The postcolonial state needs to transform not replicate existing social arrangements
Lately, I have been thinking about the postcolonial state inAfrica, and this column reflects these growing thoughts. Why do our states and their political leaders fail to do the things we expect of them? We need to stop regurgitating wornout statements that the state inAfrica is dysfunctional and its leaders are greedy and selfish. Africa has witnessed 278 changes of governments and their leaders over the last 50 years without any fundamental change in the governance strategies by successor governments and leaders – perhaps with the sole exception of post-genocide Rwanda. It would be more profitable to examine the structural circumstances that make these governance strategies obdurate.
I love philosophy because, as my uncle Prof. William Banage used to tell me, it helps one develop a broad perspective. And as Lord Bolingbrooke said, philosophy is history teaching by example. I learned from the philosopher-historian Will Durant that you can develop a broad perspective by studying objects in space (which is the study of science) or by studying events in time (which is the study of history). History is the laboratory of human behavior.
So I have been reading 19th and early 20th century history of Western Europe and North America to find out how they governed themselves when they had similar social structure as us (rural-urban divide and level of education of the population) and similar per capita income and per capita spending as our nations today. Without exception, and with variations in degree or detail, I find these Western nations and their leaders (were) governed just like ours are today; through a combination of repression and patronage.
So I have grown increasingly suspicious of the ideological and institutional foundations of the postcolonial state in Africa. In most cases it lacks the social infrastructure to govern in the prescribed form i.e. through an impersonal implication of public policy. It also lacks the technical skills and financial resources to perform the functions expected of it (universal access to public goods and services like healthcare, education, clean water, electricity, roads etc.).
The mismatch between expectations of the state and its abilities has led to self destructive social frustration. Listen to debates in traditional and social media. Almost without exception, African elites and their backers in Western media and academia say the state in Africa is dysfunctional and its leaders greedy and selfish. I criticise this view with a lot of humility because for many years I was an articulate advocate of it. But as a student of Socrates, I learned from this sage that philosophy begins when one learns to doubt, especially to doubt one’s strongly held beliefs, dogmas, and axioms.
So I have been rethinking the meaning of our struggle for independence. We must remember that this struggle was led by people who had been trained under colonialism. Colonialism claimed it sought to emancipate the African from superstition, poverty, and backwardness by introducing Christianity, commerce and “civilization”. Ironically the anticolonial struggle accepted this “civilizing” vision but argued that the colonial state and its alien personnel had failed to foster this lofty goal because they were racist.
So the struggle for independence did not seek to dismantle the colonial state and its underlying ideological and institutional foundations. Rather it sought to remove alien personnel and replace them with African elites. These elites claimed to be the best vehicle for colonialism’s “civilizing” mission. The postcolonial state was, therefore, to be modeled on the European state – with secular liberalism as the governing model and a state that could provide impersonally to everyone a wide range of public goods and services.
This desire to fulfill the colonial vision is today written in the postcolonial pursuit of “development”, “democracy”, “good governance”, etc. often funded by foreign aid – both financial and technical. These are claimed to be universal goals. Essentially the postcolonial African elites are seeking to make our nations and their people carbon copies of European nations and peoples. I am eclectic about whether this should be the future of every country. But I know it is difficult (and rare) to cheat social evolution. The European future we crave will come – if it comes at all – only after a long lag and through fits and starts.
Yet I believe that to secure that future (assuming it is desirable) we need the state to be an agent of such transformation. But the state in postcolonial Africa has attempted to be so many things to so many people and in too short a time. This has sapped her energies, hence the rampant corruption and incompetence. These side effects of over expansion have de-legitimised state action. Hence attempts by the state to be a transformative agent also tend to generate political contestations. This makes it difficult to get anything done.
This de-legitimation although most articulated by African elites has been given intellectual respectability by Western institutions – academia, media and diplomacy. I suspect Western scholars have a desire, perhaps subconscious, to demonise the postcolonial state and its leaders in order to reduce the guilt they feel about the brutality of their colonial forefathers. But it also works to justify Western efforts to meddle in our affairs for their own interests. The African elite are at once a beneficiary and victim of this meddling.
They benefit when they are in the rough terrain of an opposition politician promising the impossible. For then, Western media present such people as victims of corrupt and dictatorial rule. They are victims when they finally get into power and behave almost like their predecessors. This is the contradiction President Yoweri Museveni finds himself in after years of accusing Milton Obote of the very things he is repeating today. Kizza Besigye’s supporters, like supporters of every African politician have done over the 50 years, believe their man would behave differently. They are deluded and perhaps they need that to remain positive.
A state that is so de-legitimised cannot be an effective vehicle for a project of national transformation. On the contrary it becomes easy prey to foreign meddling.
To be a transformative agent, it needs to make many mistakes. That is always the cost of innovation. But the governance philosophy we have inherited from the high priests of development proscribes undertaking such risks. Thus rather than develop its own project of national transformation, the postcolonial state tends to keep responding to pressures from mobilised demand-groups. Consequently, it tends to replicate rather than transform existing social arrangements.