution construed society through the colonial lenses of regional, religious, ethnic lines.

Instead of generating a counter-power, as Fanon contended, by dismantling the local apparatus of the colonial era, the newly independent states reproduced it either on ethnic or religious basis. It is not surprising to note two main features of these states in the African context. First, the inability they have faced so far in erasing the deeply rooted remnants of the ethnic affiliations and constructing the nation-state along the westphalian model, even if some might rightly perceive this model as yet another attempt at writing history by analogy. Secondly, more often than not insurgency movements in the African contexts have tended to reproduce the same paradigm as it is hard to find rebel movements in most civil strives that have plagued the African continent to this day, which have not identified on a tribal or ethnic basis. In this aspect, the case of The Sudan is illuminating in many regards. The two main rebel groups in Darfur are formed on a tribal basis, JEM (Justice and Equality Movement) being mainly the Zaghawa tribe organization around the charismatic authority of Dr. Khalil Ibrahim, and SLA/M (Sudan Liberation Army/Movement) representing mainly the Fur tribe.

Indeed, and as an example of how the colonial state sowed the seeds of potential conflicts to come by extending privileges to one ethnic / tribal groups over many others and thus paved the way to handing power to a ‘chosen’ few after independence, one can note the discrepancy in educational and medical services that existed during the British rule between Western Sudan i.e. Darfur and the North i.e. the area around the capital Khartoum that have monopolized political and economic power to this day. In 1929 in Gordon College, the only establishment of higher learning in the Sudanese Condominium, there were 311 students from Khartoum or the Blue Nile province and not a single one from Darfur. By 1935, there were only four government primary schools in Darfur. The colonial powers preferred to rely instead on the system of local schools called Khalwa, which the French Africanist Gerard Prunier referred to as ‘a joke’[9].

The local element in the educational system was the equivalent of the local state, i.e. ‘the district’ under the British rule and ‘Le Cercle’ under the French[10]. The local state, which was the seat of customary power, was embodied by a single appointed man who merged legislative, judicial, administrative and executive powers. Like the in Medieval Europe, the body politic was fused into the mystical body, transferred by the jurists from the theological sphere to that of the state headed by the king, who held absolute powers[11]. Philip Ingleson, Governor of Darfur between 1935-1944 wrote in his memoirs that: “We (British colonial state) have been able to limit education to the sons of Chiefs (my emphasis) and native administration personnel and we can confidently look forward to keeping the ruling classes at the top of the educational tree for many years to come’[12].

In the domain of justice, the British administration of The Sudan applied the same tactics as it had done in most Muslim societies it came to govern. It opposed the Islamic Sharia law, not so much because it was Islamic as such but because it feared that it will ‘detribalize’ the native consciousness and organization, which was something to avoid by any means, since ‘tribalization’ / ‘ethnicization’ of the natives was the corner stones upon which the whole system of the colonial state was built. Various ordinances were issued to extend the powers and areas under the jurisdiction of the tribal leaders. In various confessions of former British colonial administrators, the tribal administration was unable to provide anything more than an efficient rendering of justice and levying taxes; a perfect example of taxation without representation. This ‘benign neglect’ as Gerard Prunier refers to it, was hardly a healthy model for the nascent Sudanese state yet to come, or any other post-colonial state for that matter. Basing absolute power in the seat of the tribal chief is the perfect example of romantic ‘nativism’ that would lead to chronic authoritarianism and violent conflicts over power sharing and wealth distribution between Southern Sudan and the North initially, then between Darfur and the North subsequently.

Whether in its conservative or radical versions, the African state that came to exist after a nominal independence reproduced the injustice built-in the colonial one. In the conservative post-independence state, the hierarchy from chiefs to headmen typical of the local state apparatus was kept intact, while in the radical state all that newly independent administrations managed to do is to unify the numerous customary laws into one. In other words, in the first case decentralized despotism was reproduced as it was during the colonial times, while in the second the ruling elites opted for a centralized despotism. In both cases, there was no historical rupture with the colonial experience of power. Economic and social underdevelopment and injustice were the seeds of future conflicts that would plague many African states after independence. The binary distinction between civil and customary power was cast in a legal ideology that enforced the noxious elements contained in the bifurcated state.

While we would argue against any form of historical determinism, and tend to stress the over-determined nature of the human experience and the importance of human agency in producing history, it remains that those who contend that the encounter with West in the colonial era has aided state formation in the developing world in positive ways through the introduction of principles such as good governance, the rule of law, and democratic values, are at best mistaken in construing both pre-colonial and post-colonial political experiences in the third world, and are at worst taking a hypocritical stance towards one of the most dramatic historical events in human political experience, the ramifications of which are still unfolding before our eyes today.

When the Europeans built the modern national state, they were fortunate not to face external powers that were keen on maintaining a paralyzing fragmented status quo[13]. Developing states, mainly in Africa, are denied such privilege and are condemned to work against formidable odds. As long as these states do not succeed in breaking with this bifurcated and unhealthy political legacy, through the creation of a genuine democratic states of the people, by the people and for the people, and as long as the external unsavory interference remains intact, African states will keep on living the same nightmare time and again.

Younes Abouyoub Ph.D. is a political sociologist at the Department of Middle Eastern, South-Asian, and African Studies, Columbia University, New York. He is a contributor to Morocco World News.


[1] Césaire, Aimé, Discourse on Colonialism, Monthly Review Press, January 2001; Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press, 2005.

[2] For an excellent account of the issue, see: Scott, David, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment, Duke University Press, 2004.

[3] Mamdani, Mahmood, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, Princeton University Press, 1996.

[4] Jackson, Robert H. and Rosberg, Carl G. Why Africa’s States Persist: The Empirical and the Juridical in Statehood, p. 198-199.

[5] Anderson, Lisa, Antiquated Before They Can Ossify: States That Fail Before They Form, Journal of International Affairs: Fall 2004; 58, p.3.

[6] Mamdani, Mahmood, Beyond Settler and Native as Political Identities: Overcoming the Political Legacy of Colonialism, p.174.

[7] Ibid., p.174. We refer to customary laws in plural because there were as many customary laws as ethnic groups, or tribes.

[8] Ibid., p. 177.

[9] Gerard, Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, Cornell University Press, 2005, p.30.

[10] Mamdani, Mahmood, Citizen and Subject, p. 23.

[11] Kantorowicz, Ernst H., The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology, Princeton University Press, 1981, pp. 193-259.

[12] Quoted in Prunier, Gerard, Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, Cornell University Press, 2005, p.30.

[13] Lustick, Ian S. The Absence of Middle Eastern Great Powers: Political ‘Backwardness’ in Historical Perspective, p. 245.

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